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.
When I arrived in Portugal in March 2019 I brought with me a small supply of blank postcards. I had the idea that I would paint or draw what I noticed each week and send them home to my mum as a more interesting variant on the usual tourist postcards.
It was a fun project, not least because it meant that I spent my days looking for something that caught my interest and I spent a bit of each Sunday making the pictures. So here they are, with what inspired me.
My first postcard was drawn on the plane, in the air as I left home. Economy class tray-tables are not ideal supports for drawing, but I don’t sleep on flights and I had a lot of time to occupy.
My second postcard was the view from my new apartment in Guimarães. I was enchanted by the ornate glass domes that provide light in dark stairwells and the different textures of the roofs.
My third postcard came as a result of a visit to the local art museum which houses a great collection of African masks. I left Africa to see African art? I rather liked this particular one, because it wasn’t scary. He looked so happy.
Here’s a happy chap
The next week I took a trip up the nearby Penha “mountain” in the teleférico. (I grew up hiking in the Drakensburg. I have standards for what can be called a mountain.) At the top I found giant boulders scattered about. Which inspired the fourth postcard below.
Portugal is famous for the beautiful tiles that decorate the buildings here. So much more interesting than bland, flat paint. I spent hours in the tiny streets of Guimarães, Porto and Aveiro admiring the designs. So postcard five was a little homage.
Finally (when my six postcards were coming to an end) I took a walk in the city park early one morning to find the small pond filled with frogs all croaking together.
I duly sent all six postcards off to my mum. So far, only one got to her. Whether this is a result of the postal service in Portugal or (more likely) in South Africa, we’ll never know. But I like to think that they will make their way there eventually or make someone smile wherever they end up.
I have started this year with reorganising my studio. It’s a major revamp – with new shelves and new pinning boards along one wall. I’m also taking the opportunity to sort and clear out all my stacks of old pictures, doodles, sketched ideas and junk.
As a result the studio is a bit messy right now. Any art I make is squeezed between piles of stuff waiting to be moved or sorted. So it’s mostly small stuff. This 25cm x 25cm canvas was just able to fit in the space I cleared last week.
I’ve been thinking about energy a lot, what with trying to recover from an exhausting 2017 and paying close attention to what energises me and what depletes me.
Somehow energy is represented in my brain as these round bubbles with different textures. Some are spiky and bright, others swirling and sparkly. This “fabric of life” painting shows some of these energy representations, against a background of woven fabric.
Fabric of Life is painted in acrylics on a gallery wrapped canvas. The painting goes around the sides of the canvas as shown above. It is finished with gloss acrylic varnish.
Here are my 31 Inktober pics all hung up for the exhibition. I spent a rather hot hour yesterday doing this, in the company of other wonderful artists quietly working on their walls. A sense of calm chaos. The exhibition is on the 7th floor of a rather empty office block. Lots of walls and views!
I got a chance to look around at some of the other work on display. There is some really good stuff. Only about half of it was up when I was there, so I am looking forward to seeing lots more tonight. That said, mine are the most colourful. Clearly not too many people have worked out that ink comes in many colours.
The exhibition opens tonight (Thursday, 9th November) at 6pm at 96 Jorrissen Street in Braamfontein. There is some parking in the building, but the Joburg Theatre’s parking is just a block away too. Do come along and say hi. If you can’t make tonight the exhibition will be up until Sunday, see details on my previous post.
On impulse, I signed up for the Inktober challenge. It’s a real challenge because I have never used ink before. I just assumed that ink was always black. Then I went out and found some great colours at my local stationers.
It’s been interesting, learning what ink can and can’t do. I’m loving the unpredictability of it all. I’ve also found it goes well with my favourite silver pen.
So here are my first five contributions to Inktober…
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.
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.
The new year has been busy. I am in the process of opening Better, a physical place for creative makers to hang out, and that has kept me from this blog. But there is lots to share.
Those of you who talk with me about my art know that I’ve been saying for a while that I want to paint portraits. I think that portraits are about the highest art form there is. To try and animate a human face has to be the ultimate creative challenge.
Last year I played with painting mandalas because I wanted something easy to practice with, but I’ve decided that if I really want to paint portraits, I need to practice on those.
So I have been sketching faces.
It’s interesting how compelling faces can be. I find myself staring at people in the street and tracing the lines of their faces in my mind. When I find an interesting face, I want to draw it over and over.
I’ve been sketching with watercolour too, as this forces me to work more intuitively and to focus less on accuracy.
So far, I’ve discovered that faces are fun to draw, once you get over the terror of how difficult it is. Sketching faces is far more about line and shadows than it is about colour, which is a bit of a new space for me to play in.
I’ve started work on some paintings of faces too and will share those in my next post.