Alice Neel

Alice Neel was born in 1900, and sadly passed away in 1984. Neel was an American Painter widely celebrated for her expressionist paintings of her friends and family, as well as casual acquaintances, using strong colour and line. Expressionistic use of colour is where sometimes colour is not used in a realistic way, but instead utilised to express emotion. Neel was called “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century” by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organised a retrospective of her work in 2010. Looking more closely at Neel’s work I chose the example ‘David Bourdon and Gregory Battock’ I particularly liked the way the two men are seated and their contrasting personas, one open legged in his underwear seemingly unshaven and disheveled, juxtaposed with a far neater suit-adorned man wearing spectacles. They’re both looking just off camera slightly to who or what, we don’t know.

Alice Neel
David Bourdon and Gregory Battock
1970
oil on canvas
60 x 56 in.
at the Whitney

For my response to this work, I decided to paint my brother in-law Sam, and his brother in-law Daryl. I also wanted to challenge myself in using a larger sized format and decided to paint on A2 Watercolour paper. Below is the photograph I used to paint from. The image appealed to me because of the bright colours and style of both of the men’s shirts, and the way they are sitting, I like the poses. I also liked the positioning of both of them with Sam in the foreground quite open and engaging with the camera, and then Daryl very sort of nonchalant and relaxed in the background combined with the strong lines form the table, and the sofa, it makes for a very interesting image to paint, and reminds me of some of the endearing qualities I found in Neel’s painting above.

I began by using a grid to sketch out the portrait to ensure I could get the correct Iines and dimension, working on one figure, and then the next. I tried adding in some small detail to help me ensure I had proportions correctly recorded.

Then I started to paint in the individual figures, starting with Sam in the foreground. I purposefully omitted lots of the other objects in the room, such as the lampshade, window and curtains and other items on the small table as I didn’t want to clutter the painting. Neels work feels quite simplified and this allows the person(s) in the portrait to take centre stage.

In Neel’s painting you can see a strong use of line and colour which I wanted to try and emulate in the colourful attire worn by Sam and Daryl and also the strong use of line I added to highlight the figures and details.

Here we have the finished painting. I decided to stop at his point as I feel like the two figures really pop – actually it does remind me a little of the pop art style too.

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