I’m working on a commissioned portrait at the moment that is proving tricky. The sitter is dressed in a black suit and Masonic regalia. This is to be a formal and traditional portrait, so I’ve been looking at hundreds of the things for ideas, and have decided I definitely want a dark background. I’ve reached the stage where I’ve done all the under-painting and have had some success in that it certainly looks like the sitter, the pose is good, and the regalia is taking shape. The problem is the black suit. The colour I’ve chosen for the background is a very dark green, and whilst in daylight you can see the change from black to green, by electric light the distinction disappears completely. I’ve tried lightening the background a little by adding a yellow glaze, but that still gets swallowed up in electric light and is in danger of looking garish in daylight. The suit itself is matt black, so I can’t use the tricks I might use if it were black satin with all the light reflections. I haven’t fallen into the trap of using black paint at least, though I’ve come perilously close with a bit of Payne’s Grey, a colour I rarely use.
To try to sort this problem out, I took myself yesterday to the Bowes Museum, which is the nearest art gallery to my location likely to contain portraits that might help. There are formal paintings closer to home – Bishop Auckland Castle has plenty of paintings of past Bishops – but the problem there is the really good portraits look in desperate need of a clean so it’s hard to see what the artists did to solve the problem, and the more modern ones that don’t need cleaning tend to have light backgrounds, which is not the effect I’m after.
There are some fantastic portraits in the Bowes. My favourite is an 1874 self portrait by French realist François Bonvin. He’s wearing very dark clothes – so dark you can barely make out whether it’s an overcoat or monk’s habit or what – has dark hair, and has painted himself against a very dark background. This means you see the face and only the face because the rest virtually merges together. This ought to matter, but in this particular painting it absolutely doesn’t, so it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that in certain circumstances a background/clothing merge can be made to work. It still makes me nervous of attempting such a thing. I am no Bonvin.
Another painting that does something similar, though has more light in it generally is a fabulous portrait of Lord Harry Vane by George Frederick Watts. Unfortunately I can’t find that one on the internet so can’t show it. He is wearing a dark suit and one of his shoulders almost merges into the background, but he has a shock of white hair and there is other brightness in the picture (a medal, his white shirt) so there’s more of a sense of balance, if less drama, than the Bonvin. The suit itself, though clearly black, is painted in shades of grey, but where it meets the background there is still virtually no distinction. It works because the viewer knows where his shoulder must be, so sees it anyway. It’s not a trick of the eye so much as the use of logic and seeing what you know must be there.
The Bowes is also currently hosting a selection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and some of these do exactly the same thing – the tonal difference between a shoulder in a dark shirt and a dark background can be incredibly slight, but the eye still sees it and knows exactly what it’s seeing.
So maybe the answer is not so much in the tonal values as in the draftsmanship. If the suit is well enough painted and clearly shows how the fabric forms around the body underneath, then a major distinction in tonal values is not required. The viewer’s brain will work it out. This puts the onus on me as the artist to get the suit right. I must stop worrying so much about the distinction between the edge of the suit and the dark of the background and work more on suggesting that there really is a solid body underneath that thick black fabric. If I can do that, the rest will take care of itself.
That’s the theory, anyway. The next few months of painting will see whether I can pull it off. There is no hurry for this one to be finished, luckily, so I have the luxury of working in oils rather than acrylics and being able to let glazes dry completely – also I have ready access to the sitter whenever required, so I don’t have to rely on guesswork.
The next problem will be the regalia. The trick there is going to be how to suggest or the detail without actually painting it in, because I’m no miniaturist so am absolutely not going to start working in a brush with one squirrel hair. The trick here is to see how the light catches the braid, and for that there are plenty of artists to show me the way from Gainsborough to Manet – but that’s a problem for another day.