The story of a portrait.


My dear friend, Mr B, has a talent for taking striking photographs. On a trip we made to Burma several years ago, he took the below picture of a novice in the grounds of a temple in Mandalay. I had forgotten all about this picture until it fell out of a book one day last week. It seemed to demand I do something with it, but portraits are very difficult to paint successfully so I put off the task, placing the picture in my pending tray. However, the subject seemed to resent this deferment. Every time I glimpsed at him he seemed to be issuing an appeal. Finally, I relented. 



As well as the technical difficulties, one of my problems in creating a portrait is acquiring suitable paper. To build up skin tones requires a smooth, highly water-absorbent paper and this is seemingly impossible to find in Chiang Mai. However, armed with my Thai dictionary, I visit a number of art shops and try to convey what I am looking for. It seems that they only have good quality paper with a ‘rough’ texture. For a smooth texture I can find only cheaper papers that have the quality of card. Well, it’s this or nothing.


Placing the photograph on the paper, I decide to increase the size fourfold. I always start a portrait with my favourite part - the eyes. I measure the length and height of the eyes, multiply by 4, make a few dots on the paper to get me started and then just plunge in.


It doesn’t concern me that my sketch makes the boy look older. Actually, I quite like this. I am not being commissioned to create a likeness after all. The important thing is to retain some quality of the subject. The thing that most strikes me in the boy’s face is the seriousness in his expression. The eyes seem to be beseeching. I feel even at this early stage that I will be able to link this portrait with my own feelings about the atrocious political situation in Myanmar and I form a good idea of what I will call the painting when it is completed.


In the photograph the boy is lit very strongly by back lighting that catches his head and shoulders. I will retain this as it helps gives the picture strength and depth of tone. I will also retain the shape of the sculpture in the background. I believe it is part of a lotus design that is often found in Buddhist art and that will help to place the subject. Moreover, by shading one side it will help me emphasize the curved shape of the boy’s head and shoulders and add a dark tone to contrast with the brightly lit head. I will make the background generally greenish to compliment the red colour of the robe. The robe’s colour also helps place the subject in Burma. In Thailand the monks wear orange and saffron coloured robes. In Japan they wear brown … and so on.


So far so good….until I begin to add paint to the paper. A good quality, thick paper will absorb water and retain it for a good few moments allowing one to smooth out any hard lines. This paper, however, dries instantly with the result that the boy’s face and shoulders was rendered in a disarming series of stripes. In addition, where I had leant on the bottom half of the paper, oil from my hands and arms has infiltrated the surface making it a no go area for water and pigment, giving the poor boy a blotchy abdomen. Disaster!



No wonder he looks so miserable. But never mind! There’s no turning back now. As  Mr B is fond of saying whenever he encounters a misfortune, (and for him this is normally an hourly occurrence), ‘Turn it to your advantage’.






With this rallying cry in my ears, I remind myself that watercolour is an impressionist medium. If one wanted a realistic portrait one would be better suited to paint in oil. My aim, however, is to create a striking impression; one that will have a strong impact on the viewer. And so I press on, overlaying washes of lemon, crimson and indigo to strategically highlight or darken the form and create an illusion of 3 dimensions.



At last it seems to be taking shape. I prop it up in a chair, step back and consider how it looks from a distance. I am very pleased with the eyes. They have just the intensity I wanted. The expression now is more challenging. The boy has grown up. When I title to painting ‘Free Burma’ it will be more of a command than an appeal. Even the robe, which the young novice had hoisted as a means of keeping cool, has acquired a new meaning in my mind. It suggests the intention of readiness, as though the young man has rolled up his sleeves in preparation for the work ahead.


But the robe needs more work. I need extra shading to make it stand out more from the body and I must darken the folds too. Then I’ll add another wash of crimson to enrich the rather appropriate blood red colour and probably add a finally warm wash to the skin.  And then we’ll see.


And so it goes…. Until finally, I can present to the world….



‘Free Burma’ – a portrait – 35x52cms.




I hope you like it. J