Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Two

August 21, 2013

20 July 2013

stephen scott artistA couple of days later we are back in my kitchen to start the second session of Stephen painting my portrait. We are trying for a schedule of about every other day, at the same time of around two in the afternoon, depending on the weather as he wants to use natural light and for it to work, it needs to be sunny. Normally the plan is work for around two hours. The plan now is for a couple of oil sketches, some drawings, all leading to a larger finished painting. Everything based, of course, on direct observation–no photography. Stephen has used photography in the past as an aid to memory, but really doesn’t like it. “Photographs make it too easy,” he says, “and, besides you can tell when a painting based on a photo.”

It was a portrait of Stephen’s based on photographs, that of the poet Alden Nowlan (2009, 125cm x 100cm), that was included in an exhibition I curated at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Art Treasures of New Brunswick, earlier this year that made me want to learn about how the artist worked. Stephen did the painting as a commission for the University of New Brunswick Library. What drew me to the painting was the evidence of the artist’s struggle. This was no slick photo realist painting or usual university official portrait. I have seen plenty of both. They are all over the place at universities, mine included, which look like painted photographs of really boring people. I had known Alan and he wasn’t boring and Stephen’s painting made him look like how he was, a very interesting person.alden nolan by stephen scott

It’s hard to explain what I mean by struggle, but I know it when I see it and it’s a good thing. It is the quality that separates art from the mundane. Where to find struggle? I see it in the paintings Rubens, Halls, Sargent and Freud among others. In the finished product it might look easy, but there is the evidence of fight in every brush stroke from these artists. There is movement in the paint that comes together in some sort of dance. I saw those qualities in Stephen’s painting of Nowlan. Now, I was hoping to see that struggle first hand as he painted my portrait. Perhaps, I am being overly romantic and in today’s Postmodern art world, if that’s is where we are, I plead guilty.

Today Stephen was painting. Laying down the base lines, the underpainting, with thick brush strokes of paint. He was looking intently at me while I was trying to keep somewhat still and at the same taking down notes in my little black book. If he wasn’t going to use photography, then I wasn’t going to record our conversations. I figured we could be both old fashioned and as out of touch with technology as humanly possible. “I try always to work at the peak of my abilities,” he said in answer to my rather vague question about methods of working. “I am always looking for something new,” Stephen continued. New, when you are talking about a tradition, oil painting, that goes back to the early 15th. century, is a loaded concept. What’s ‘new’? What’s ‘different’? Is there anything that is truly new painting or are we talking about different? Every work for an artist is new even if it looks similar to what they may have done before. Different might be hanging your painting upside down (it has been done) and the result is likely: so what? New might be the invention of Cubism or as simple as seeing the world in a different way and showing it in your art.

When Stephen was talking about something new, he was not talking about me. He could have been painting a picture of a potted flower and still would have been looking for something new. There is much talk about originality when it comes to the contemporary visual arts. It appears that there are unlimited amounts of originality and it is the chief quality that separates good art from the bad. I do not agree, and neither does Stephen; originality is not the same as new. What, at best, passes for original in the visual arts is usually variations on a theme. The upside down thing, red in place of blue, ironic takes on historic art works and so on. The worst claim for originality is based on the pure ignorance of art history. How many exhibitions I have been to of blank canvases, empty frames, rocks on the floor or inane text painted on the wall? Too many and counting. Idea art, if there is such a thing, is good once, but it pales in repetition. Marcel Duchamp has much to answer for. New, on the other hand, happens when each an artist makes a mark on a piece of paper or a brush mark on canvas; those marks have never been made before nor will they ever be repeated. Good is an entirely different subject and certainly does not happen as often as original or new.

Good is the subject of many of my conversations with Stephen while he is painting my portrait. “Painting is about small things,” he said, “trying to get it right at the outset.” He was paying much attention to laying down the underlying darks and lights in the picture’s composition. “It’s what is in between the lines that’s important.”, he continued. As a painter myself, I understand what he is saying and, indeed, doing. You always need to be one step ahead of what is on a canvas. It’s rather like a conductor of a symphony orchestra where you need to be at least one beat, and likely more, ahead the orchestra and have some feeling where the music is going. The baton is signaling what is next, not what is already happening. Music has much more in common with painting beside the use of many common terms like composition, texture, rhythm and colour. There is, however, the question of interpretation. In music you have the performance and performers and the work of the composer who writes the music. The painter must do both. The interpretation of a painting is done by the viewer, but it is passive not like the role of a performer by whose action a composer’s music is brought into life either well or, perhaps, badly. Painters interpret what they see, or think, and then physically make the object (the painting), in essence both performance and composition. Music, and its relation to painting, is also the subject of a lot of our conversations.

I normally have streaming radio playing in the background while we work and it is always tuned to classical stations. Streaming radio, music played through a computer to a radio, is the greatest thing since sliced bread as I can listen to classical music 24/7 from all over the world without insipid comments or commercials. Today it was a station from Greece that plays nonstop Baroque music. “What’s that?” he said, “Henry Purcell?” Turning my head to check the radio which is close by, as it often displays what’s playing, and to my surprise, Stephen was right. He has a very good ear for music, even for that he has never heard before which is something that I like to think I can do as well. “Stephen,” I said, “you know this is rather like walking into an art museum where you have never been before and picking out paintings you have not seen before and know correctly who did them?”

“It’s true,” he answered, “it is like know a code and once you have mastered it, you have it.” A painter’s style is like a signature. Even if an artist changes their apparent style, like Picasso, over their lifetime they leave clues to their identity. Of course, it helps to know something about art history if you are going to play this game and Stephen does know a fair bit about the subject.

We keep coming back to Sargent and Freud who, to both of our minds, are bookends to late 19th. and 20th. century portraiture. What they have in common is their paint quality and I am not referring to the brand of paint they used, but their painterliness. They use a lot of paint expressively in their work to get their point across. “It sure would have been neat to have been in their studios, a fly on the wall, and watch them work,” he said. It is the nature of the craft that artists work alone without an audience. There is, however, that wonderful Courbet painting The Painter’s Studio (1855) with everybody (and their dog) from Paris society watching the master paint. God knows what the naked lady is doing watching him paint a landscape. I certainly would have been interested in watching Courbet paint and he did include a contemporary art critic (Charles Baudelaire) in the painting.

VH portrait in progressActually, as the subject of Stephen’s painting it is difficult to watch what is happening on the canvas directly. I see that the back of the canvas and his palette, watch as he put the brush to the palette and then, try to figure what is going in the painting. I have to wait until we take a coffee break about half way into the sitting and, of course, at the end of the session, to see what is going on. We sit quite close during the sessions. This does afford me the smell of the paint which I quite enjoy. I ask him about smell and touch. “Yes, there is something quite special about the smell of the paint and the oil. Doesn’t happen with acrylic paint. The touch is the touch. What you feel with the pressure of the brush against the canvas.” It was just around four o’clock and we decided to stop. I had a look at what Stephen had accomplished and was pleased with what I saw. He, on the other hand, wasn’t. “It’s got a long way to go,” he said. I knew then that I would be sitting in my kitchen with Stephen painting my picture for some time to come.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, 19 August, 2013.


  1. […] Part Two, we learn about a painting of Stephen’s that Virgil had used in a show this […]

  2. […] Part Two, we learn about a painting of Stephen’s that Virgil had used in a show this […]

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