Chantal Joffe and Elizabeth Peyton are two of my favourite portrait painters so I was really excited that they were showing just around the corner from each other in London's Mayfair in February 2016.
Peyton was showing at Sadies Coles' Davies Street gallery so I started there. I was pleased to see that as well as her usual portraiture there were a few surprises. She had created several coloured pencil drawings, two linocuts and even a landscape painting! I have been meaning to experiment with coloured pencils in my own practice since being inspired by David Hockney’s beautiful renditions of people in his ‘Portraits’ show at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006. Seeing Peyton’s use of colour pencils re-ignited that feeling of wanting to use a childhood medium in an adult environment.
I loved the electricity of ‘Phoebe’ 2015 (top right), because of the bold coloured pencil marks and strong black outlines to the hairline and neck. For me, it looks like Peyton has studied the subject in such detail until she has found these unrealistic colours - at least four different colours in the eyebrows and eight plus in the skin tones. The colours bring so much to the image because they express such a vibrant personality despite the eyes being so deep in thought. I like how Peyton is not afraid to use her surface as a palette, trying out her colours in the bottom right hand corner of the actual drawing. I feel this opens up her practice for artists to understand it.
Another highlight for me was the watercolour 'Sea (Kristian)' 2016 (top left). I liked the use of large sweeps of watery, muted coloured marks to create his facial features without any pencil as guidance. Something that I share with Peyton is the use of unapologetic marks, bold and no attempt to disguise the mark making or colour choices. Peyton though is particularly brave to do this in watercolour as there is no hiding of mistakes with this medium. She fully celebrates the marks by using large blocks of colour and it is only the paper that adds a subtlety to how this is manifested.
Having come away with a number of things to try from that exhibition, it was a short journey to the next one. Chantal Joffe's show at Victoria Miro's St George Street gallery was wonderful, a large collection of small scale works depicting her favourite subjects of women and children plus a new interest of depicting her favourite American poets. These included Sylvia Plath who I am very familiar with and Anne Sexton (who was Sylvia's friend and class mate) and their tutor Robert Lowell.
I'm always excited to see Joffe's paintings and analyse how they have been created. She uses such bold grounds including electric pink and luminous lime green. I often start my paintings from the bareness of the white gesso, without considering a different colour as a starting point but then sometimes feel it leaves the figure floating so I add a background colour to compensate for this. Another feature of her work that inspired me is the sketching of the figures and faces out with raw umber, this is something I never do, I just block in colours straight away without an outline to work within. You can see this technique on the right ear in 'Self-portrait in a Red Jumper' 2015 (bottom right). I think this stood out for me in contrast to Peyton’s 'Sea (Kristian)' where you don’t see any sketching at all. I do enjoy seeing the workings out of a painting at times as it offers a way in to the techniques of the artist.
I love the beautiful simplicity of Joffe’s paint, she often dilutes oil paints with mediums which creates the illusion of it still being wet and fresh, with drips and movement to draw attention to the materiality of the paint. I find the celebration of paint thrilling. The fluidity is just stunning and the simplicity of her marks are subtle, yet bold and always full of colour. She has said previously that the secret of painting is 'finding a balance between excitement and control. Keeping your colours clean, the brushes and the palette and not let it get muddy'. I think we can all learn from that!
As I moved on to the paintings of the American poets, I was intrigued as to whether Joffe’s motivations for painting famous people differed to my own. I feel when I paint people who I admire that the concentration on the face whilst making the portrait briefly immerses me in their lives and allows time for contemplation of their lifestyles and personality. 'Ted and Sylvia' 2015 (bottom left) is based on a photograph of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In the painting however, Joffe has managed to use Plath’s hands to create a tension between the underlying insecurity that she felt whilst still wearing a smile. Although the ground is white in this painting, it still exemplifies how Joffe makes it an integral part of the painting and creates a depth to the work allowing her to use less marks on the surface. For me, this creates an unspoken sadness which is present in many of Joffe’s works and leaves you wanting to know more about the subjects of the paintings. She evens achieves this with the painting of Plath whose suicide is fairly well documented.
I haven’t painted anyone famous for a while so seeing these works made me feel that I must do a painting of Patti Smith whose books 'Just Kids' and 'M Train' I felt myself totally absorbed in the atmosphere of and I want to connect to that feeling again through creating a portrait of her.
What was new to Joffe's practice were the drawings in oil pastel on paper. These naive pastel works look like they took longer and are more difficult to Joffe than her paintings. The faces are more jarring and crude, as trying to get control with a pastel stick on a surface of approx A3 size is a skill. I like that she has kept in the style of her paintings and not shaded or blended the oil pastel colours rather leaving them to be bold graphic colours. In some ways similar to how Peyton created 'Sea (Kristian)' 2016 (top left) allowing the colours to just be bold marks within themselves. I had never seen drawings by Joffe before so it was good to be able to think about the difference between them and her paintings and how the two influence each other. I am currently drawing much more than I have done in the past and I can see how this is having a good influence on my concentration and attention to details for my painting.
Reflecting on both the shows made me thankful for the chance to look at so many portraits that were made using different mediums and with a range of techniques, some of which were similar to my own and others quite different. It left me eager to get back to the studio and experiment so for the months ahead I want to incorporate some or all of the following into my work:
Materials to revisit: coloured pencils, linocuts and oil pastels.
Inspiration: to work on coloured grounds including black, to work back
on boards, mix gesso and varnish to create new grounds.
Poets to research: Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.
Painting to do: portrait of Patti Smith.
To find out: what is the thick white shiny ground Peyton uses for her work.