I was saddened to hear of the recent death of painter Lucian Freud, arguably the greatest painter of our age. I reviewed Martin Gayford's wonderful book about Freud: Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud in December and am re-publishing it here as a tribute to him.
Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud by art critic Martin Gayford gives unprecedented access into the otherwise private realm of artist Lucian Freud's studio, and a look at the slow, deliberate process of painting his masterful portraits. Gayford sat for his portrait from November 2003 through July 2004, for hundreds of hours in the same position, with his right leg crossed over his left, wearing the same clothes, bathed in the same pool of light in the darkened studio, sometimes in silence, sometimes in dialog with Freud. He kept a diary as they went along, recording bits of conversation, thoughts and observations. It is from this diary that he has crafted this charming and revelatory book.
What struck me most about this book was the insight into Freud's process -- specifically, how slowly and intentionally he paints and how that would seem to contradict his broad, spontaneous-looking brushstrokes. The portrait in this case starts with a quick charcoal sketch on canvas, over which Freud begins applying paint to the area between the sitter's eyes, working slowly out in all directions, leaving parts of the white canvas unpainted almost until the very end. Intense concentration and looking proceed each brush stroke, and often the stroke is "practiced" by tracing it in the air with his arm. Once on the canvas, if the stroke isn't exactly right, it is wiped off and the process begins again.
The progress is sometimes so slow it is difficult for Gayford to perceive: "I want the picture to move on, I want it to be finished. My hope is that he will begin a new area -- the chin, the scarf, the jacket... LF [as Gayford refers to Freud throughout the book] doesn't seem remotely concerned about hurrying." The quality in Freud's work is "inextricably bound up with emotional honesty and truthfulness." It is this emotional honesty that Freud painstakingly strives for in his work, slowly building a relationship with his sitter, searching with each layer of paint for a deeper understanding and more real representation of his subject -- not just the fleshy corporal outer shell that he depicts so masterfully, but also the complex underlying substrata and depth.
Man with a Blue Scarf is illustrated with over 50 mostly color illustrations of paintings from all periods of Freud's career, photos of Freud at work in his studio, as well as reproductions of the work of other artists who influenced him. The book is sprinkled with Freud's insights and opinions of artists, mostly the old masters, as well as anecdotes about those he has known personally over the course of his long career.
I highly recommend Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud for anyone who has ever painted, is thinking about painting, or simply admires Freud's work.