A painting doesn't just happen, "Alex Liederman at 17"

September 6, 2017

A painting doesn't just happen, well not in my experience. This statement may seem like pointing out the obvious, but the amount of students I've seen becoming disheartened and frustrated in the early stages of a painting or the conversations I've had with the general public who, like most other people, have never sat for a portrait or stood in front of a piece of art and wondered how? leads me to think that perhaps it isn't.


The purpose of this post is to give an insight into my process at this time, to discuss how this painting was made and hopefully demonstrate to some that there isn't a fail safe step by step method and that that is ok. I will not be explaining the narrative of the painting in great detail although I will give an insight into some things. There are two reasons for this, firstly this is a commissioned portrait and aspects are personal to Alex and his family, secondly I just don't like the idea of explaining every last detail of a painting, it leaves no room for the viewer to think independently.  All I can say is that almost everything here has a sub-context. 


Although I had an academic training I have never been as academic in process as other painters I know or see online - for better or worse I just don't think I'm programmed that way. That's not to say that structure and process is not important to me, it's extremely important , but it may only take you so far, the fun for me and the main reason I work from life is the interaction with the subject, whether it be a person or a landscape, the subject offers up something different each time, even if those differences are subtle, they allow me to learn more. I like an image to evolve as my understanding of what or who I am painting becomes more solid, so although I like to plan and think a lot before I start, I am also very open to changing direction as go.


I use a technique that is widely known as sight size, I hesitate sometimes in using the term because it can mean very different things to different people. Very simply put for those who have never heard of sight size, it is largely to do with the observation of your subject at a given distance, it is essentially a logical way to capture what your eye is seeing to the scale you see i. When I am painting a portrait the canvas will be placed alongside the sitter (for a life size portrait) and I will stand a particular distance away, I will do almost all of my observation from that spot. For Alex's portrait I stood at one end of the studio and he stood at the other, so 5-6 metres.


Just a quick note about my working practice and a disclaimer of sorts: I don't think that my process is the only way, there is no absolute right way when it comes to painting and I am open to all working methods. I can only speak of how I currently work.


Anyway... before starting a portrait, especially a large one, I try to meet and get to know the sitter as much as possible. I had met Alex on a number of occasions over a period of a year before the timings were right to paint him.  


In the year leading up to Alex's portrait I spoke with him and his parents a lot about art, figurative art and portraiture in particular.  There were paintings that kept coming up in conversation such as Holbein's Ambassadors (below) and my own self portrait "Inner Dialogue" (also below). Both paintings are heavily loaded with symbolism and narrative. The Holbein doesn't do much for me , but I can appreciate it and I understood that it was the narrative through objects that interested them.  Alex's home is a treasure trove of beautiful art and artefacts, each piece has a particular story or meaning attached to it usually to do with family or friends, value clearly came from it's emotional content rather than any monetary value. 


 Holbein, Ambassadors



 Inner Dialogue 


The first sitting is all about finding a pose, a basic composition and a concept which will be the foundations of the painting. So we hung out and I made drawings. I find that taking snaps on my mobile can also be useful  when looking at a number of varying poses. After Alex's first sitting I had a very clear idea of the pose, gesture and attitude I wanted, which is essentially what I feel I have in the finished painting. I had reservations about the shirt, but was keen on the thick rimmed Nikes, I had clocked those in our previous meetings. I was also undecided about the context/setting that Alex would be in. I decided to start without an overall plan for the background and foreground and let the thing evolve as I got to know Alex.  


I often photograph work in progress on my phone to mull over once the light has gone or to compare one idea to another that I might have tried that day. They are not taken for public consumption and are varying in quality as a result. I seem to photograph the start much less than the later stages, probably because the more I have down the more I have to consider. It is perhaps fortunate from my point of view that I only have a couple of images of the initial "lay-in". Looking at it I'm reminded of just how unsure I was about the clothes and how badly I had laid in the head. I remember realising early on that in order to capture the attitude I was looking for I would have to tilt the head much further back than I had laid in. In this photo I think I must have been in the middle of attempting to correct this as I seem to have a few angles going on in the head; I'm confused just looking at it.



Regarding my concerns about the clothes; I still only liked the Nike's. It was around this time when something fortunate happened, Alex went to Germany for a few weeks. He returned with a new haircut and wardrobe and when I opened the studio door to him I thought "Ok, I need to change everything".


After a lot of consideration I decided that it would be much quicker to start again. This may seem like a drastic decision, but sometimes I find it much quicker to start again and right off the initial canvas as a "false start". I know myself quite well by now and painting for me can often be a psychological battle more than a technical one, I suppose one affects the other.  I knew that I would continue fighting against the old head position and clothing for at least a few sittings and perhaps come to the same conclusion, so I cut my losses early. 


One important thing to point out is that the previous sittings were not completely wasted, I took the positive parts of the previous canvas such as proportions and gesture and transferred that (using sight size) to the new canvas. I did this the day before we had a full weekend of sittings planned so that the paint would be wet and ready to work into. This was invaluable and really helped me push the painting quite far over a short period of time. As you can see in the following image taken after the weekend, the head was very close to being done and the body was not a million miles behind.



Unfortunately I do not have pictures of the sight size copying process, I suppose at that time I was not particularly concerned about photographing stages for a blog that I had no intention of writing. My only concern was for the painting and although I was positive about the new direction, the painting was still, as much as it could be, in the balance and in those situations you just get on with it. In the end I believe I saved a great deal of time and I felt that things were very solid going forward.


This painting is, in part, to do with identity and one thing I will give some insight into is the playing card. When I first met Alex he was into card tricks, that's where I first saw this gesture. When someone is doing a card trick and they are showing you a card they will often bend it to mask the fact that they are holding two cards, the hidden card being the important one.



I had been considering using Scarlett, the Liederman's dog, in some way but hadn't made any conclusive decision at this stage. Then someone made a passing comment in the studio about Alex looking regal like a young prince or king and I immediately thought of Velazquez and how he depicted his royal subjects with their dogs, take this portrait of King Philip IV for example. 


Portrait of the King of Spain Philip IV, as a hunter. By Diego Velazquez


So I thought ​it would be quite fun to do a contemporary take on old ideas and therefore Scarlett was summoned to the studio for sittings.



Alex is an only child and Scarlett could be said to be an "only dog", such are the dynamics of the household, so I wanted her posing in the same position as Alex, left leg forward and staring straight at us. 


As you can see the background is bare, I was still composing in my head. Drawing ideas out in Charcoal and thinned paint. A part of me instinctively wanted to stop at this point and some of you may well prefer it and say "yeah you should have", I get it. Aesthetically it is very appealing to me. However sometimes there are other things to consider.


This really was the most difficult decision I had to make with this painting. To leave it as is or continue with what I had in mind. Ultimately this was a question of concept and conceptually my reasons for developing the painting further were stronger than those I had for stopping.  When I am painting a portrait, even though I have complete autonomy, I still have to consider what is right for the person commissioning the portrait, the sitter and where it is going to hang. This is perhaps where I find commissioned portraiture ever so slightly differs from non commissioned work, and I make no judgement as to whether that is a negative thing or not. In the end it was probably my many conversations about narrative painting (Holbein etc...) and my awareness of the people and their habitat, that made my decision in the end. ​



Ancient persian rugs absorb so much history, I've always been fascinated by them for this reason. This particular runner has been in many of the family homes and therefore a great deal of important individuals have walked and stood on it. It is also a nod to a particularly important family member whose expertise was in rugs, this being one of his. So instead of cluttering the canvas with objects  that referenced family history, I have tried to distil it here.


Painting the rug was a real challenge in seeing and balancing information and colour. This is where distance really comes into it's own. The next image shows that I originally painted Alex toward the back end of the rug



I didn't like Alex being placed towards the back of the rug, I wanted him at the forefront and for the bulk of the rug to be behind him. To get the perspective correct I moved my set-up so that I stood at the back of the studio kitchen which gave me an extra 2 meters to see the perspective correctly. 



I then moved my set-up back once the rug had been painted. 




 At this stage in the Painting I moved studios temporarily, my wife and I were expecting our first child (Ivy) and were still living in the studio. I was fortunate to be able to move into an identical studio next door, so the light was the same, but it had brighter walls and architectural differences inside, so I started to experiment with the space as well as continue to refine the clothes from the mannequin.








In the end I preferred this niche in the studio.



At this stage I was still considering objects as part of the narrative. I was particularly interested in a compositional device to suggest another dimension to the right of the canvas, so I wanted something to exit on that side. I was also looking for that object to be a colour carrier, something vibrant to play off the fluorescent green flecks on his shoes and to balance the carpet colours. I chose a favourite Childhood book of Alex's called "The Phantom Tollbooth" which is about a bored (only child) that goes on an adventure with his dog and learns a number of important life lessons. The cover has a bright manganese blue cover which was exactly what I had in mind. 



Once I had painted the book, I re-evaluated and re-painted the background and other areas with a hint of the manganese blue running throughout. 



Painting simply put is hard, I find there are always moments where the painting threatens to be a disaster, navigating through this part of the painting can sometimes be the biggest challenge. For me the issue is often psychological and not technical, although I think one does affect the other.  Being mentally strong cannot be underestimated. You see this across other disciplines, sport in particular. In recent years I have worked as hard on my mental strength as I have on the technical side of painting. I'm not necessarily referring to mindfulness, although that has its place, it's more to do with mind management, controlling your emotions in high pressure situations, the dialogue you have with yourself in crisis and your ability to recover quickly from perceived failure or setback.


I was painting the nude recently with a group of other artists, one of whom was Tom Phillips, an artist I have huge admiration for. During the break Tom asked me how it was going, "I'm battling with it" I said to which Tom replied with a smirk "who's winning?". It's a good question, I still have no idea what the answer should be. 


"Alex Liederman at 17" was selected for The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2017 and was Awarded the De Lazlo Medal for Portrait Painting. The Exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London, is open to the public from 4th - 19th of May.  



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