Portraits at the National Gallery

I’ve enjoyed doodling people for a long time. Friends in front of the TV, people at work, which makes for an interesting contrast of zombie-like or focused and limbs flying. But recently I’ve been craving making proper studies, I guess it’s a genre that every artist has to take on at some point. It’s also a nice process, to want to record people I know, much like having an in-depth conversation with them. I’m also doing a course in portrait-painting on Fridays which is making slow progress. It’s very, very, hard to make a likeness that contains the character and animation of the person in front of you. Perhaps that’s why I find it so enjoyable. As I’m too shy to share my own portrait studies yet, here are some I’ve been making in the National Gallery that have been inspiring me. Drawing them is as difficult but as enjoyable as drawing a real person, but with the added buzz of feeling that you’re in the shoes of an artist hundreds of years ago.

Titian – a real pain to draw as I couldn’t get around his rather sinister look. I even used a rubber ( I never normally do) trying to get his profile again and again. And got fed up by the time I reached his arm! But an amazingly confident picture.

Ingres apparently the painter took years and years over this, But I’m sure the labouring was not so much the intricate pattern of the dress (which I couldn’t be bother with) but the odd composition of her twisted waist and shoulder (surely anatomically impossible) and contrived poise of her hand and fingers on her cheek.

Van Dyck’s Cornelis van der Geest, 1620. One of the most astonishing portraits in the gallery. Painted with soft strokes that sculpt the sitter and directed my hand in drawing. You can’t help but get really close, as if you were the painter, as the portrait absorbs you, until you almost see your reflection in his watery eyes. I love this because its feels a truly honest portrait. No flattery, just the feeling that over the course of sittings Van Dyck and Geest really came to know each other well.

Hans Holbein the Younger -Erasmus. Apparently Holbein was around 27 -my age- when he painted this. So I have a lot to catch up with. I really enjoyed drawing from Holbein in the past, he feels wonderfully true in capturing the unsymmetrical features in his sitters -but without making them look odd. There is a nice sense of pride and patience, and quiet contemplation, in the writer’s face and poise with his book.

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger. This intricate picture was commissioned by the young French Ambassador, Jean de Dinteveille, who is also shown with his friend, George de Selves, the bishop of Lavuar. Jean
is shown in the latest of Tudor fashions with fine silks, George is plainer, but still in expensive fur and woven fabric. Following tradition, it shows them as rich, well-travelled and educated young men. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe. Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken
lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony. I love filling my own pictures with objects and details at the best of time. It makes me want to make my own portraits of people surrounded by all their favourite things.

Manet’s Woman with a Cat. This is the artist’s wife relaxing with the family pet. It’s an incredible picture because it seems to have been painted in one sitting, probably the speediest painting in the entire National Gallery. The zig zag brush strokes cut across the figures, shadows, cat, to create a lively but harmonious surface. It’s also great to draw, you can’t help but sketch at speed and with flourish of hand as you follow the marks.

Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1480. This portrait’s frontal poise, direct gaze, and asymmetrical composition make it feel way ahead of its time, even modern. But that’s only half my interest. My main attraction is the man himself. He is incredibly handsome, I blushed just drawing under his five-century-gone gaze. He looks like an actor, possibly reminiscent of James Franco.

Philip IV of Spain, by Velázquez. The later of two portraits of the king in the gallery, this is lovely for his sad, sad gaze. Philip commissioned the artist many times over his lifetime, and I imagine they got on well for him to be confident in honestly showing the King’s ‘Hapsburg chin’ (a form of prognathism caused by the royals’ inbred genetic line) and tired expression. Perhaps by the time this portrait was made the king was weary of a lifetime of politics and wars, and conscious himself of his aging. A tricky one to draw as Velázquez is incredibly subtle in his marks and tones, at times like a soft focus. And yet completely honest.

And with that, it’s time I found myself some sitters…