Who is Stella?
After posting a link to Stella in my previous blog post, Lesley Dewar via twitter asked if I would write a little more about how Stella came to be. I will do my best Lesley, however it may not be as exciting as you think!
Stella arrived on Sunday. As I said in my previous blog post, I threw her up. On Saturday I had no inkling I wanted to paint her. On Sunday morning, I did not know who she was. However after my passenger experience which had me resembling a hamster on crack I woke on Sunday to find that I wanted to paint.
My first choice was to decide between watercolour paper and canvas paper. (I do use stretched canvas for larger works). However for ‘sketches’ such as this one it tends to be about A3 size. Watercolour paper has a stiffness; substantialness; rigidity yet the most fluid quality to it. (I know that’s contradictory!) When I pour paint on watercolour paper it flows through the paper; melds with it if you like as the paper ‘drinks’ some of its colour.
On Sunday I felt like canvas paper instead. Canvas sounds scratchy and rough so it is somewhat misleading. Canvas paper has no resemblance to paper. Imagine more like those thick plastic table cloths. You pick it up and it flops and dangles in your hand. It’s pliable but without the same thirst for colour and paint. Spill something on plastic and it sits on the surface. To make it just a little absorbent, I threw on a coat of gesso. For those who aren’t familiar with gesso it is a wonderfully chalky and textured white substance which makes the work surface like a cement rendered wall – it feels rough to the touch and every little bit of texture is maintained.
Ok, so I picked my paper. Did I go off and find a photo of a subject? Nope! I’m afraid I am not a planned painter. I just let it happen. I start with what colour reflects my mood. In the final you can see strong purplish tones. I suppose this reflected how I felt on Sunday. A colour with some warmth, strength but also muddiness. It’s not a clean colour; there was no clarity in my head. Rather it was continuing the business of the previous night – so busy in fact that it becomes unclear; it becomes a colour which is hard to name. It’s certainly not beautiful like a clean dense crimson; it doesn’t spell happy and it doesn’t spell angry. It suits another kind of emotion. If I knew the name of that emotion then I probably wouldn’t need to paint. As I don’t have a word for it, I just convey it through my image.
I put a wash of mottled purplish grey browns. I deliberately used lots of water so I have very little control over where the paint runs.
I’ll pick up the canvas paper and tip and lilt it until the paints finds it’s way – whatever it’s way is. If I like something along the way, I try to quickly put it down and sometimes use a heat gun to dry it off. This rarely freezes the exact moment in time and usually it wanders a little more before coming to a complete stop.
With Stella (who had no person associated with her at this stage – just colour) I got this wonderful trickle and I knew that would be near the edge of a face… or a line through the face. That original trickle has remained as some of the colour near her nose. This is the point at which I decided it was upsidedown. (I often don’t decide which way is up for quite some time).
At least this Sunday I knew I wanted a portait. This isn’t always the case, although I seem more likely to want to paint a face. I have several shelves of photography books. Mainly black and white. If a picture is already coloured then it inhibits creativity. I don’t want to ‘copy’ the photograph or even have it recognisable. I just use the photograph as information and inspiration.
Stella comes from one of my favourite books – homeless by Howard Schatz. Stella is a woman who at the time the book was published was homeless in California. Often after painting my subject I change their names. I once used a photograph of Jane Goodall as inspiration. By the time I was finished it was so unlike Jane that I renamed her Cassandra.
I haven’t changed Stella’s name. That name has the association of A Streetcar Named Desire – a flim I’ve not seen – however who doesn’t have that snippet of film in their memory banks somewhere – STELLLAAAA!!!
Many people will use a grid method is doing portraits from photographs. I don’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I like to work on these ‘sketches’ fast. Secondly, I am not interested in accuracy – more like gesture and mood.
In choosing a photograph, I have a very simple process. I pick up one of my books and I flick. Reasonably quickly. When something yells ME, that’s what I go with. How do you know when something yells? Umm… I just do. Why does Stella now have a tall ship in the bottom left hand corner? Precisely because I was flicking through collage images and that one called. She also has the words Parkinson’s disease, paroxysm and parquet in the picture. Again, random but not completely random. I pulled out a page of dictionary text. I saw these words and decided to try to keep them. Words like parole and pariah didn’t call out to me, so I was happy if these got covered in paint.
I have only a couple of ‘rules’ when painting sketches like this. The first is – employ all my tricks to silence my perfectionism. This generally involves using media where control is more difficult. I never sketch in pencil – it would be too easy to want to rub out. I use charcoal, paint, pen, crayon and very fluid acrylic. Hard to remove or control these things too closely. The second rule is never paint over something before bed. Even if I think it’s awful, I will allow it overnight to exist. Invariably I get up in the morning and I see something I could not see in the midst of my emotion the day before. Thirdly I try not to throw things out or overpaint them unless it’s absolutely necessary. If the object – the aim – were for a precision painting, this may be different. However it is not. I like to keep my work as it is. It becomes a snapshot of that moment and that day. I have 5 or 6 books of work from the last 5 years. In that time, I can see how much my art has developed. I look at some pieces and dislike them however they are part of my artistic development so I keep them. To remove them feels like ripping out a chapter… or writing a biography where you just skip 2 years because they weren’t so crash hot!
With that, I think I’ll call it a night. I doubt Stella will change much from here. These small pieces I tend not to do for too long – often it is just whatever I achieved that one night. As artist and teacher Craig Nelson advocates – you can learn more from 40 one hour paintings than one 40 hour painting.