It’s always reassuring to a painter when there is a proliferation of big names making headlines in the painting genre. Painters frequently take a back seat to installation, performance, video art – the so-called “cutting edge” art and have to live with comments like "painting is dead"
Some of this attention has been brought about by the sad passing of some of the great names –.Cy Twombley and Lucian Freud to name just two.
I recently finished reading Man with a Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford. I had just bought Lucian Freud paintings by Robert Hughes when I found "Man with a Blue Scarf" at my local library, it was a serendipitous find. It’s a fascinating insight into one of the world’s greatest painters.
One aspect that struck me profoundly was the patience, persistence and sheer dogged determination Freud employed while painting this portrait, and indeed to all his work. Day in and day out; slogging labour; over a period of some twenty one months. During this time there were natural breaks but essentially there were about five or six sittings each month. Each evening sitting lasted about three hours, after which artist and sitter would go out for dinner.
The portrait is painted in slow sections, as seen in the incomplete portrait of Francis Bacon.
Freud “is inclined to put a blob in the middle then slowly work out from it, creating a mosaic pattern of pigment that spreads across the canvas” said Gayford.
Freud would often be working on two or three canvasses simultaneously. Each would be painted at the same time of day so that the light for each would remain constant. The sheer physical endurance of this regime – each session often lasting two to three hours – continuing in the last years of his life – one can only admire the commitment to hard work.
He drew praise from many – including, surprisingly, Damien Hurst who said:
"What I love about Freud is that interplay between representational and the abstract. His work looks so photographic from far away, and when you get close up it’s like an early de Kooning. You can always tell a great painting because when you get close there are all these nervous marks."
And then when speaking to Lawrence Gowing, Freud said he wanted his paint to:
"work as flesh" and
"I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resemble people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people not like them. Not having the look of the sitter but being them."
Lucian Freud Portraits is currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery. A review of the exhibition by Katherine Tyrrell of Making a Mark is here together with an interview with David Hockney on his experience on sitting for a portrait.