Normally when I am painting a portrait I work from life. For me the resulting painting is a record of time spent with the subject, a gradual accumulation of observations, both visual and psychological, which build up into an image.
Obviously this working method is impossible under lockdown, so I was left with working either with photo references or Zooming with Henry to paint the portrait. Zooming proved impossible, since Henry was working long days and far too busy to sit staring a small screen while I stared back at him.
I find photo referencing challenging. Any photo is a partial record of a person: lighting, angle of shot, lens length and a host of other variables all combine to produce wildly differing fleeting impressions, particularly when you are working from someone else’s images and have no control over the input. Working only from photos is also a minefield because you don’t get to know the person as they unfurl to you during sittings. You are flying blind as to their character and how they present themselves to the world.
Agreeing to paint Henry’s father helped in this respect, however. The family snaps I was working from showed both the resemblance between father and son, as well as close and happy family relationships, all adding to my hypothesis of the sort of people they seemed to be.
Drawing Henry first seemed to offer a solution. Instead of the portrait being an accumulation of first-hand observations in paint, it became instead an accumulation of processes: getting to know Henry’s face line by line with my pencil, and then introducing abstract colour planes until slowly his face took shape before me.