I did a four hour life drawing session yesterday; I’d forgotten how tiring that can be. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected as the model is a local burlesque artist and had one of her show outfits on most of the time (fishnet stockings aren’t the easiest thing to draw, so I didn’t try!). It was a useful exercise though, in that it made me sit down and draw what was in front of me for a concentrated period of time.
I’ve been asked by a local art society to lead a session on portraiture, specifically drawn portraits, which has made me think much more about what I do - and about the nature of portraiture. As the session will be fairly short, we’ll be concentrating on the traditional concept of a portrait, the head and face, but it can be so much more than that; the full figure, the things the subject has around him or her and the spaces he or she occupies. These can enrich the work by giving the viewer greater insight into the subject’s character and life. Maybe it’s not even necessary to have the person in the image at all. A few years ago I made a series of prints based on characters from Dickens’s Bleak House. One of these was entitled ‘Mr Jellyby’ and is in fact a ‘portrait’ of him. The man himself is absent from the image however.
"Why, I hear of her, Esther," replied Caddy, "through Pa, but I see very little of her. We are good friends, I am glad to say, but Ma thinks there is something absurd in my having married a dancing-master, and she is rather afraid of its extending to her."
It struck me that if Mrs. Jellyby had discharged her own natural duties and obligations before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precautions against becoming absurd, but I need scarcely observe that I kept this to myself.
"And your papa, Caddy?"
"He comes here every evening," returned Caddy, "and is so fond of sitting in the corner there that it's a treat to see him."
Looking at the corner, I plainly perceived the mark of Mr. Jellyby's head against the wall. It was consolatory to know that he had found such a resting-place for it.’
This brings up an interesting question around figures in illustrative and narrative work. My niece posed for me as Ginger Nut, a character from a short story by Herman Mellville - Barleby the Scrivener. Is the result print therefore a portrait of Ginger Nut (a boy) or my niece? Or both? Where does the sitter end and the character begin?