The most difficult assignment I ever had to face was the commission to do a portrait of a young man who had tragically died and whom I had never met. I had never met his parents either. To me there is no calamity to compare with the death of a child; and there is nothing I find more irresistible than a challenge. On both counts, I had to try.
Everybody knows that no two snapshots of a given person will look at all alike. The parents collected every existing photo of their son; I saw his room and other effects, the odd garment and pieces of work; and above all learnt a very great deal about him . I felt I knew him and knew what I had to do. If it did not work, the heavens would not fall, or no more than they already had done with his death.
Anyway I did what I always do - sink myself in my subject, like a deep-sea diver with preternatural breathing equipment, and for the time being lived and worked wholly immersed in him, exclusively permeated with the need to bring him back.
Well, it did work: one of the best moments I have ever experienced. I have done another couple of "unknown" posthumous commemorative portraits since, with equally satisfying outcome. Not counting the statue of the scientist Sir Rowland Biffen for the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute named after him. Though applauded by people who had known the man, a three-dimensional likeness is easier to achieve than the single-plane, out-and-out illusion, and I was not labouring for close family. Moreover the man had had a bushy moustache, camouflaging quite an area of facial structure, as you might say labour-saving!
The Creative Process
Making true portraits requires three indispensable elements: skill (see also talent), particular as distinct from general intention, and an X-ray-like penetration. Clairvoyance, clear-sight in the literal sense, would be a better word for that.
The operative challenge of potraiture is that the personality resides in more than the static external factors: hence "a speaking likeness" as often used to describe an especially striking such. My portraits are meant to speak, and they surely do. Everyone says so!
My sitters are asked to speak when posing. Features freeze when in ruminant torpor. Unless I which I want to illustrate some particular point, I like subjects to choose what they will wear, because this will tell you something about how they see themselves - which again tells you more about them.
Meanwhile the overall design will have been worked out. Every picture has to be considered in its own right and as a unique problem.The drawings from life and back-up photographs are the notations I have to build on. While life drawing is a vital necessity for depicting the person, there is no point in spending hours recording clothes, jewellery or furniture, which any camera will sketch perfectly well.
On an average it takes from three weeks upwards to make the actual painting, whether by brush or scalpel, pattern and tonal gradations being achieved simultaneously from a number of homogeneous layers of paper of equal size all stapled together and placed vertically for treatment. No two works follow the same progression.
Other parts of the preparatory processes take longer. Decising the colour scheme which can necessitate numerous adjustments, sometimes adds up to 6 or 7 hours; likewise the layer sequence which has to obey divers technical considerations operating all over a picture, since toget the creative benefit of the strict rules nothing that is needed must be able to fall out or be stuck on separately. It is the old story as in all forms of art: the limitations are not so much fetters as ideas-inspiring supports.
This whole technique, I have to say, is calculated to teach you unexpected lessons all the time, in an inexhaustible number of directions. Which renders it inexhaustibly fascinating, an unfailing adventure, with moments of positively physical terror to overcome, and breathless recovery. For there is no correcting mistakes. They have to be anticipated and circumvented.
Pictures of People
Sometimes people knowing nothing about you ask whether you"do" landscapes or animals or figurework, etc. My answer is, of course, "Everything; anything" which is no more than the truth; though I might reply that my main and surpassing interest is, People, whom I am forever wanting to depict and interpret - often in meaningful conjunction with everything else you might think of. My answer would not be "Portraiture"; even though likeness is important to me. Surprisingly enough, frequenters of my exhibitions buy uncommissioned representations of persons unknown to them as often as they choose anything else: in other words, they treat them as I do, PICTURES OF PEOPLE. Amen to that.