Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Four

September 11, 2013

25 July 2013

We are at it again on a warm summer Thursday afternoon trying to find a way into the oil sketch Stephen had started a week ago. “ I am always on the edge of disaster,” he said picking a up a brush, then discarding it for a larger one. I continue to be amazed by the large size of brushes he uses in working on such a small canvas. “Where do you start when coming back to a partially completed painting?” He tells me that he is looking for some light areas. “The nose has some highlights,” he said dabbing some white on the canvas to what I assumed was my nose, as I was sitting facing the back of painting. I try to sit still, but I am taking notes and trying to engage in conversation.

“I have been looking at your book Surface Reflections and it is pretty interesting,” I said. “Yes, it was written by my friend Robert Barriault,” Stephen replied, “and I think he did a good job summing up what me and my art are about.” “It has taken you a long time to get to where you are now,” I said. “You talk, in the book, about a moment of truth at beach at Agadir in Morocco when you were twenty years old.” “Yes, it was then and there that I decided to be a painter,” he said. A fine decision, I thought, to myself. Often some of us don’t follow our hearts and regret it for the rest of our lives. How many would be poets end up as accountants? Deciding to be an artist is a romantic choice and sticking to it can be viewed as foolhardy by those that want a practical and financially successful life. Thank God, for people like Stephen who looking at the sea, saw his future.

“The hard thing,” he said, looking rather intently at the canvas, “is getting into the zone.” The ‘zone’ is that magic place where things appear to go right as you are doing them. I know the zone myself from writing when the words start coming from somewhere within your consciousness and, more often, when they don’t. “Sometimes everything seems to fall together, but it is hard to get there,” he said. Painting is a struggle, each brushstroke a fight. I enjoy watching Stephen look at me, take a stab at the painting, sit back and look at what he has done and then repeat the process. It’s likely more fun for me than him, but I do know that he enjoys the act of painting even if it is often a fight.

In realistic painting, directly from the subject, like the portrait Stephen is doing now, there are times when the painting takes over from the subject matter. This is when you find that you are painting without looking at the subject. In the end, a painting is its own thing–an object, and to use Harold Rosenberg’s term, an ‘anxious object’ and not, as Plato would have us believe, a pale imitation of reality. We have talked a fair bit about what is real in realism. Friends, who have seen this sketch even its early stages, have remarked how Stephen has nailed me. It looks more like me than I do, they remark, but this is no slick photo realist portrait. It is boldly painted in broad marks and, I know, by the time it is finished it will be thickly encrusted with paint.

Last night at my regular Wednesday night salon, if you want to call drinking and eating with a bunch of friends, a salon, somebody remarked that the painting made me look like The Smoking Man in The X-Files. I don’t know if Stephen, who was there, took that as a complement, but I did. I like the idea of a man of mystery even if I stopped smoking fifty years ago. “Nothing interests me more than art. The rest is boring,” Stephen said just before he suggested a coffee break. He needed coffee to have the energy to paint and I needed to stay awake. It’s not that I was bored, but, being an old guy, I usually take an afternoon nap and if I sit too long I start to nod off. A break also gives me chance to see what Stephen has been up to.

VH 25 july 13The picture seemed to be taking shape, the result of more paint and looking on his part. I did like what I saw. I had painted some self-portraits in the past, but, in addition to being mirror images (backwards because of the use of mirrors) that were nowhere as good as Stephen’s painting. What is the idea of portraiture? Flatter the sitter? Record what someone looks like for history? Stop a moment in time both for the sitter and viewer? Perhaps all of these things, but great portraiture is something more. I brought the subject up while we were still drinking our coffee. “ What do you think of Goya’s portraits,” I asked, “The funny ones of the royal family?” “He was a good enough painter to get away it,” he answered, “ They are honest pictures of real people even if they were the King and Queen.” “Not at all like Velazquez’s paintings of Philip IV,” I said, “In reality, Philip was drop dead ugly.” “But, they were nonetheless beautiful paintings,” he countered. Hard to argue that. So portraits can be truthful or flattering and still be great art. It is the artist who makes the difference and not the subject. “How about Lucian Freud’s portrait of the Queen?” Stephen said. I had to agree that it is an official painting of the Queen that I am sure most of her loyal subjects hate, but it would be interesting to know what she thinks.

virgil himselfBack sitting for my sitting my ‘official’ portrait and thinking what future generations might think: “Now there is an ugly man.” or “The painter did best he could having what he had to contend with.” I really hope that young women would say: “Now, there is a handsome fellow, if he were not dead, I would fall in love with him.” I guess that I will have to leave the results to Stephen as love after you are dead is a moot point. “Stephen, you must be careful. I have got my vanity to think about,” I said, not wanting to be like the subject of a Freud portrait where it is a great painting, but the subject is to be pitied. “Not to worry,” he said, “I paint them the way I see them.” Not sure that was the answer that I wanted, we continued with our conversation about painting and, in particular, portraiture. “You know someone else I like is Graham Sutherland. There are a bunch of his portraits in the Beaverbrook (Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick),” he said, “I first saw them when I was very young on school outing to the gallery.” “Yes, there are are a lot of studies for his portraits as well. I really like the drawings of hands,” I said. “Me too,” he said, “ Sutherland got into a lot of trouble for his portrait of Churchill. Winnie did like the painting very much. I think that he destroyed it.” “ Rather like Freud’s painting of the queen, but, at least, it still in one piece. I think some of studies for the Churchill painting are at the Beaverbrook,” I added.

“There is certainly the question of control when it comes to portraiture–the sitter or the painter,” I said, “ Conventional thinking might say, he who pays the piper calls the tune.” I told Stephen that I was thinking in terms of commissions like those for university presidents and C.E.O.s. rather than the kind of thing that we were doing now. “I know I would have a hard time with something like that,” he said, “I am likely too set in my ways.” “I think if you are good enough and, I believe that you are, that sitter will let you do what needs to be done,” I said, “The Queen didn’t tell Freud what to do and, for that matter, neither did Churchill tell Sutherland how he should paint. Mind you, he did trash the work.” “Of course, Churchill was an amateur painter and likely thought himself an amateur art critic as well,” Stephen said. “But, so was Hitler,” I added. On that note, we decided to call it day. “How about Ducky’s for beer?” he said. “Sounds like a plan,” I replied.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, 9 September, 2013.


  1. Getting there man. Incredible.

  2. I enjoy the conversation about the art almost as much as I enjoy the artwork, itself. Take your time, gentlemen, we don’t want this collaboration to end any time too soon!

    • Don’t worry, it should go to over twenty posts.

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