Drawing in the National Portrait Gallery

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My Effort

This week we were in the National Portrait Gallery for drawing class.  Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the few public galleries open late on a Thursday evening, and because they are running a programme of special evening events, the place was packed.

For all the experiences I’ve had of drawing in galleries and museums since I embarked on this attempt to learn to draw, it’s the first time I’ve been bumped into, by someone with no idea of the size of the pack on their back, with such force that, caught unawares because of my concentration, I was nearly knocked off balance.

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Frank Auerbach Self Portrait

We concentrated in the areas dedicated to portraits from the 20th century. In each of the rooms we were invited to choose the portraits which attracted us and to have a go at sketching them while thinking about what it was about them that had caught our eye, be it composition, style or subject.

I started out with a Tony Bevan self portrait, attracted by the unusual straining angle of the head and neck, as well as the terrible hair he’s given himself.  From there I looked at a portrait of Clement Attlee, attracted largely by being able to sit down on the adjacent bench.

Finally, in the most contemporary rooms, I confronted Frank Auerbach’s self portrait.  At first glance it looks like a quick collection of random scribbles; but closer inspection reveals layers of marks underneath, laid on and rubbed out and laid on again.  But more than that, as I’m no good at the gentle delicate detailed sketch, this free style has the look of something I might achieve.

By its nature, because the point of the Gallery is to collect portraits of the great and the good in this country, it is the subject that’s important, not the quality of the painting.  This leads to a wide range in style and taste.  It was very interesting to see the different choices made by the members of the class, who I think were generally attracted by qualities other than fame of the subject.  No-one chose to sketch the ugly Bryan Organ portraits of Charles and Diana, nor the new dull one of The Duchess of Cambridge.

That’s the end of term for me, as I shall be away next week, so won’t be attempting a portrait from a model, but I have signed up for another evening class next term, so it’s not over yet.

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