Lucian Freud

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Man with a Blue Scarf

Portrait painting is fascinating to me. I have been doing it for many years although never with the purpose of really dedicating myself to the process. Over the years I have been drawn to portraits as a means to discover the soul of humans, the story they reveal about themselves with or without words. For a while, I painted my ancestors with their wealth stuck to their heads in ornaments of gold.

A couple of years ago I read a book about portrait painting written by an art critic. Lucian Freud, perhaps the world’s leading portrait painter, spent seven months painting a portrait of the art critic Martin Gayford. I want to share this with you because it provides insight to the details of the process. Man With a Blue Scarf,  by the way, became the title after the model lost his scarf. His wife suggested he buy another one, which Martin did. The color was not exactly the same. The painter noticed immediately that this was not the same piece of fabric.

A review about the book states the following; “Gayford describes the process chronologically, from the day he arrived for the first sitting through to his meeting with the couple who bought the finished painting, and he vividly conveys what it is like to be on the inside of the process of creating a work of art.

As Freud completes his portrait of Gayford, so the art critic produces his own portrait of the artist, giving a rare insight into Freud’s working practice. Through their wide-ranging conversations, the reader learns not only about Freud’s choice of models, lighting, setting, pose, and colors, but also about his likes and dislikes, his encounters and experiences, and the ways in which he approaches his relationship with each portrait subject. The book is full of revealing anecdotes about the people Freud has met in the course of his long career, including Max Ernst, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, Greta Garbo, and his grandfather Sigmund Freud.

“As he works – shielding his eyes, a quiver of brushes between his fingers, dabbing the canvas “like a person making contact with something hot” – Freud mutters and sighs, criticizing the latest mark, goading himself onwards. This could be any portrait painter at the easel; indeed the painterly process from charcoal underdrawing to claggy conclusion is the least interesting part of the book, partly because how they are made is so evident in the paintings.

As for the old masters, Freud’s insights are piercing and astringent. He cannot love Vermeer for the “curious way his people just aren’t there”. He believes every good painting contains, indeed requires, “a little bit of poison”. It is a pity he doesn’t give more examples, but the poison in Titian – his god – is a sense of mortality; precisely what people see in Freud himself.” – NAME of BOOK

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