I spent most of the lockdown this year drawing faces. (I worked as well, but you know how many hours there were.) I’m pretty pleased with what I learned in the process and I’ll make another post with some of the faces I’m most satisfied with, but in between, these staring faces kept appearing. Pretty much every time I sat down to draw without thinking much, and just started sketching, the faces that emerged had this rather fixed stare – not panicked, not horrified, just stunned into silence.
I guess they sum up my reaction rather well. Surprised. Amazed. Dumbfounded. Disbelieving. And, eventually, patient. Even curious.
Some looked a bit more anxious. I guess that anxiety was a big part of it too. I am (still) a (very large) continent away from my family.
These were all drawn from my imagination, but the same look crept into pictures that were based on other sources too. Somehow, that same sense of surprise and disbelief showed through.
But then, looking back through my sketches, I found that this same look appeared before COVID. These two pictures I drew in February and November last year.
Back in February, the face on the left appeared in response to a surprising, weird and quite hard to believe family situation. I called it Watching because I felt so helpless. All I could do was watch what was unfolding.
Even that was preceded by the face on the right, which I drew back in November last year. Did I somehow know what was coming in 2020?
My latest exploration is of drawing faces using coloured fineliner pens. In part this is due to the limitations of living in a small apartment, but it’s been interesting to have limits. To limit myself further, I’ve been focusing on women’s faces.
I’ve long been interested in portraits and working to express some of the complexity of people through portraits, but here the experiment is more about learning the medium. I’m after repetition, practice, and learning. These sketches are a record of my learning. I try to draw one or two of these a week, and I have a growing pile.
I’m enjoying playing with different colour palettes and the process of building up the features with layers of ink. I’m not totally happy with the outcome yet, but there are some effects in each of these that I like.
These are drawn from pictures, and so depend also on the skill of the photographers involved. Interesting lighting angles make for interesting shapes.
I’ve also drawn a few faces from my imagination. The first I call Watching, and it reflects my sense of having to watch deeply sad events unfold with no way to intervene. The second, I call Dismay, and its the feeling I get when I realise that I’ve just agreed (again) to something I don’t want to do.
Since closing down Better, I have finally found time to go back to my Faces series. To see the start of the series, click here for Face 1, Face 2, Face 3 and Face 4. This series explores men’s faces using colour to sculpt the contours and reflect emotion.
This painting turned out looking vulnerable, some combination perhaps of the exaggeratedly large eyes, the relaxed mouth or the neutral expression. The young man is quietly self-possessed, but open; not defensive.
This painting combines my favourite colours – yellow, pink and gold (not so visible in the photo) – grounded with sienna shades.
Face No.5: Vulnerable is painted in acrylic paint on a 50cm x 50cm stretched canvas and finished in gloss acrylic canvas. It is not framed.
Well I managed to complete 31 days of drawings. It was actually rather fun. Some evenings I only got to my studio after 8pm, and feeling rather uninspired, but the muse was there, every day. It’s a good discipline, but if I did it again, I’d make it a first-thing-in-the-morning priority, like meditating before breakfast.
During these five days I found myself busy and sitting in meetings. It was easier to fit Inktober in by drawing the people around me. So portraits came to the fore. It turned out to be quite a lot of fun, reminding me of why I set out to work on portraits this year.
This face was inspired by a picture in Germaine Greer’s wonderful book, The Boy. The Boy is well worth a read, especially for mothers of sons in a world where there is so much focus on daughters. The beautiful illustrations (paintings and photographs) are a wonderful source of inspiration.
I liked the picture for its combination of angelic beauty with a direct challenge. I call the painting Sullen because it is a look I have seen on so many young men at that point where they stake a claim for independence. It seems to say “I am not who you want me to be; I will be my own person.” The refusal to participate comes across as sullen.
This picture combines reds and blues to create the pinky-purple tones with a little yellow and sienna for warmth.
It is painted in acrylic on a gallery wrapped canvas and is finished in a matt acrylic varnish. At 40cm x 40cm it is a little smaller than others in this series. It is ready to hang.
I find the process of painting these faces to be like sculpture. The face emerges as I work on one part of the surface, applying colour to create contours or features.
So I thought you might like to see the process. Here are three pictures of the face emerging from the canvas (left ot right). They were taken about a week apart.
At this stage I am waiting to see if the picture on the right is “finished”. Usually I wait a week or two , just living with him in my studio. Sometimes I notice things that need more work, sometimes I don’t.
When I’m happy that there is no more to do, I’ll varnish the picture and name him.
This painting is based on photographs of Michael Stonebraker published in the Communications of the ACM (June 2015) at the time when he was awarded the ACM Turing Award for his contributions to Computer Science.
I think he has an interesting face. Ageing, not symmetrical, but with the kind of confidence that comes from doing worthwhile work. I have taken liberties with the specifics of shape and proportion, exaggerating the diamond shape of the face. The kindly eyes become the focus.
The colours include bright crimson, phthalo greens, both deep and light, and a rich magenta that becomes lilac when mixed with white. There is a fair amount of sienna in there too, also lightened with white. I love the way layers of colour sculpt the contours of the face creating the impression of lines, where there are none.
Face No.3: Kindly is painted in acrylic paint on a 50cm x 50cm stretched canvas. It is finished in gloss acrylic varnish.
This portrait is based on a picture of a worker in an Italian monastery, published in an old edition of Du.
I love this man’s pronounced smile lines and there is something open and trusting about his large dark eyes. But at the same time he seems a little apprehensive, with his head bent a little forward and some hesitation about his smile. I called him mischievous because I think he has a naughty streak. Behind the innocent look I can imagine him planning a practical joke.
The original picture was black and white, so I had fun inventing the skin tones using shades of ochre and sienna with touches of a dark phthalo green.
This portrait is painted in acrylics on a 50cm x 50cm stretched canvas. It is finished with gloss acrylic varnish. It would need to be framed for display.
There is something so self-possessed and quiet about this face, it’s almost serene. But there is that glint in the eye and the flare of the nostril reveals a steely determination. He may seem passive, but he is going to get his way, quietly and patiently waiting for the opportunity. This underlying energy is revealed in the background.
This painting is based on a photograph, in a very old copy of Du, of a carved statue. My academic training makes me want to cite the source, but I am resisting. I love that art can be layers of invention and re-invention.
Determined is painted in acrylic paint on a 50cm x 50cm stretched canvas and is finished with a gloss acrylic varnish. It is not framed.
I’ve been silent for a while on this blog because I have been launching Better, a physical space for creative makers in Johannesburg. If you are in Johannesburg, come along and visit. If you are a creative sort, looking for a place to create from and a community, join us.