I’ve recently been working on a set of portraits of Christine Keeler. I wouldn’t normally do more than one picture of somebody I don’t know, but I did the first, and Fionn Wilson, the artist who is masterminding the Christine Keeler project, suggested that a set of three or four might be a good idea, so I though, yeah, okay. She didn’t want copies of photos, which is absolutely fair enough. Anyone with rudimentary drawing skills can copy a photograph, but think of your own passport photos. Do they actually look like you? Highly unlikely. Sometimes there’s no choice but to work from a photo, but even if you can’t get a sitting with the person you’re drawing, there are other ways, especially if they’re someone in the public eye like Keeler. I went to that font of all moving images: Youtube, found a documentary with plenty of video, and watched until I got more of a feeling of what she really looks like, until I started to feel that any image I produced might be in with a chance of getting under the skin and showing something of the real person rather than the superficiality of the outer features. The first portrait I did had her resting her chin on her hand, looking downwards, serious, the next also had a serious expression, so in the third I wanted to capture, if not exactly laughter, something akin to amusement/bemusement. In that one she looks as if she’s saying, ‘I can’t believe you really just asked me that question’ which must have been something she often thought as she was being interviewed. I think I managed it okay, because each time I drew her I felt I got closer to the real person, and each portrait looked more like her in some inexplicable way. She is someone I am unlikely ever to meet, but the more I draw her, the more I want to meet her, and this is often the case with portraiture, because there is something weirdly intimate about staring intensely at someone’s features when they can’t look back.
I like to work relatively quickly, so these drawings took no more than an hour or two to complete. I’m going to make a note of the specific technique here, because the way I draw changes every few months and I’ll want to look back and check how these ones were done.
First of all I do a very careful line drawing using a sharp Derwent Onyx pencil. This is just outline to make sure the proportions are spot on, concentrating on eyes (easy), nose (okay) and mouth (often surprisingly difficult). I also indicate dark areas, not with shading, but simply by encircling them. It means the drawing looks like the plan for ‘painting-by-numbers’ at this point, but that’s fine. The guidelines are vital, and once they’re there I can continue with some confidence. Then I change medium – I have a fat and chunky Faber Castell 2B graphite stick, and I use the flat end to block in the tones. This is still very pale – it calls itself 2B but it feels far harder. Once I’ve done the blocking in, I have a ghost image, but it already looks recognisably like the person. The final medium change is to Conté, specifically a well-sharpened Pierre Noir 2B conté pencil. I love this type of pencil because it is intensely matt black, something you can never achieve with graphite however soft because of the sheen you inevitably get which makes it so hard to scan or photograph, or even see in some lights.
While the pencil is still very sharp (and I use a professional mechanical sharpener to ensure this) I draw the eyes in as much detail as I can manage, though as conté is by its nature thick and crumbly, this is always going to be an approximation. I work lightly at first. The real darks will come later. Once the eyes and eyebrows are accurate, I work on the nose, then with extreme care, tackle the mouth. I avoid erasing if at all possible, and the rubber only comes out if I make an accidental fingerprint on a bit I want to remain white – because the whites are vitally important. Highlights on cheeks and nose stay as pristine white paper, which incidentally is ordinary photocopier paper as often as not. I like its smoothness, and it takes the various pencils extremely well. By this time the pencil is blunted, and I can start working on the tones of the cheeks, under the chin, bags round the eyes, and so on. Once they’re roughed in, I set to work on the hair, because if the hair is very dark, for example, it’s going to have a major effect on the balance of the tones overall so I need to get that in as soon as possible. From this point, it’s a question of gradually building up the darks so that the underlying skeletal structure is there – and of course the personality, because this shows in the precise angle of the mouth (which is why the mouth is so difficult) as well as any hollowness in cheeks, and in older people, the precise way in which wrinkles and laughter lines have formed.
Conté is imprecise, which is why I love it. I’m not going for photo-realism, ever, or I would use all the grades of graphite available and end up with something incredibly smooth. However, if it’s too rough, then the subtlety is invisible, and faces are nothing if not subtle, so the very last thing I do is the blending. Some people swear by paper stumps and suchlike, but I find with conté, to get absolute control, the tip of my little finger is best. And I use it vigorously, picking up black dust from the darkest areas to rub into the mid-tones, and I rub and rub away (conté is very forgiving) until the gradations of tone are to my satisfaction but it’s still looking lively because of the extreme contrasts between the darkest and lightest tones, and my earlier rough and scribbly drawing. I end up filthy, and I’ll have sharpened away half the conté pencil, but with any luck, the whites on the paper are still bright and clean. I scan it as quickly as possible at this point, as the chances of damage are high. For preservation, I tend to put it straight into a pound shop frame, which I find is much safer than a plastic wallet, where it might move about and smudge. If it’s any good, I can always re-frame it at a later date.
So that’s what I’ve been doing in the last few days. Three down, one to go. Today, however, I’m giving myself a self-indulgent break and intend to draw Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, because I’m a huge fan, and his is a face I’ve never tackled. Then I’ll go back to Christine afresh, and complete the final portrait.