Applying to open calls isn’t something I’ve been doing on a regular basis in the past due to my chaotic lifestyle choices of juggling graphic design projects, my own art practice and teaching to fill in the gaps. It’s usually a case of seizing the moment when I spot an open call, an advert or a prompt in my instagram feed.
However, I took a decisive move this year - to transition from fulfilling the bread and butter job of graphic design and give LOADS more time to my personal art practice. So, with a dose of early spring enthusiasm, some dreams to aim for and my trying to ignore the usual imposter syndrome, I filled in forms and pinged a couple of applications off.
The following month and within a couple of days of each other I had been accepted for both my applications… I nearly fell off my stool but before doing so, had a big dance around the studio. The first application success was an open call to exhibit in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London (more on the second application success in the next blog!). The last time I applied to a London open call was to the RA summer show way back in the early noughties - and I became an official RA reject.
This blog is to show you the process I went through to paint my accepted painting, ‘Grief’.
The backbone of my art practice has always lain in working from the figure and portraiture and it is something I’ve done from an early age to present day. The work I do in the life room hones my drawing skills - it’s a drawing muscle that benefits from a constant workout. As well as that, the life room encourages the freedom of expression with no expectations and for me, becomes a place of play and discovery. During life sessions the time for observation is limited by the length of the poses and encourages an immediacy and focus that you don’t get when working from a photo. However, attending an in-person life session isn’t always possible when my painting/ drawing mojo comes along. Therefore another part of my practice is to work from found images from magazines, social media and a whole plethora of available material through online subscriptions. For me, the two work beautifully side by side.
When searching for images to work from, I’m not always JUST interested in the face, a story behind the face is hugely beneficial. Last year I started following the instagram account of actor Richard E. Grant and was really drawn into his posts which spoke about his wife, Joan’s death - he articulates his grief through words of deep loss mixed with huge smiles of joy that some memories bring. I caught a moment of inner reflection as he took a breath and I knew that was the pose I wanted to paint. All I had was a slightly blurred phone image - but also I had a conversation and his story.
I grabbed an old re-primed canvas which had a nice raw texture of previous paint and in some places the weave of the canvas still showing - the canvas had history and I liked that.
The following is a collection of progress photos that I took along with brief explanations of the different stages of the painting. I also want to point out that my ‘process’ is based both on a method which suits me, but also an instinct which leaves me open to experiment and change things up. It’s about listening to pre-learnt lessons but also to a sub-conscious instinct which sometimes you have to let over-rule the ‘rules’!
I like to start my paintings by drawing with a relatively dry hogs hair brush. I suppose it comes from years and years of drawing with mostly charcoal - the lovely scratchiness and unpredictability of the line are something that excites me and I like to let the paint do what it does whether it be blobby or hardly visible. I don’t tend to use a grid system as I find this restricts the drawing. I draw from photo, how I would from life which allows my own personal expression to come through - plus this is my favourite part of the painting - the initial ‘working out’ - creating the scaffolding where the paint will sit. At this stage it is ‘working out the puzzle’. It makes me look for shapes and relationships of key points - to look at the pose without assumption and to try to see it how it IS.
Colour mixing comes next, finding the big shapes and how the colours and tones relate to each other. This is partly down to close observation and also about how the mixed colours work together when placed in the canvas. Working from a photo is completely different from working from life in this respect. The camera has already edited tones and colours from what is actually seen with my eyes so I use the image as a stimulus and not as a thing to copy religiously. At the same time, I am adapting the colours of reality to work with the subject and the feeling or atmosphere I want to give.
Quite often, during or after this first juggling of colours, the ‘drawing’ starts to come apart - I never stop trying to find the drawing. Passages of paint are rubbed out with thinners and redrawn. Throughout my process I constantly go back to my drawing to look and look again. It is important to me to start with a solid foundation of a good drawing, I can then start to play with my observations and understandings.
Once the main blocks of colour are painted in and most of the canvas is covered, I check on the harmony of the colour and if it sets the mood I am after. At this stage in the painting I wasn’t happy with the hue used for painting the forehead - it wasn’t harmonising with the rest of the painting - so back to remix colours with a fresh palette.
Once I am happy with the colours and the general atmosphere the painting is giving, I went back to the drawing again - this is a constant through my painting process and it helps me to relook and keep working things out.
The drawing is also a very important part of my painting practice. When I first started painting, I found my drawing abilities slipped and I wasn’t getting the same pleasure from painting that I was when drawing with a line (I’m a HUGE lover of line drawings if you hadn’t noticed!). I started to use the paint like I do my charcoal - with a searching line, which often moves whilst looking at my subject. These lines not only draw form and ket points but they also track the movement over the subject as I draw - be it just around the face or from face to shoulder or from ear to background. It may be something seen or unseen (like gravity or sense of movement). These are very instinctive lines and are also useful to bring small ‘pops’ of colour to the painting to help keep the eye moving.
Grief was shown as part of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition 2023. It was a very proud moment to be showing alongside some real giants of the portraiture world. At the moment you can still see all the work online, including my painting on the mall galleries website.
It’s a really wonderful exhibition to go and look at (now online) as it has portraiture of all genres by both professional and amateur artists, plus it’s relatively small with a small cafe in the actual gallery, so you can have tea, cake and a peruse all at the same time!
The Open call for 2024 is now receiving entries. You’ll find all the details here.
And if you want to have a full portrait day, it’s only a short walk to one of my all time favourite galleries - the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery.