Elena Duff portrait Sky Arts

I’ve titled this collection as “Portraits”, but it is more a loose gathering of both portraits and paintings which include people’s faces which I’ve painted over the years. I exhibited twice at the (sadly now defunct) Arnott’s National Portrait Award Exhibition.

Above shows the progression of my painting style from my period of including organic patterns within paintings to paring down to a straight realist depiction in the most recent portraits, one of which is still in progress (the “Arnolfini Wedding”, was completed as a quirky¬†wedding gift!)

Portrait in Progress

mum portrait sm

mum portrait 1

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I’m currently painting a portrait of my mother for an upcoming portrait exhibition competition. As an aside, you can see how dark my studio is from the photo. An overhead light and three lamps are needed just so I can see and even with that, it’s still pretty gloom-filled. I decided to use a grisaille under painting technique for this painting and hope that since I’m really not familiar with it, that it’s not a risky manoeuvre which will take up more time than had I done my usual of lightly sketching out and going in directly with colours and then working over those.

I’m not familiar with glazing over what is essentially a giant drawing, but am curious to see if it works out. Using this technique certainly helps to get everything in the right place from the offset before colour is even thought about. Concerned that all this black and grey will dull the final piece but then, Ingres’s Odalisque grisaille version compared to his¬†finished piece La Grande Odalisque doesn’t seem to have had that happen (not that I am comparing myself to him by any means). In any case, above is the first charcoal sketch, which I then worked up (below), so that the whole canvas was covered. Within a few hours I’d got to the point of painting the figure in tones of grey and starting to put in a wash in the background. My whites aren’t really white enough on the face or fabric, so I need to go over that again and bring up the highlights and the hands are looking rather odd right now(you could tell I was getting tired by the time I got to them…)

mum portrait 2

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Another layer on and I’ve added more white to the face and shirt and filled in some more detail using rough washes in the background. The mouth isn’t quite right, being too narrow instead of stretching out in a wider smile, so I’m going to work on that next time round, along with the eye on the right which is wrong somehow. For now, pre-fixing up any errors, here’s a photo of the latest layer:

mum portrait 3

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My mother herself upon seeing the above version asked if her face was that thin and sunken looking?! The answer was no, I’d made the shadows on her face too dark and had indeed made her face slightly too narrow. In the version below I fixed that, and also fixed her left eye which was too large and too far towards the hairline.

I’ve replaced the book of birds she had under her arm with a volume of poetry, seeing as the subject is a poet herself – obviously I’ve messily roughed in the title and will have to neaten it up at a later stage.

This is only my second attempt ever at using grisaille as a technique and I have subsequently read that I should have mixed burnt umber with the black to lessen the cooling effect of black on the glazes over it…oh well, too late for that, I’ll have to compensate by using extra warm tones if required. I’m rather apprehensive about tackling the skin and clothing of the figure in case I mess it up. As a start, I risked adding some colour to the eyes and lips and it feels rather as if I’m painting watercolour over black and white photos, which I suppose, I essentially am, although I painted the ‘photo’ in the first place. The eyes are too much of an unreal blue and lips are too orange right now, making it look even more like a tinted photo, but by following the rules I should leave these to dry fully and apply further layers of colour to eventually achieve the eventual desired tone.

I blocked in the main colours of the background stone wall and have left it like so for now. I need to consider whether to leave this very roughly painted in the end as a contrast to the more refined painting of the figure, or whether that would be too jarring. I also wanted to get a range of grey tones in the background down to make sure that the skin tone colour was correct in context to the background. In any case, that’s all for today and here’s the photo:

mum portrait 4

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I’ve started added layers of glaze. I think you can see that I’m doing it rather gingerly – or rather I can now see that I’m posting this that I’m doing it rather gingerly, seeing as how pale the face still is due to extremely thin layers of glaze. The hands have been done more roughly than the face and will be refined down later – although they probably look better, from afar anyway, for a looser touch and deeper tinted glazes. I keep refining the eyes to get them right, so they are a little more open in this version, although the bottom lids have disappeared so will have to return at some point. I also started to paint out the rough part of the book title in preparation for recreating the cover (which is a painting of yellow light on water and figures on a beach). Finally I added some grey/brown tones into the hair in preparation for lighter layers over it.

mum portrait 5

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For the next layer I added a thin glaze of blue over the subject’s shirt and concentrated on getting the cover of the book looking like the original. I added a glaze over the face, darkening it, but in reality didn’t like the jaundiced look it gave.

mum portrait 6

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However, upon seeing the above photo in comparison to the later one below, it looked better and more like the subject in comparison to the lightened skin below – the hands were also brought into line with the colour tone of the face, as they were painted quite darkly and roughly. In the image below I put a dark blue/brown glaze over the background stonework and like how it has unified this purposefully, roughly painted area.

I added the same colour but darker along with green over the stone wall around the figure. However, this darkened stone and the subject’s white hair which I began to paint in, and need to darken back in areas, combined with the current skin tone all serves to create a ghostly looking figure. The shirt needs to be darkened to the deeper blue that it is, and then warmer tones added to the wall behind before I will look at the skin tone in relation to all that is going on around it – hopefully then I can gauge the correct tone so that it reflects the pale and pinkish skin of the sitter, but without the dark background overwhelming what is supposed to be the primary focus of the painting, the subject in the foreground. So, basically, still lots of work to do on this.

mum portrait 7

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And below is the final completed painting, I gave some life to the skin which was looking rather ghostly and darkened her shirt and did a lot of work on the hands. I’m very pleased with the end result and most importantly it captures the sitter who is also happy with the end result.

mum portrait sm

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I painted this portrait as an entry into the inaugural Hennessy Portrait Prize in the National Gallery Ireland (2014). Unfortunately for me it wasn’t chosen as one of the 12 shortlisted artists. The list of who was chosen can be found here. And a few images of some of the shortlisted artists here.