Friday, August 14, 2009

A portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong with the mouth." J.S. Sargent

Years ago my artist father quoted Sargent and whenever I recall these words, I feel a little less bad about my attempts. I remember a teacher at UCLA suggesting years ago that I throw the entire face of my subject into shadow.

Sometimes when I see the finished works of someone as immensely talented as Sargent I forget about the periods of infrequent comm
issions, the criticism that he was merely clever, and most of all, the huge amount of time he spent wrestling with the paint.

I keep taking out Carter Ratcliff's Sargent from the library because it's so full of background. Ratcliff talks about all the work that went into the infamous portrait, Madame Gautreau. He worked and reworked the canvas, explaining:

One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the painting upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement.

Here it is at left, a copy Sargent made that he never finished.

Of course, the one he did finish kicked up a firestorm of protest, including this from the subject's mother: "All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined. My people will be forced to defend themselves. She'll die of chagrin."

It was called "monstrous," "detestable." But his stongest defender, Louis de Fourcaud, had this to say: "The purity of his model's lines must strike one first of all.
From head to toe, the form 'draws' itself - in one stroke, it becomes a harmony of lines."

Since I do not have his eye or hand, I have to grasp at the straws of technique. More than just about any other technique, I find the turn-it-upside-down idea very helpful, but not just with seeing the composition more clearly. From a different vantage point, your eye cannot quietly correct a flaw or supply what it believes ought to be there - you really do see the work more plainly.
Have you tried painting while it is still upside down or sideways? Does it help? And what about the mouth? Is it harder than any other feature to capture well? My father, George, tells me the nose has its problems, too.

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