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Experimental Portrait Painting

21 February — 22 February 2018


Workshop with Jain McKay RBSA

This was a two day course that I ran at RBSA in Birmingham for adults. There were 10 in the class, mostly hobby artists, some retired. I want to write down my thoughts about it as a record for myself for when I run it again, for any tips that other artists might be able to give me and for other artist to contemplate as a way of working. 

The first two hours of the workshop were spent making a mess, different paper, different paints, different ways of getting the paint on to the paper. Some of the students found this very easy, scratching, squirting, sponging. Thin paint over thick, layers of glue, clingfilm, salt.  Others had trouble loosing control of the paint and letting it do it’s own thing. They were just not used to letting paint do the work for them and tried to create a picture rather than let the paint create it for them. At the end of the two hours I think I had them all working freely with a number of successful images. The best were those that resembled rocky outcrops, space, abstract landscapes and clouds. 

Part two of the workshop involved looking in to these, at the moment, abstract, textured, some of them very beautiful, pieces of paper. Looking for areas where something recognisable, a face or body, can be seen in the paint, a bit like searching for images in ink blots. These where then enhanced, not too blatantly, just enough for the eye to recognise it as a face or figure and the mind to do the rest of the work it’s self. Figures, faces, narratives, emotions, characters and stories were all found in the abstract mess of the paint. The aim of this exercise was to get a dynamic, exciting, fresh feel to the work, to let the accidental, unexpected mistakes shine through and produce something that the mind would never have created by thought alone. The “Happy Accidents” as Bob Ross would say, are the star of the show. 

My personal aim is to make it look like I picked up handfuls of paint and threw them onto the canvas and they just fell into the right places. I think to some extent I see this in the work of Marlene Dumas whose work I really admire. To let paint do what paint does and only hint at the hand of the artist. 

On the second day we did and hour of drawing exercises, extended sticks, so the charcoal was at the end of a long handle and unable to control very well. Blind drawing, here the artist is unable to see the paper, only the model. Left handed drawing which uses the right side of the brain, unleashing creativity. Continuous line, in which the artist is not allowed to tale the charcoal off the paper. Some of the drawings were on top of the previous days abstract paper some on plain paper. The point of the whole exercise was to free up the hand and mind, to get the eye in connection with the hand with out the brain interfering. The mind often try’s to tell the hand what it thinks it knows without looking to see what is actually there. 

After lunch we tried a full two hour drawing from the model hoping to incorporate all we had learned about being free, wild, experimental, using the paint to do the work for us, but also to use measuring, proportions and an intention to get a likeness of the model. 


 I wanted people to work in new ways, try things they wouldn’t have, and develop their skills, I think they did. The results were fabulous, defiantly experimental portraits and I hope the next work each person did was influenced by what they learned in those two days. 










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