The Gleaners, after Millet

the gleaners
The Gleaners after Millet

The Gleaners – a painting about social exclusion and inequality

It took longer than expected, but I finished it in the end. I needed the help of a terrific life model who helped me rework the foreground figures, and somewhat changed the look of the whole painting. I feel that when I put my easel in front of someone, whether it is a paid model model or paying portrait customer, the process of painting them is very much a collaboration. This was another example of a successful collaboration with a model where the end result is different, and better than my original design.

the artist and the model in front of their painting
the artist and the model

“The Gleaners” started off as a simple reimagining of the Millet painting of the same name. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to produce, but ideas don’t always transfer smoothly onto the canvas. As with the subject of Millet’s painting, I wanted to say something about social exclusion and inequality.

the gleaners and film still from the shout

It all began when I happened upon a still image from the 1978 film “The Shout”. Susannah York is seen scurrying across the floor on all fours, like some primeval creature. I saw similarities in this pose with the main figures in Millet’s “The Gleaners”, and immediately set about composing a contemporary version of that painting, with the creepy black and white photo of Susannah York as reference for the main figures. And that was the start of my problems.

Original sketch and first underpainting on canvas

I actually started this project just over a year ago! Early progress between first sketch and the initial underpainting was good. But there is a month between each of the three progress photos shown here (above and below,) and there’s not a great deal of progress. By the end I had even thrown in a SpaceX Starship departing a desolate wasteland in the distance. But for all my tweaks, the main figures of the gleaners were just not progressing.

And then I watched a tv documentary that changed everything.

It was an episode of the Art Mysteries (Sky Arts) where the wonderful Waldemar Januszczak uncovers secret meanings hidden within Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. You can watch it on YouTube here.

The Incredible Story Behind Mr and Mrs Andrews (Waldemar Januszczak Documentary)

Gainsborough may have been alluding to the Enclosure Acts, which denied commoners access to what had previously been common land. The intended theme for my painting was social exclusion and inequality, so I thought it quite apt to borrow the layout from “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. It also offered a tidy way of opening up the stage, allowing the introduction of more actors. Fenced off green fields were a fitting backdrop for what I was trying to say, and I could bring the desolate wasteland to the foreground.

I would like to say that it was all plain sailing from then on. But that wasn’t the case. The change of background helped, and I added a number of figures to the group, which worked well. But the problem was with the “gleaners” in the foreground. From the very inception of this project over a year ago, they were meant to be the focal point of this painting. But I couldn’t get these emaciated figures to work.

Search for a life model

By this stage (August 2022) I realised that I would have to find a model to work with, in order to finish these three figures. I posted about it here.
Luckily I found a model who was interested in the project and had a great look for the painting. In fact, the whole look of the painting changed after working with her. Out went the emaciated look, in came the haunting backward stare. From here on it was plain sailing, and the painting was finished for its debut at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair.

I particularly enjoy working with models who are invested in the project – who are interested in the creative process. When I showed this painting to big crowds at the Cluster Contemporary exhibition in London, it was the backward stare of the model that drew most attention from visitors – something I hadn’t planned until after I met her. When I look at my more successful compositions, I see how they are very much a collaboration between myself and the model, just as a portrait is a collaboration between artist and sitter.

Preparations for an art fair

painting the gleaners, a work in progress
The Gleaners, unfinished

The unveiling of The Gleaners

I will be showing my most recent paintings at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair in London, early November. One of the paintings that I am keen to show is The Gleaners – a work in progress, shown above. I hope I can finish it in time. You can learn more about it here.
The other two paintings that I will have on display will be “Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars” and “Men Wrestling”. Both very topical during this time of increased tension, and war in Ukraine.

detail from alleged assault on pax by mars, with trump and biden
detail from Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars, with preparatory sketches.

The photo above shows  sketches for the three figures behind the sofa, who each represent an archetypal modern woman (two of them are based on Madonna and Marilyn Monroe). It might give an idea of just how much preparatory work goes into these compositions, with each figure requiring a separate sitting and preparatory drawings.

detail of painting with putin naked, on golden throne
detail from Men Wrestling

It’s always nice to talk to people about my work, and to see people’s reactions. The fair runs from 4th-6th November. I’ll try to get along on most days, but if you’re planning a visit, send me a message, and I will make sure I am there.

Working methods – composing a painting and looking for a model

the gleaners, work in progress. A painting about social exclusion and inequality
Work in progress – The Gleaners

The Gleaners, a work in progress

I’m having some problems with my painting The Gleaners, and am looking for a suitable life model to help me finish it – someone with a slightly haunted look would be ideal.
The Gleaners is a composition loosely based on Millet’s painting of the same name, and also borrows a lot from Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough. It is a painting about social exclusion and inequality. It is a painting for our times.

I’m happy with how I’m assembling the cast in the background…..

prince william and kate and liz truss in detail from my painting the Gleaners - a painting about social exclusion and inequality

prince andrew and rees-mog in detail from the gleaners, a work in progress

… but I am having a few problems with the foreground figures –
the “Gleaners”.

the gleaners

I have adapted my working methods for my latest paintings.  In the past I would have a model pose for every single figure in a composition. It was a frustratingly slow and very expensive process – every time I wanted to adjust one of the figures, I would have to find someone to pose for me again.
Because my recent paintings have included a growing cast of public figures, including politicians and royalty, I have obviously been unable to arrange personal sittings with them, and have instead had to search for reference material in the public domain. That has gone surprisingly well. Public figures are clearly fond of having their photos taken, so there is a wealth of material to draw from.
No, the problem has been with my foreground figures.

figures of figures from the gleaners by millet, and film still from the film the shout

I had the idea of using a creepy old film still from the film “The Shout” as the reference for one of the gleaners. I wanted my gleaners to be emaciated figures desperately scavenging for scraps in an arid landscape.  Try as I may, I can’t get it to work. I can’t “glean” enough information from the old B&W shot, and I’m thinking that the emaciated look is unnecessary and a bit clumsy. So I decided to rework the poses, and I am now looking for someone to pose for the front three figures in my painting.
This problem got me thinking about my working methods, and how they have changed over the years, as my studios shrunk along with my savings.
I shudder to think of how many sittings I arranged when I started the Feast of Venus.

preparatory life drawrings for the painting the feast of venus
preparatory drawings for Feast of Venus

That particular painting was an epic fail on my part. It was painted in response to an invite to participate in an exhibition. Sadly I missed the deadline by about six months, and haven’t had any good opportunities to show the painting since. Sadly this experience has discouraged me from developing some of my more ambitious projects.
I learned a lot about the technical challenges in creating a larger composition with multiple figures, but the main lesson was that I have to complete paintings within a reasonable timescale, especially when I have a deadline to meet.