BP Portrait Competition Submission: Reflect

Reflect (Oils on canvas 61cm x 61cm)
Reflect (Oils on canvas 61cm x 61cm)

This painting was produced as a submission to the BP Portrait Competition 2012 (How’s that for hubris?) Whilst the colour scheme and composition were poorly conceived, the intention behind the painting had some thought behind it, being, as it was, based on David Hockney’s deliberations on the possible use of optics by the Old Masters.

In his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters he discussed the possibility that, some time after 1430 AD, artists started making use of lens-based tools to increase the ‘accuracy’ of their work. Hockney went on to conduct various trials using Camera Obscura (Dark Room) and Camera Lucida (Light Room) tools to aid the production of portraits in support of his proposition. Both of these relied on the artist focusing an image produced by a single lens onto a surface in order to be able to trace around it.

With these thoughts in mind the composition of the painting above was constructed using the reflective surfaces of a plain mirror, a large spoon, a copper ale warming jug (bought from an antiques fair) and a battered biscuit tin lid; as well as two optical ‘lenses’, in the form of a magnifying glass lens and a shaving mirror (since, in discussion with Charles Falco about optics, Hockney was made aware of the fact that a concave mirror has lens-like properties and can produce an image on a flat surface.)

The arrangement of these objects to each other was established such that it was just about possible to position myself at just the right horizontal/vertical angles and distance to the reflective surfaces, so that each reflected image could be seen simply by moving the eyes.

This approach seemed to me to both replicate and subvert the use of tools such as a Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida or, simply ‘camera’ in the current age of using *ahem* ‘reference’ photos – guilty, your Honor – to achieve the photo-realistic paintings so beloved by the BP Portrait judges (until this year).

The resultant picture makes it necessary for the ‘viewer’ to have to extrapolate the lines of convergence from the reflected image fragments to establish the correct ‘focal point’ at which to position the ‘optic lens’ of their eye(s) in order to draw together the visual clues and resolve them into a finished ‘portrait’ on the surface in their mind. In effect, the viewer is encouraged to actively adopt the role of a Camera Sententia (Thought Room) as opposed to passively being ‘spoon-fed’ an image that has already been resolved on the picture surface.

I find the idea that a painting might have a ‘focal length’ intriguing and it seems to tie in with other ideas Hockney had regarding replicating peripheral vision in his paintings. Certainly not having a single resolved portrait on the canvas means that it is necessary to focus on the individual reflected fragments separately and this has the effect of relegating the other reflected fragments to the periphery; very much like the actual experience of painting them.

Another couple of small observations related to the fragmented approach; firstly, my painting arm was in different positions when painting different fragments, which perhaps helps suggest movement/the passage of time; secondly, just off centre are two portrait fragments either side of the spoon handle. These two fragments are part of the ‘same’ reflected image but have been ‘monocularly’ seen with the left and right eye, in a way that was reminiscent at the time of the Welsh artist, Evan Walters‘ binocular approach to painting.

Hopefully, this goes some way to explaining the poor composition of the painting (the dodgy colours can easily be explained by lack of skill…), in that the subject of the painting is not actually on the picture plane, rather it is 2 feet in front of it, exactly where the artist would have to have been in order to paint the picture, and therefore, where the observer has to position themselves in order to resolve the same image. In effect, the viewer ‘becomes’ the artist. In fact, the title for this painting was originally intended to be ‘(Do It Your) Self Portrait’, hence the inclusion of the hand grasping a passport photo to imply the need for the observer to have to break through the picture plane to reach in and draw out a recognisable portrait.

Hmmm… anyway, that was a bit of a ramble. Hard to believe it wasn’t accepted for the competition, isn’t it? ;0)

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