Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sad Eyes (Part I)

Having your portrait painted is a fascinating and thought provoking experience.

Two years ago, I was asked to sit for a portrait as part of a painting to be hung in a City Livery Hall. For some reason I felt unsure about this but the person who requested it is very persuasive so resistance was futile. I sat where I was told to sit.

And I am really glad that I did.

The process that Hynek Martinec the incredible artist followed was very interesting. It took two years from start to finish. It started with a photograpy session that lasted about an hour. I started off wearing my suit and tie and loking very formal. He took a few snaps. Then he asked if I would mind loosening my tie a little and undoing my top button. So I did. "Good, good" he said as he snapped away. I felt like a model and began to "work it" a bit.

Then he said he wanted to try something. His assistants smiled and nodded enthusiastically. He flipped my loosened tie over one shoulder. "That's great" they all said and I felt a warm glow as I saw myself on a future edition of "The CIty's Next Top Model". Would I mind taking my jacket off? That's fine. Snap, snap. Lovely. Perfect. Can we undo just one more button? Sure! Snap, snap, snap. Smile. Smile. Let me just take your glasses and balance them at a jaunty angle across your nose. Go right ahead my good man. I'm a Top Model don't you know. This is the sort of  thing a Top Model does. I think.

I can see how a Top Model like me could easily have ended up in his underwear, drapped across the meeting room table. I was putty in the hands of the man with the camera. But fortunately he had got the photographs he needed so he left me to gather up my clothes (okay, put my jacket back on).

We shook hands and that was that. I did wonder why he didn't just take one of the photos, blow it up, frame it and that's job done. Surely a portrait is a portrait whether it is an oil painting or a photo.

18 months later when I saw a near-finished work in progress I started to understand the difference.

One evening, we were invited to a little workshop tucked away down a long anonymous corridor in a high, grey building in the heart of Brixton. I walked in to the room, glanced at the wall and did a double take. There I was on the wall looking right back at me, through sad eyes.

The experience of looking at an oil painting of myself, painted by a brilliant artist such as Hynek Martinec is so different from anything else I have experienced. I have seen photos of myself, holiday snaps, professional photos. I once gave a speech at London's Imax centre and behind me on a screen was what looked like a 30 foot picture of my own head looking down at me. I've watched myself being interviewed on TV (cringing behind the sofa). I've laughed, through gritted teeth, at cartoon caricatures of my long neck and big ears.

But it appears that when an artist of this calibre paints you in oil, he looks into your soul. Or perhaps he invites you to look into your own soul. It's not like looking in a mirror. It's a different experience. The Tom in the painting is looking at me, trying to tell me something. Trying to warn me about something. The Tom on the wall knows me. He sees me from the inside out.

As I stood in the little workshop, communicating with Tom-on-the-wall, I felt profoundly sad. And also in awe of the artist who had created this amazing work. How can someone have so much skill? Not just the technical skill to reproduce an image so precisely but the ability to invite you, the sitter, to have a deep conversation with yourself.

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