Thinking about portraiture
Self portraits require reflection on at least two different levels. The obvious one is that you need a mirror to look at (unless you have a really good memory of what you look like), the other reflection that takes place is in thinking about how you've seen yourself up to this point.
I find that a major obstacle to drawing a portrait that bears semblance to me is overcoming how I think I look, or how I want to look. How you see something is trained by what you look at and your vantage point upon viewing.
If I look at myself straight on in a mirror, I am trained to associate that frontal image with "what I look like." Turning to the side in the 3/4 pose however is not my usual way of viewing my face. There is more novelty here, more chance for discovery and enrichment of my visual conception of my body.
If I want to look a certain way, I will almost certainly direct the development of the drawing in that direction (often subconsciously). It takes real effort to represent myself as I am, or to look in the mirror with an openness to or expectation of being surprised by what I see. Drawing is a mode of story telling and to the extent that I tell myself the same story over and over, to that extent I am confined by it, imposing restrictions on what or how I can see. It isn't unusual to be closed to how we see ourselves or let others see us. We want others to draw certain "permitted" conclusions about us. We are selectively permeable persons.
Technique & Materials: using Pencil, understanding Graphite
The portrait above was drawn using graphite pencil. Pencils find themselves in possession of material qualities in inverse tension. What I mean is that as a pencil's "lead" (a misnomer, pencils never contained elemental Lead, Chemical Symbol Pb, rather graphite has the appearance of Lead, and was thought to contain it early on before advances in Chemical science) has an associated hardness, which dictates the darkness of the line. The inverse relationship inheres in that as a pencil's hardness decreases, the intensity or rich darkness of its line increases. This is due to the fact that harder lighter pencil lead contains more clay and less carbon. The increased carbon content of darker softer pencils means they require more frequent sharpening. Harder/lighter pencils are easier to erase but leave deeper indentations in the paper. Darker pencils leave a dry stain of carbon on the paper without crushing the paper fibers to such a degree.
The advantage in using a range of pencils is that one need only be concerned with constant application of pressure, changing the pencil to achieve a darker line without having to press more intensely.
Graphite is an allotrope of Carbon, another being Diamond. Allotropes are simply different arrangements of the same element, resulting in different properties, such as Diamond's hardness. Graphite is an arrangement of Carbon in a Hexagonal Lattice, which lattice is then accumulated in sheets which readily slide past each other. This results in Carbon's possession of dry-lubricant properties, which is advantageous for locksmiths, who favor this over wet lubricants that can attract other particulates. And in contrast to Diamond, graphite is very soft and crumbles easily. As far as drawing is concerned, this reduction in friction and softness enable the paper to abrade particles of graphite, resulting in marks. The working properties of graphite also enable the artist to capitalize on "smudging," moving graphite around once on the page. This can be done with the fingers or very effectively with a plastic eraser, resulting in interesting levels of depth and atmosphere. Smudging can create ambiguity between foreground and background resulting in a visual bridging of the space.
A dearth of friction between the paper and pencil tip allows for smooth movement around the page and gestural marks. Pencil is a medium that doesn't have to be fought or resisted, one need only become familiar through practice. Pencil is also a democratic medium in that it is accessible to almost anyone. A full range of quality pencils can be obtained for less than 40 dollars.
During my junior year of college, I began to toy with collage. My experimentation began with two small pieces (the first two on my collage page, excluding the top image) at the end of summer 2004. I start(ed) with torn paper and introduce(d) various marks that echo(ed) the lines/shapes of the paper bits. My palette of collage has always been sparse, consisting of one or two muted tones and black or white, often incorporating newsprint or sheet music for its visual texture. The papers are very often pastel papers, which have a rough texture to make them more receptive to dry media such as charcoal that also features heavily in my collages.
What drew me to collage in drawing class and subsequent independent study my senior year, was the low risk of the medium. Almost all of the marks and mark making techniques of collage posses an impermanence and brevity uncharacteristic of painting in that whole visual areas can be in a sense obliterated in a single action and application of a large paper shape. Elmer's glue became essential to my process and I quickly became acquainted with the hydroscopic nature of most papers (later more apparent when I began to incorporate Acrylic Medium into my collage). Application of glue too liberally results in buckling of the paper. Elmer's glue is made of PVA (polyvinyl acetate) not cow or horse hooves. The glue contains water which is absorbed by the paper at the edges where I apply and in selected areas of the shape's interior, and can even cause micro-buckling at sites of minimal application, which drying mitigates. Elmer's holds very well and is archival (will not yellow/degrade the paper) and is a fine collage adhesive, not to be scoffed at as a child's craft ingredient (children often neglect or/and are oblivious to the working qualities and versatility of Elmer's glue). After application of paper shapes, further accentuation of edges/addition of shadow-like illusions follow in addition to lines of various thickness, sinuosity and transparency.
As I experimented with media and composition in collage I found a plastic eraser invaluable in creating smudged areas affording the picture depth and mediation between fore and background. The idea of erasing charcoal was novel to me but exciting in how it resulted in the ability to manipulate the carbon pigmentation on the surface. A vector of charred vines.
Erasure took on a new and broad usage in my artistic lexicon. The eraser wasn't there to obliterate evidence of mistakes. Rather it was a creative force, adding to the charcoal and pencil marks what they didn't possess independent of the eraser's coefficient of friction. The more I draw and make marks, the easier it is to see that there are no useless marks, but that all mark making is in-formative. Whether I access the information there is contingent on my willingness to plunge into thought and make myself vulnerable to in(tro)spection. The meaning of erasure is now broad and inclusive of applying large "washes" of paper to create new contained spaces that now can be tied to the whole composition. Is this not also characteristic of life? Don't we "paper over" issues, or our past? Don't we re-tell the story, our story? How do we incorporate these novel narratives into the extant experience and evidence that endures?
I found as I made collages, that they were accretions of evidence of exploration into something I still don't understand. Maybe they evince new ways of imagining space and how it relates to visual experience, bringing to mind questions of meanings of depth, and depths in meanings. Part of what interests me about making collage is the opportunity to construe the materiality differently. There is a certain teleological denial in re-purposing an object in the service of visual expression. An acceptance of the possibility of the multiplicity of meanings...of use and re-use.
When a picture is made a construal is fixed. Temporally tethered, and as we revisit the image we are told a story. That story continues to cement the conditions of our experience. Looking at something over and over rehearses the structure in us. When I draw, whether from life or photographs as is the case with this pastel, I confess in a sense what has just happened to me in my encounter with a scene. Not only am I confessing something of that encounter, but I'm telling you about my past. Undoubtedly I have subconsciously built in visual cues and historic hints to the formative forces in my life. One can conclude with a high degree of certainty, things about me like my socioeconomic condition, my place in history, the artists I've viewed and the imagery I value. For example; people beset with constant worry about procurement of basic necessities, working 16 hours a day 7 days a week, aren't often preoccupied by artistic pursuits such as pastel. The pigments in use are a product of industrial, chemical synthesis, and widely available to those of middle class standing. In my drawing I reveal more than my affinity for color and composition and that I am taken with landscape.
I've always had mixed feelings about drawing from photographs, perhaps because it was so heavily condemned in Art school. Recently I see the value in doing so because I am able to "revisit" scenery not accessible directly. Not only that, in working from photos (often the ones my Mother takes) I find myself gaining more insight into the vision and values of another. But this "walking in the shoes of others" has its limitations. I am not privy to the totality of the experience and lo my own tendencies of looking set in, directing the visual experience in a predictable fashion unless I am intentional about seeing differently (which is rare). There can't be a one to one correspondence between the world pictured by a photo and that in a drawing or painting. There is minimally some continuity of the message from source "material" to product. Something is "lost in translation" to invoke the cliche. Trying to explain a work of art is risky, because a different language/form is being used to attempt a communication of something. A word, mark, note or texture all carry with them something different and true and appealing, but they appeal in/on different "terms." Each mode lands differently or registers in a unique way to those impressed upon.
Often works done from so called "masterworks" are said to be "after" such and such an artist, like "after Picasso" (incidentally, on the occasion of a visit to the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia in 2005, I did a small unauthorized sketch of a Picasso Painting, which later inspired a silk screen print, which I might feature in a future post. Galleries and Museums are real tight-asses when it comes to copyright, and the hired hands will quickly shut down your sketch if you are seen violating "the rules"). My pastel was "painted" after my Mother took a photograph. There is a sense in which the first artist (in this case, photographer) paves the way for and makes possible the second image. What can be thought of as a temporal/visual reverberation. To the extent that the image is re-imagined and interpreted, to that extent it gains spatio-temporal momentum, an enduring experiential ecology.
Part of the allure of oil painting is the open time the paint affords. This refers to the time, during which, one can apply and rework the painting surface, allowing for revision and correction. Unlike acrylic paint which is dry to the touch in a matter of minutes or hours. Open time allows for more contemplation and doesn't demand immediacy. One can return to the palette over the course of the day without having to worry about whether all the paint has dried up. Like other paints, one can alter the viscosity of oil paint by the addition of additional oil or solvents such as mineral spirits, this results in different levels of flow and transparency.
Materials that transmit light (oils included) have what's called a refractive index. For example, that of water is around 1.3 (a unit-less measure) and diamond's is closer to 2.4 which explains why diamonds are so brilliant and characterized in terms of their "fire." The refractive index of many oils is generally higher than water but lower than diamond, which means oils will refract or bend light to a greater degree than water will. This results in a more intense, saturated color as thought the pigments are suspended within a crystalline matrix. Pigments merely mixed with water don't seem to have the same depth. Similarly acrylic paint (essentially synthetic plastic binder and pigment) does not give the depth of color that oil does. It can tend to be more shiny (reflection) than rich (refraction). In college I did a bit of acrylic painting, which my professor derided as "that nasty plastic paint." She had a strong visceral reaction to it, in virtue of her entrenched painting traditions.
One thing that professor did encourage was my synthesis of painting with my interest in Jazz, (often bringing up the painter Leland Bell, seen above, who was apparently a drummer) which gave rise to several musically themed paintings. One of those is seen above (about 3x4 feet) featuring visual representation of a Saxophone Quartet. Having had much experience playing the saxophone (10 years) I wanted to explore the possibilities of the instrument as a source of visual inspiration, especially the mechanics of the instrument. Keys, rods, curves and reflections provide a lot of information and opportunity to explore spacial relations and interactions of light with surfaces.
Music and Painting both capitalize on repetition, rhythm, tone, and terms/concepts like staccato and legato. There is an interpenetration of the descriptive lexicons between the disciplines, and often descriptions of the visual are framed in terms of music and vice versa. Sounds might be described as dark, bright, dull. Colors are muted, or toned up. Good painting and music both take advantage of and give attention to relationships, temporal, spacial and tonal. Painters might try to "lead" a viewer through a work slowly, breeding contemplation. Similarly composers of music vary their tempos so as to linger and draw out a phrase/passage. Variation in color both visual and musical derives from the use of a range of colors, some subdued, some more clear and vibrant. A balance of subtlety and energy, not a tendency toward extremes (unless the intention is thus).
A piece of music will not typically be built of sixteenth notes exclusively as the monotony overwhelms and bores, where-as the (perhaps more suitable) repetition in painting may be suggestive of something beyond the painting as seen in Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie, indicative of the Rhythms of New York City (see below)
The essential difference between music and visual art seems to be the time dimension. Paintings are viewed and reviewed at a pace that isn't dictated to as great an extent in music. To take in a whole musical creation one must endure it's totality through time. Paintings are in a sense grazed upon, each visit yielding a fuller understanding (like re-playing music) but not so mediated by time. Time often passes without notice in a museum (I usually need hours to go through exhibits), whereas a Waltz seems more temporally constrained. As time passes, both music and painting affect us differently and more profoundly, our experience opening up new understandings.
I find that when I get into something I really get into it, desiring to spend all or most of my time doing that thing. I'm a little obsessive.
I'm like a child who stumbles upon something for the first time and wants to look at it from all angles, under different lighting conditions, I want to smell the object, taste it and most of all show it to as many people as possible.
If you know me for any amount of time you'll start to see this about me, especially when it comes to philosophers/thinkers/books I've read. This can be annoying. As much as I want to share my discoveries with others, it can be overbearing to only hear about one thing from me. One positive is that I get motivated and have really productive/creative times plumbing the depths of my interest.
Drawing is something I've always wanted to do. I don't remember anyone ever telling me to draw, I just wanted to and found a natural fit as a means of expression and exploration. As I got older I drew less, in virtue of taking on other responsibilities. In recent years as I was pursuing science education as a career, I neglected drawing. But my interest lay dormant, ready to be brought to life again like a seed.
This Thanksgiving and the weeks leading up to it proved to be fertile ground for that seed. I found myself renewed in my desire to draw, returning to landscape first and nature drawings and most recently to portraiture. The self portrait above was executed in Conte Crayon (also pictured above), which is a dry medium much like charcoal in its consistency. The crayon also has a waxy consistency which gives it a uniquely tactile drag on the paper's surface. I happen to find this sensation somewhat irritating, much like some find fingernails on a chalk-board grating on the nerves. But I really like the line quality the medium affords so I persist in using it. Much like charcoal, conte crayon can be smudged or made into a wash using a brush and water. Unlike charcoal it is not as dusty, while maintaining a rich dark intense black characteristic of compressed charcoal.
Drawings are satisfying because the allow my expression an immediacy, spontaneity and flexibility I haven't developed with wet media such as oil paint and watercolor, which require some preparation. The only requirements for a sketch are paper, a marking devise and an impulse (I like to call it Unction). I find self portraiture to be a uniquely introspective activity, that when carried out over time, provides one with a visual diary of the effects of time and life lived.
Drawing has an almost magic forensic quality to it. Actions (looking, marking, looking again) are codified on a surface, an intentional assemblage of evidence enacted. Tension is invested in the drawing as decisions are made consciously or not that will result in attention later being brought to the drawing or diverted away to something like a mood. The reflexive nature of drawing continues after it is "finished" (a hotly contested notion) as the artist continues to construe the drawing a certain way, finding himself in the wake of the gestural reverberations.
Portraits are often a challenge because the faces of our family members and friends are some of the most familiar images we've encountered. This familiarity makes the viewer sensitive to incongruities between the person they see and the drawing of the person. This can be a problem because a picture's goodness or level of success is often measured or discussed in terms of correspondence to the original.
When I draw a family portrait, it is usually from a photo or group of photos, as was the case in the one above, which is my older brother's family. I begin by doing individual sketches of each family member, which can then be re-positioned and taped down for the final composition. I either trace or redraw from the sketches onto higher quality drawing paper for the final drawing.
The biggest technical challenge is scaling up the pictures from the original while maintaining the original proportions. Symmetrical faces are more pleasing than asymmetrical ones, and there are many symmetries to be considered in any portrait.
I think people are drawn to non-photographed portraiture because it gives them an opportunity to have a picture composed the way they want, in a form/medium not possessed by many others. The owners of a pencil, charcoal or painted portrait are a select few. Historically portraiture was reserved for the rich, as the process is time consuming and presents certain material/technical challenges.
I made this portrait (framed in walnut incidentally) for my brother and surprised him with it on his birthday.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.