I have been playing with portraits – firstly as part of a drawing project focussed on self-portraits and now in paint to get my brain/brush back in tune.
It’s given me time to think about portraiture in general. As an inveterate visitor to the Archibald Prize in Sydney each year (sadly, not in 2020), I have enjoyed the art form for some time. Having now dabbled – not even stepped on to the ladder; more like located it in the garage – I have been thinking about what a portrait should depict – indeed, what a portrait COULD depict.
The most obvious answer is a likeness; of the face and possibly extending to indication of the physicality of the subject. But is a face necessary? Several years ago, to some degree of consternation, Tim Storrier won the Archibald with a self-portrait without a face. On careful inspection, you could possibly see a face flying away in the wind with a sheaf of papers but it was not placed in the conventional setting by ANY stretch of the imagination. So, you could ask, is the physicality equally as important as the visage? Does it tell as much, or more, about the subject?
And even if we take the facial likeness as vital, what else can it show? I saw, in recent years, a portrait of Paul Little, former Chairman of the Essendon Football Club, who battled through the accusations of and investigations into the drugs scandal. This portrait depicted a broken man. Although the painting was utterly conventional, there was, emanating from it, the desperation and exhaustion of defeat.
So, while my new foray into painting is still struggling for a basic likeness, my drawn portraits are heading towards broader goals. What can we see? What is the emotional quality? What is the history? What is that instant secret that is given away – captured by the artist in a moment of connection? That’s certainly something to aspire to.
I’d better drag that ladder into the studio.