1000 word Contextual Studies Essay

When painting a portrait, an artist is faced with many choices of how to portray their subject. They can either paint with some sort of realism, where the aim is to create something that looks lifelike, or they can paint in a way that exposes the mechanics of their technique; the brushstrokes or colours are clearly visible.

So my question is; which style works better in engaging the viewer, and what can I take from both to incorporate inThe
photorealistic approach of someone like Chuck Close allows the viewer of the
painting to relate to the subject, because they appear so very real. The pores
in the subject’s skin are visible, the hairs on their face too. It creates a
very intimate, personal portrait that the viewer is able to get close to, and
they really have an opportunity to see the subject up close because of the size
of the painting. Close’s paintings expose a lot of the aesthetics of a face,
but his subjects are usually blank, cold, mug shot like studio-taken images
void of any emotion. While his attention to detail is something I’d love to
attempt incorporating into my own work, his lack of emotion does not appeal to
me.to my own portraits?

In contrast, French artist Francoise Nielly’s vivid, expressionist portraits offer a bold, angsty alternative. While the subjects are still painted from studio-taken images, and the paintings are still scaled up to large, close up faces, the use of colour and thick, palette knife slashes create a livelier, emotive portrait. The colour and energy she throws into her work is amazing, and has inspired me to start being more sporadic in my painting.

Close’s photorealistic work has an ability to alienate the viewer; his work is so detailed and precise that his subjects look almost like scientific specimens, or fragile pieces of meat. For the viewer, something familiar like a human face becomes suddenly unfamiliar; it’s as if the face is being broken down under a microscope into skin, bone, hair and muscle. As a viewer of his work I’m not sure I like this. It unnerves me, because it is too familiar, because “within the great family of images, the most troubling of all…is the realistic image”(Breuvart, 2002, 164). But as an artist, I find this so impressive, and I’d love to be able to try something similar in a portrait.

It is not often we are able to get so close to someone’s face as this, so this
intimacy may unnerve the viewer, as it would be socially unacceptable to be
this close to a stranger in real life. Similarly, the detail and fragility of
the skin in the paintings may have the viewer questioning their own mortality
when they are seeing themselves as pieces of meat too.

For Nielly, it is not her panting style that initially unnerves the viewer, but her subject matter. Her subjects are primarily brooding and agressive, heightened afterwards by the aggressive way in which the paint has slashed across the canvas. (see fig.2) Where the subjects Close works from look blank, Nielly’s subjects are confident, provocative and intimidating. My own portrait’ subjects can sometimes seem naive, and twee, so I think I should start using edgier, more provocative subject matter.

Thesubjects in Nielly’s paintings are usually lit from above, casting heavy
shadows across the subject. Combined with the craned necks and tilted faces, it
appears as if Nielly’s subjects are ascending, triumphant.

Close’s portraits, in contrast, are lit from the front, adding to the photorealistic, artificial feel, by making it seem like there’s been a camera flashing. While I do work from photographs, I don’t like the idea that the viewer can tell I’ve worked from a photograph, because I don’t see the point in recreating a photo using paint on a larger scale when you could just print it.

I’d rather use the high contrasting, heavily shadowed lighting that Nielly uses, because it picks up all the creases in people’s faces when they’re laughing or crying or generally showing emotion.

do like both painting styles, but I find Close’s to be depressing and extremely
anal. As impressive as his style is, I don’t want to produce a negative
reaction when people view my work. At the same time, while I appreciate
Nielly’s use of neon colour, it doesn’t appeal to me either, because I feel she
loses a lot of the character of her subject when she uses such bold colours.
The subject appears more an afterthought, while the colour is the
attention-grabbing aspect. She has proven this herself by applying the same
technique to a painting of a dog, and receiving the same bold effect without a
dramatic subject. (see fig.3)

is, however, a lot I can learn from both painters. I feel the need to work on a
larger scale, be more expressive, more colourful, and more provocative, but at
the same time, I need to refine my technique and be more patient when doing
large pieces. I also think I should be using more layers when I paint,
something both Close and Nielly do which works extremely well.

In my own work, I attempt to create a realistic portrait, but use vibrant, eye
catching colours at the same time; a happy medium between both Close and
Nielly. (see fig.4) I dislike using backgrounds in my work, but something I can
learn from both artists is that a background can still have the blank look I
want even if it isn’t white, so I should start trying block colours as


Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin. (Penguin on design).

Breuvart, V. (2002) Vitamin P – new perspectives in painting. London: Phaidon.

Craventvart- Francoise Nielly, 2011, online video, accessed 7 November 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hT_l3XyKo8&gt;.

Finch, C.(2010) Close Up. [online] Available at:  http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/close_7_1_10/   [Accessed 6 November 2012]

Friedman, M. (2005) Close reading: Chuck Close and the artist portrait. New York: Abrams.


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