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Artist Blog

Portraiture, the Atelier Tradition & Natural Light

Having spent a happy morning varnishing paintings for my upcoming exhibition with two other artists at Malvern Theatre, I decided to make a start on a blog I’ve been mulling over for some time.

You must have noticed how portraiture has taken off recently to help fill the gap left by the demise of conceptual art. Portraiture has been around for centuries but now it’s suddenly newsworthy. There are articles on portraiture in all the art magazines, a new series on the telly is coming up this summer and even the Royal Academy Summer Show has a new section just for portraits. Meanwhile the BP portrait award goes from strength to strength.

Since I do dabble in portraits myself I’m rising to this challenge and have painted a picture of my son Ben as St Jude (patron saint of the impossible). Mysticism was a strong theme at this year’s Venice Biennale so it will plug into that as well. I’ve finished the painting but I’m keeping it under wraps for the time being.

Every time I read an article, or series of articles on portraiture there is something on the Atelier Tradition, taught at studios based in Florence. There is a strong philosophy behind this method which values working directly from life to produce a painting that looks like an old master. So you can’t work directly from life in an impressionistic style. And you can’t use a camera obscura as that’s cheating – bad boy Caravaggio. And it has to be life-sized because the canvas is lined up next to the sitter and repeatedly compared by the artist – so you’re out Vermeer, your paintings are too tiny.

The Atelier tradition typically uses strong directional lighting with parts of the body lost in deep shadow. Artificial lighting must be used to achieve this. The thing that annoys me hugely about this is the lack of bounce in the light. Strong directional light almost always bounces off something and gives a faint reflection back onto the form on the opposite side – and this is what makes it look three dimensional. Natural light tends to creep around objects because of this bounce effect and that’s all missing in the Atelier method.

Personally I find it impossible to paint in artificial light as it throws the colours. Tungsten lights are too yellow and so-called daylight bulbs are too blue. I've looked at the lighting in public galleries and have noticed that the National Gallery in London has it about right: two tungsten bulbs to every daylight bulb running around the ceiling. But nothing is as good as real daylight, after all that is light that you're going to look at paintings in and should be the same conditions it is painted in to get the colour balance right.

What’s left in the Atelier tradition is a life sized portrait that has been made to look like an old master in the romantic tradition. While they can be very pretty, they look preserved in aspic and are lacking in passion and raw humanity. Now I know that admirers of this method claim that Velasquez used it and no one can equal his Portrait of Pope Innocent X for raw humanity but, but... perhaps it’s the vision that truly matters and not the method.

I don’t have a philosophy or a method other than that I draw in charcoal directly onto the canvas and after sealing it with hair spray I paint directly over it. My palette is different for every picture. I use my wits and whatever reference material is to hand and I push at the boundaries of my own abilities - as I have done with my latest portrait. I like my painting of St Jude and hopefully you will too when it goes live.

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