The Five-Day Portrait

This week, rather than alla prima portrait sketches, I spent five days at a portrait painting workshop held by the Barcelona Academy of Art in Barcelona, Spain.

Barcelona Academy of Art is one in a string of private art schools that have popped up in recent years, mostly across Europe and the United States, that are rediscovering the ‘Classical-Realist’ methods of traditional artistic ateliers originating in the Renaissance and re-popularised in the 18th/ 19th century. These schools put students through a rigorous 3-4 year training programme of copying from ‘Bargue plates’ (lithographs made by 19th French artist Charles Bargue of classical casts and body parts); drawing from plaster casts of classical sculptures, drawing from the life model, and finally working up to painting still-lives, the figure and portraits.

For many, these schools represent a rejection of current teaching methods in art education which focus on individual artistic exploration rather than teaching particular methods or techniques. For students interested in exploring traditional mediums such as drawing, painting and sculpture, these schools offer a new safe haven – a place where you can receive ‘proper’ art training.

But that’s something for another article…

Portrait painting workshop

On the first day, around 20 students, some full-time students at the school getting in an extra holiday-workshop, others a variety of beginners, hobbyists and professional artists, assemble in the Multimedia room – it has a projector. There’s a low murmur of awkward chatter while we wait for someone who looks like they’re in charge to get started.

Every morning we have two hours of theory – an introduction to the sight-size method, tonal underpainting, colour theory, examples of work by portrait artists throughout art history. All quite interesting and good Spanish practice for me as the class is taught in both English and Spanish. But I sense that most people struggle to concentrate on the theory for too long and are itching to just get painting so morning attendance dwindles throughout the week.

The best thing about this course, which is different to other portrait classes I’ve been to, is that we have one portrait model between two students rather than one or two models between the whole class. It’s so great to be able to work so closely to the model rather than straining to see a pea-sized head through a sea of easels, bobbing heads and waving paintbrushes.

Our model is a young woman called Magalí with amazing long frizzy hair, giant 80s grandma glasses and a ring through her septum. I like a model with a bit of attitude. She also has great bone structure and a beautifully shaped face. Most days she comes in tired from the night before, topping herself up with caffeine at every break and constantly switching her legs, left, right, cross-legged, trying to find a comfortable position. Sitting still for three hours in the same position every day is pretty tough and her self-conscious fidgeting makes me smile. It nice to be able to break the serious, hypnotised state you can find yourself in when painting.

We were painting sight-size – i.e. the size that we saw the model form a particular distance, which we return to each day. I’m not a particular fan of sight-size – you and the model inevitably move slightly which throws off any ‘accurate’ lines you’ve drawn in, so you either get obsessed with getting it right and waste endless hours chasing a constantly moving pose, or quickly start drawing using relative proportions anyway. So why not just make a compositional decision from the beginning about how big and where on your canvas you want the portrait, rather than being limited by your particular set up. But hey, always good to work in different ways.

We started with a tonal underpainting and then each day started to add in layers of colour, starting with bigger, more general shapes and getting more precise and particular about smaller shapes as we returned to the portrait each day. I like this way of working, particularly the concept of abstracting what you see.

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4

I tried to forget that I was at the school and just paint how I naturally paint. In more ridged environments like this I always find myself getting tighter and less confident with my brushstrokes and colour choices, so I have to listen to music or podcasts to help me zone out, which inevitably makes me anti-social but more comfortable. But it is a treat to have a large, dedicated studio space to use. I can leave my paints and brushes ready for the next day, I don’t have to worry about getting paint on the sofa. Also, being around other people painting and seeing different approaches is something I miss.

To be honest I was expecting to receive more feedback – the course is not cheap, and aside from the model and studio, we’re really paying for the expertise and insight of the teachers. Unfortunately, lots of students and not many teachers meant that we barely got any individual attention. At some point, I think every teacher suggested I smooth out the paint, highlighting the single aesthetic ideal that the school aspires to, but to their credit, they didn’t mind when I said I preferred a looser style, and some in hushed tones said that actually they prefer that too.

So what did I learn. If I could afford to pay a model to sit for multiple sessions, I would definitely like to do that more. Each day you get to paint the portrait again, every time learning from what worked and what didn’t work before, and each layer adds depth and interest. And more importantly, you get to learn more about the model. Even without speaking, observing someone in this intimate way for hours every day, how they are when they come in, how they deal with sitting still for 3 hours, how they react every time the buzzer goes off to take a break, how their face, expression and body language changes throughout the pose and across the days, it all gives you some insight into the person behind the pose. This you can’t get from a photo.

Mostly, I’m glad I got out of the flat.