I don’t often work with oils, mainly because of the messiness involved in having canvases lying around that take ages to dry, but occasionally I get the chance to paint a portrait where I have the sitter available for several sessions in a row. When that opportunity arises, working with oils can be very satisfying, because the paint handles in an entirely different way to acrylics and you have the luxury of being able to rework parts of the painting, before the paint hardens. You get to perfect your painting, with that much time available to you.
Most of the time, I find that the work of portrait painting in oils is about trying to master the materials. First, you need to learn how to work the paint, how the pigments interact, which colours are capable of covering others and which are more transparent. You have to master your brush strokes and your draughtsmanship, incorporating perspective and learning to see the tones and shadows. You have to match those shadows and tones with the colours you know how to mix. It’s basically a battle with technique and your powers of observation. You hone your skills until you get to the point where you don’t have to think about the mechanics of painting, quite so consciously.
At some point, though, the battle with the materials recedes into the background and you begin to glimpse the process of relaying what you see to what’s on your canvas. This is where things go surprisingly weird. You probably think that once you have the mechanical aspects of painting down well enough, that the process of painting a portrait is simply one of observing carefully and then taking dictation from your visual senses, via your hands, onto the painting itself. I discovered that this view is simplistic and wrong.
I noticed that, as carefully as you observe and as skilled as you might be at manipulating paint (though never skilled enough, it seems), even though you correctly see your subject and note all the finer details of shadow and light, even though you know how to measure cardinal facial points relative to one another, at least intellectually, your brain gets in the way. Even though you know what you ought to paint and have the facility to paint it, you paint something different.
Rather than painting the person sitting in front of you, you paint a person, but one shaped by your own perceptual distortions. I find that my state of mind and my emotional state are subtly overlaid onto the image I reproduce. The person I paint winds up being a composite of the sitter I actually observe, and the feelings and emotions I attribute to the image, given how I am feeling at the time. In other words, my mental state has the ability to bend and warp the image I observe, into the image I actually commit to canvas. I don’t produce a true image, in the way a camera might, but I create a person, drawn from the real life sitter, but augmented by my own imagination. It’s an augmented reality.
I find I have a tendency to straighten and level individual facial features, even though the head of the subject is on a tilt. I know it’s on a tilt and I have marked the cardinal points on the painting correctly and mechanically, yet my hand wants to re-level those features into some imaginary, idealised form. I might like the person I am painting, but if I am feeling sad or distracted, that seems to be the facial expression I impose on the portrait. It’s a very strange phenomena that you know is happening, but you are almost powerless to stop.
All this might mean that I have reached a point, in portrait painting, where I have to learn to divorce my feelings from the emotions I am representing in the face of the model. So far, I don’t have a grasp of how to do that, clearly.
The challenge for me, now, is to decontaminate my image, separating what I see from what I feel and letting the feelings of the model remain in the image, rather than being smothered by mine. That, I think, requires a deeper empathy for what the model might be feeling and their internal emotional state, as betrayed by the tiny, almost imperceptible subtleties of their facial features and comportment. How they hold their facial muscles is a result of how they feel and so reproducing those feelings means learning how to separate those from my own. These feelings change, of course, during the sitting. No person can maintain the same emotional state for that period of time. Capturing their fleeting emotions, while ignoring my own, is going to be a tough challenge, because I feel things acutely and keenly. Suppressing my own reaction to the subject and the process I am engaged in is going to be hard. Perhaps the key is in trying to match my emotional state to that of my sitter. Synchronicity of emotion might make the problem less difficult to tackle.
Anyway, I thought it was interesting. This is the first time I have really been aware of the distortion your perceptions can exert on what you observe. There’s a greater life lesson in that, applicable to all kinds of information you think you take in objectively. You don’t. You’re always distorting reality according to your internal emotional and mental state. That’s worth bearing in mind, I think.
If you are a representational painter, then removing as much of that perceptual distortion as possible is important. Removing the distortion is how you get close to capturing the true essence of your sitter, to give the impression of realism. On the other hand, the abstract expressionist thrives on that same perceptual distortion, making that the subject matter of the painting, more than the model in front of them. It’s all a matter of what you’re trying to accomplish.
See if you can notice when your perceptions are being distorted by your own internal state. Once you are aware of this phenomenon, you can’t unsee it. See for yourself.