Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Face 300a

There is a passage in my novel "A Singular Shade of Grey" in which Tomas explains to Nemo his attempt to recreate, or forge in fact, Whistler's "Arrangement in Grey", rooted in Velázquez's "Las Meninas", but also in Debussy's "Nocturnes", the latter's essay at depicting the colour grey in music. He talks about the difficulty of painting clouds:

"There are no pure-white clouds. Every cloud is grey to some degree, but the greyness is an illusion too, a factor of our looking at it, a consequence of height and distance – relativity theory, though I don't think Einstein ever investigated this. Clouds get thicker and denser when they gather more water droplets and ice crystals – I paint a lot of clouds so it's useful to know this. The thicker they get, the more light they scatter, and so less light is able to penetrate them and they consequently appear blacker, though there's no pure-black either. Only shades of grey. Strange isn't it, that orange skies and blue skies and red skies and cloudy skies are really all the same grey sky, except that our eyes have the amazing capacity to detect the effect of the photons and the molecules, as though we've put lens-filters on, the way they do with cameras. I'm sorry if I'm not explaining this very scientifically. I'm an artist, not a physicist. Like Debussy in his 'Nocturnes', like Whistler in his 'Nocturnes', I'm interested in how the eye sees, not what the eye sees, the construction not the narrative. Because everything the eye sees is actually grey. Until you break it down into shape and colour, and paint the differences. The trick is in the fastidiousness of looking; or listening, in the case of music."

Writing this was also a starting-point for a new phase of my own painting, and any number of the later portraits in this gallery employ the same basic technique, of establishing the greyness first, and then allowing the shapes that constitute the face to emerge out of them, rather than the other way around, which is the normal approach of portrait-painters. With this portrait, I found the greyness overwhelming to a point of bleakness, especially as it stripped all character and personality from the model I had used, and that represented a failure of the final work, even if I had achieved the primary goal of the painting. But how to return to colour without undermining the investigation-in-grey? By leaving the face uncoloured, but imbuing the hair, which has no character or personality, with precisely that, and thereby illuminating the face. Neither "The Woman With The Yellow Hair" nor "The Girl With Red Lips" could have happened without this preliminary experiment, and after them the African portraits, "The Oldest Woman In The World", and several others.

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