The Rite of Spring – a proposal for a painting

preliminary sketches for painting inspired by The Rite of Spring

A few months ago I prepared a proposal for a really interesting art competition/bursary – The Concord Art Prize. Artists were invited to propose an artwork inspired by one of a list of ten pieces of music (I chose The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky). Shortlisted artists would be paid to produce their work. Definitely one to look out for next year.
Anyway, my proposal wasn’t accepted for the next round, which brought to a rather abrupt end a frenetic period where I was immersing myself in the music, exploring ideas, making numerous sketches and trying to produce something suitably compelling. Now I have to decide whether to continue working on the project, without funding or a prospective home for the finished painting.

In my proposal, I broke the composition into three sections:
In the first section I tried to capture something of the first tentative signs of spring, signalled by that wonderful bassoon in the original music, suggesting a new beginning. The end of winter; a time of joy and restored hope This was also at a time we were finally looking forward to a return to normality after the pandemic. I chose to depict three “maidens”, dressed in contemporary summer dresses; with a bouncing stride emerging from over the horizon on the left of the painting. More “The Sound of Music” than pagan Russia

the three graces

The next section is about the pounding, primal rhythm; the overt sexuality that pervades most of the work. Dancing and cavorting; all passion, desire and curiosity. In my preliminary sketch I featured a statue of Pan, with one woman touching the statue, while another couple, totally self absorbed, are cavorting at the foot. Other figures would be added in the area around the statue. I wanted it to look busy, chaotic, full of energy.

statue of pan

I wanted to end with a growing sense of menace. This time the pounding rhythm shouts danger. This final section has a woman in obvious distress, trying to avoid the clutches of sweaty, pot-bellied older men. I envisaged the men in grubby t-shirts and Y-fronts. There is nothing playful or innocent about this scene. I want there to be a stark contrast, a jarring change of tone, with the frivolities of the middle section. There would be a small crowd gathering behind.

finale to rite of spring painting

It’s been two months since I learned that my proposal wasn’t accepted. My initial reaction was to shelve everything. A large painting like this would take a considerable investment in time and money. Aside from the considerable cost of materials, there is the difficult task of finding models and arranging sittings; and that’s before you even put brush to canvas.
I embarked on a similar project some years ago – The Feast of Venus. I’d been invited to contribute to an exhibition with that theme. Having already spent a fortune on hiring models and renting studio space, I soon realised that I would miss the deadline for the exhibition. So instead of doing the sensible thing and abandoning the project, I went on regardless, and it turned into a quagmire, eating up all my time, money and energy. I did eventually finish the painting, but at considerable expense. I promised myself “never again!”

men in suits
Another larger painting. Men in Suits

Well, I don’t always follow my own advice, and have since completed a few more larger compositions (Men in Suits for example, above). The difference this time is that these recent paintings have all been very focused on a common theme of sexuality, physical menace and the male gaze. That focus has made the execution of my ideas go quite smoothly. And I see this new project as a continuation of my work on the subject.
Which brings me to my dilemma. Having invested a couple of weeks work to get to this early stage, do I forget about it, and save myself a load of money, or do I proceed, and risk it turning into an act of sheer folly.
Hmm, decisions, decisions.

In the studio – working methods

work in progress
detail from work in progress

I am always amazed with how a painting evolves from just a vague idea into something with a life of its own. I’ve been working on this particular painting for a few months. It has been constantly changing, but I think I may have arrived at the final layout.
The section above has seen the most changes. Originally it just had the settee with the two figures on it, but that left the composition unbalanced. So then I had the idea of adding the Three Graces; or a contemporary equivalent: three archetypal women. I already had an idea for a couple of the faces (Marilyn Monroe and Madonna), but I still had to find a model to pose. This provided me with the sketches at the top for my reference.
But still this little corner of the painting looked a bit empty. And then these two male figures in the background almost inserted themselves. As well as balancing the composition, they also tied up a few loose ends in the narrative – archetypal alpha males Presidents Trump and Biden), either waving their arms about trying to get everyone’s attention, or invading some poor woman’s space (or rather nuzzling their neck and giving an unwelcome “shoulder-squeeze).

First Steps in Commissioning a Portrait

Why commission a portrait?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I can only speak from the perspective of an artist. When I look at the portraits I have painted, I consider them as a record of the time spent with the sitter – whether it was just a single session, or a number of repeat sittings. During that time I was able to familiarise myself with not just the appearance of the sitter, but their overall demeanour and personality. I believe that contributes towards the final artwork being far more than just a record of the sitter in a static pose, frozen in time. The whole process of producing the portrait, from the initial enquiry, through the various stages, is very much a cooperative exercise between artist and sitter.

How to commission a portrait.

  1. Find an artist. It is important to find an artist where you feel a connection with their work. I would have said that art fairs and open studios are a great way to check out lots of artists, but I’m afraid they might not properly resume for quite a while. Thankfully, it is a lot easier now to peruse the work of various artists than it ever was, with most artists having an online presence – whether it’s a website or an Instagram account. Try to find examples of their previous commissions.
  2. Contact the artist. Unless an artist specifies that messages should be directed to their gallery, they will probably welcome enquiries about a prospective commission. Sadly, artists with online presences will attract more than their share of bogus messages and scams, so it might reassure them to give your phone number, or at least your full name, so they can try to verify your identity.
  3. Discuss the brief. An artist cannot provide you with a price unless certain parameters have been decided. The most important will be the size of the finished portrait, and then the type of pose – head and shoulders, half body, full body, two figures. Each adds a level of complexity to the painting, and will incur an additional cost. Even a complicated background, compared to a blocked out colour, will cost a bit more. So it’s a good idea to decide on these things at an early stage. The artist should be able to guide you through the decision making process, and then he will be able to give you a price.
  4. The contract. Some artists will require you to sign a contract and pay a deposit. Others, including myself, may only require that expenses and materials are paid for in advance. However you agree, whether by phone conversation, zoom call or email correspondence, it is important to have that final agreement in writing, to avoid any future misunderstandings. If there’s is completion date, you should make that clear with the initial discussions. Oil paints take time to dry between layers, and some working methods take longer than others.
  5. The sitting. Some artists will work exclusively from life, whereas others will work only from photos. This is something you should consider when first approaching artists (they should make their working methods clear on their website). Can you get to their studio? Is the artist prepared to travel to you? I personally insist on at least one sitting for a portrait painting. I am not happy with painting from supplied photos. I find the initial drawings are an essential element in the process. Apart from getting to know the sitter, the process of looking at the sitter reveals far more about them than a photo can tell me.

So, we’ve arrived at the stage where the artist will commence painting. This is the exciting bit. I find the initial sitting is like preparing the stage for a play. Decisions are made about the background (the setting), and how the performer will present themselves to the audience (the artist, and eventually viewers of the painting). This is the most collaborative stage in the whole process. Sometimes ideas present themselves straight away, and other times it can take take some effort to work them out.

So there are a few tips on the first steps in commissioning a portrait. I can’t pretend that it won’t require an investment of time, but it doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment in money. Of course, the first step is find that artist, and get in touch with them.

New Model

I had a life drawing session with a new model last weekend. I want to start collecting material for a new series of paintings, where the model is set within a domestic environment, in natural poses; either relaxing, bathing or doing chores. It’s a return to a theme I worked on about ten years ago.
The sitting went well enough. As it turned out, we didn’t move out of the kitchen, as the light was so good in there.