My early beginnings in the art of the portrait were not very promising.
As a child, I used to draw faces in the margins of my exercise books all the time (particularly at school). I was not thinking of a person or character; it was a form of doodling in which my pencil would follow an imaginary profile - or a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth.
Even if all these elements turned out to be nicely balanced, I often failed in the final step: drawing the elusive line going from the temples and cheekbones to the chin. Or the actual shape of the hair around the head. When I did try, the result was always awkward and strangely empty.
The trouble was – as I realize now, writing this post – that I was visualizing faces in two dimensions. My (subconscious) models were the illustrations from the picture books and novels I was reading at the time. It never occurred to me that I could look at my teachers or classmates for chin or cheekbones information :o)
|French actress Judith Godrèche, by Paolo Roversi.
There was an interesting twist on this during my teens, when my inspiration came from photos in the magazines. I was not looking for it there: it simply found me. Once in a while, a particular face would call me from the page, and I knew I had to make a drawing out of it.
At the time I worked with a HB or B pencil (my eraser was involved a lot), and my portraits were very realistic: they revealed the shapes and the shadows, the reflections in the eyes, the glow on the skin. I would spend hours on each one, as in a trance. There was a real face coming up on the paper, through my own pencil! If I was careful enough.
I had to be passionate, perseverant, precise - and careful.
Yet, my drawing always stemmed from a picture, and was limited by this. If the photo left a part of the head out of the frame, I could not integrate it to my portrait in a satisfying way.
So I was convinced that I would never be able to draw from memory, or even from a real person in front of me. And therefore, obviously, I could not be an illustrator. Too bad if it was the one career that had ever attracted me.
One evening though, my youngest brother, Benoît, who was around 10 at the time, was reading a book in the sofa. Nobody was watching me: I actually sketched his portrait, without being precise or careful. Instead, my drawing was intuitive, focused and calm. To my surprise, the result was not only (for once) natural and free – it was totally him.
|I couldn't find that early drawing, so instead here is my other brother, Matthieu.
I made this portrait in Montréal a few years ago, partly from memory
(I wanted to capture his teenager self) and partly from a picture of him as an adult.
However, I was scared by the implications of this – what if I could draw from life after all? ... But what if I Let My Hopes Grow, only to find out that I was Not Good Enough? – so I put the portrait away, and did not try again. (Sounds familiar to some of you?)
Then, I reached another interesting stage: exploring the outside world with photography. Somehow, having this black metal box in my hands, and being able to look at my surroundings through the lens (I had purchased a second-hand Minolta X-300s) allowed me to behave in a bolder way that my usual shy self would.
At the time, I found it very difficult to look back at strangers, let alone talk to them. But I did ask several girls if they would agree to pose for me, including Alison, a beautiful woman I met in the streets of Paris. She turned out to be an American actress and artist, based in New York city and in love with Paris, where she stayed regularly. I wish I could remember her full name…
They were all black and white portraits, printed on Ilford paper in my kitchen/darkroom. Again, I would observe these faces with awe as they emerged from the pale paper; but now my perception was getting closer to the presence of each person, even if I was still (at least consciously) working primarily with light and shadow, and looking for a landscape in the curves of the cheekbones, the line of the eyebrows.
|When I saw this little girl in the post office, I just had to ask her mother if she would pose for me.
It took the pictures a few days later, in a garden.
Big changes happened in my life soon after that, so the next stage takes place in Montréal, where I was able to be myself at last, but also much more at ease with everybody else, and in touch again with my childhood dreams and hopes. So I registered in Life Drawing classes, and discovered that I was pretty good at it!
How liberating, thrilling and rewarding to see a body, a face, a posture appear on my big white page, this time in a very free, focused and inspired way, sometimes in a few minutes. They were literally unraveling themselves through my hand. It was pure magic.
Here is to you, Mr. Doubt and Mrs. What-If ;o)
|15 minutes sketch. This guy was a particularly good model, for some reason.
Since then, I have been drawing people (unbeknownst to them) in my small notebook, mostly in trains where everybody is reading or looking outside. I have recently started a portrait project for an exhibition, involving strangers. And – thanks Rachel for your encouragements – I am also offering my services as a portraitist.
More on this in the next related post, dear readers :o)
PS - An additional selection of drawings and pictures can be seen in the French version.