One of the hardest things when painting, but especially when painting a portrait, is getting the draftsmanship right. You need to ensure that everything looks in proportion and balanced, with all the spaces and negative spaces the right shape, size and in relative position to one another, if you want the portrait to look anything like the model.
I recall watching a TV programme about Rolf Harris painting the Queen of England’s portrait. In it, they referred to a famous painting made of the Queen, by an Australian artist, Sir William Dargie, in 1954. I knew this painting well. A print of it hung above the end of our wooden assembly building in my school, when I first started in the mid nineteen sixties. Back in those days, we were encouraged to salute the Queen as a mark of respect, but in the absence of the real thing, that portrait served as our surrogate Queen.
She was resplendent in her yellow dress, painted as a beautiful young woman, by an accomplished portraitist. I wished I could paint like that. I never imagined I would ever get anywhere close.
The painting was known to us small children as the Queen in her wattle dress. For those that might not know, the wattle is a native Australian plant, a member of the mimosa family, that blooms with fuzzy, brilliant, bright yellow flowers. Australians are quite patriotic about their native fauna and flora, so when the Queen visited Australia in 1953-1954, commemorating the occasion with a portrait, with Her Majesty dressed in the colours of one of our favourite bush shrub flowers, seemed eminently appropriate to the people of the country of that time. Australians used to welcome Spring (my favourite time of year, where I grew up) by celebrating Wattle Day. We used to pin a sprig of wattle to our clothing and wear it all day long with pride. As children, we would paint bright yellow and green pictures of the beloved wattle bush. Happy, sunny pictures, pinned up all over our classrooms and in the corridors. These were simpler times, I feel. Nevertheless, the portrait was emblematic of a country that saw itself as youthful, poised and full of hope, much like its head of state.
But I digress. Back to the Rolf Harris commission. What transpired during the conversation between the Queen and Rolf Harris, as she was sitting patiently for him and he was trying to make stilted small talk, while painting a rapid, but rough, study of her face and dress, was that the portrait we all knew and loved as the Wattle Dress portrait was not the only one. Apparently, Dargie had painted two portraits, side by side, on the easel, at the same time. When finished, he had given one to Her Majesty and the other to the Australian Government.
Why had he painted two portraits and why side by side, at the same time? Perhaps he was hedging his bets, in the event that one of them worked out disastrously bad. Dargie’s style was quite loose and inspired, to some degree, by the impressionists, yet maintaining a firm footing in classical, representational art. Maybe he was painting two pictures as an “insurance policy” against finishing up with a portrait so grotesque and distorted, that he would be banished as a laughing stock from Australian society. The stakes were certainly high.
I was intrigued. So I tried it. I have a studio easel that can accommodate two 50cm x 60cm canvases side by side. Here’s what I have discovered so far: You actually find yourself correcting the painting you are currently painting, based on what you have partially done on the other one. You alternate between the canvases as you work, because you usually work colour-at-a-time, with the colour you have mixed on your palette, on the brush you are holding. Moving from one canvas to the other comes very naturally.
There seems to be a very subtle averaging and correction going on. Just like stepping away at some distance from your painting often reveals drafting errors you just cannot see up close, looking at two versions of your own work, side by side, shows the differences between the two images very starkly indeed. The little errors in scale or proportion seem to be all the more obvious, when you have another copy right next to it. On it’s own, each portrait would seem good enough, but when compared against its twin, as you bring both to life and into focus, simultaneously, the mistakes become amplified, obvious and compel you to correct them, there and then.
Funnily enough, the corrections work both ways. You find yourself improving both canvases, in turn, simply by comparing to the other. It’s like a little competition, only this time the artist you are competing against is you.
I’ll be really interested to see how these portraits turn out. I’m sure they will both be distinct, but as of yet all I have done is block out the main features and sketched out the basic shapes. I already can see improvements to make on both pictures. When I get down to the subtle details, I’m sure the effect of comparison will be all the more pronounced.
So the technique seems to hold great promise. Next time you want to paint a portrait and need to make it look convincingly realistic, try painting two portraits in tandem. You might be surprised at the results. I am and I have a few more evenings of painting ahead of me, on this particular project.
At the end of the day, you can choose the better portrait and submit that to the commissioner, retaining the other as a study or memento. Twice the paint, twice the canvas and twice the painting time, but the results seem to be very promising.
Give it a try.