Portrait painting is not my thing; I’m not good in it and it has never really interested me enough to give it any time. However, I do like a good challenge and if it involves painting a self-portrait in a specific setting or style, well, then I’m in! I haven’t painted any (self)-portrait the last 15 years, so I actually felt like a beginner when I took up this challenge.
Five weeks ago I wrote about the exhibition I had visited, Van Mierevelt’s portrait factory. The museum is organizing “Paint your self-portrait in Van Mierevelt’s style”- workshops. There are workshops for adults in the museum, and for children in the museum and at school. My daughter was the first of us to do this workshop; I was there to help the day the school-class was in the museum. The children finished their paintings at school a week later. They got only one hour to work on their paintings and most of them, including my daughter, didn’t manage to finish them within the given time.
My mother was visiting at the time; she is an artist living and working in Greece. Portrait painting is also not her thing, but she has more experience in it than I do. She was mainly interested in learning this specific technique, while I saw it as an opportunity to finally start what I had planned several months earlier: a series of portraits as a study, a challenge. I am very familiar with this century-old technique when it is applied in making still life paintings; we learned it in art school and I have often used it in my work since then. The idea we would do this together was exciting and we were really looking forward to it.
At the beginning of the workshop a photograph had to be taken of each participant wearing a white organza collar, to resemble the fashion in Van Mierevelt’s time. A small wide-angled-lens camera was almost stuck against my nose. Despite my warnings that a) the photo might not be sharp and b) faces get distorted when you photograph them from so close by with a wide-angle lens, the museum lady took the pictures from close by anyway… After a very quick guided tour through the exhibition we could finally get to work. We only had 50 minutes left to paint and it was going to be a race against the clock to finish any painting… But first we had to get instructions. The artist giving the workshop started by saying that she had never heard of this technique until a week before the workshop. She was giggling while she said that… This gave me a restless feeling, a feeling of the kind: what the … am I doing here? Why was she giggling? Was she nervous about what she had just admitted or was she thinking ‘I have no idea what I am doing and you idiots are still willing to pay me’, which of the two was it? Oh oh I’m rambling again… Where was I? Oh yes, painting. With the initial instructions and a cup of coffee halfway, we only got 40 minutes left to work; it was fun, it was hectic, it was great! – even though the workshop had nothing to do with the technique used by Van Mierevelt. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I can only find two similarities. The first one is the white collar, but this is a fashion issue -also seen in work made by other painters- and not a matter of a specific technique. The second is the fact that there was use of a technique of copying/transferring of the forms from paper to panel. Van Mierevelt used a drawing on paper with small holes and charcoal powder to transfer his design, we used a printout of our photograph to trace and transfer the forms on the panel (two different transfer techniques!) To amuse myself – and maybe you too – here’s a list of the differences I can think of:
- Painting on a warm-colored background vs. painting on a white background
- Painting in numerous layers ‘building up’ the painting to achieve the texture and transparency of skin vs. painting ‘a la prima’, a very direct way in only one layer (most of the times) and putting directly the right color on the right place.
- Handmade oil paints (probably self ground in artist’s studio with pigments and linseed oil) vs. student quality acrylic paints
- Handmade oak panel vs. machine made mdf panel
- Preparation of the panel with glue and gesso made of bones, chalk and other materials which I don’t know how they’re called in English vs. normal cheap wall paint
- Working days long on one painting vs. 40 minutes
- Working with good quality brushes vs. working with lousy brushes that even a five year old doesn’t want to use!
- Large, ‘generous’ size vs. small, ‘claustrophobic’ size (ok, I know, practical issues have to be taken in account!)
- Using a handmade drawing with holes and charcoal vs. tracing a printout of our digital picture
Well, I suppose I’m too precise when it comes to painting and naming things… By the end of the workshop only two people had managed to finish their self-portraits. We finished them at home.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed doing this workshop. [Maybe things were not what they were called, but this is merely a question of semantics; most people are not as obsessively precise as I am when it comes to naming things in their work. That’s good, because this obsessive precision hasn’t gotten me anywhere!] Being in that space, painting in that museum room, was an incredible experience. The dynamics and energy of the space were almost visible. It is a very old building, initially used as a monastery, later as a palace. Just outside of the room we were painting (the “guestroom”), on the 10th of July 1584, prince William of Orange was murdered on the stairs after leaving the dining room. The signs on the wall are still visible, reminding everyone of this dark moment in Dutch history. During the workshop, I was informed that historians working in the museum believe now that the prince was leaving the guestroom and not the dining room when he got murdered, they think that he was dining with guests in the guestroom, the same room that was now used for the workshop… What does all this have to do with painting a self-portrait? Well, nothing I guess. I just enjoy learning this kind of stuff! (You can find more information at the site of the museum: http://www.prinsenhof-delft.nl )
Three Generations – Three Self-portraits: Seeing the three portraits like this, side-by-side, brings strange associations. Similarities and differences in the paintings reflect similarities and differences in character and personality. The more I look the more I see; quite an unexpected twist caused by a simple self-portrait study…