Following a conversation in Disability Arts Online’s Facebook Group where Vince Laws has been posting his self-portraits we were taken by the joy and cheekiness in the artwork and decided to commission an article about what painting means to the artist.
I’ve been an artist since 2004, but only started oil painting in 2016. I was a bit afraid of it and didn’t really know how to get started. Then a friend offered me some oil paints. Her husband was giving up painting due to ill health. I said “yes please” and asked if he might be willing to give me a couple of lessons to get me started.
I met Eugene and he sat me in front of a big empty canvas and gave me a photo to work from and off we went. He was great because he let me do the painting while we chatted art and techniques. I felt like I got a lifetime of painting experience distilled into three 2-hour sessions. Then he sent me packing with a huge landscape, to which I eventually added my own stamp in the shape of a vase of sunflowers.
I painted all sorts, some good, some shit, but you can easily paint over the shit! I did a series of over 100 sunflower paintings. I wanted to paint something ‘happy’. I used different techniques and enjoy experimenting. I used a palette knife, brushes, scratched off paint with skewers. I found I enjoy the thickness of oil paint and could literally sculpt with colour, applying each petal the shape of an actual petal, lifting off the canvas to a point.
I did paint a few people and dogs, but I wasn’t that accurate. You can paint a sunflower without it having to look like a particular sunflower, no-one will know. I set about painting lots of dogs, and then got friends asking me to do theirs, and I was sharing the pet portraits on Facebook, and started getting commissions. I found if I use a 25.5cm x 30.5cm (10” x 12”) canvas board and print off a pet photo at A4, I can cut up the photo and use it like a stencil. I can mark the board and get the proportions right and the features in the right place.
I used to print two pet photos, one to cut up, one to print from, but recently realised that if I put the image up on my laptop screen, it’s well lit, I can zoom in and out, I can even colour match, and I can combine different photos to make one painting.
I did a series of self portraits in other media a few years ago, drawings, acrylics, biro, collage, but found myself getting introspective and gloomy and stopped. I’ve recently been reading about Egon Schiele and decided to try self portraits again. I did the first few opposite a mirror, but that’s a bit tricky. I need varifocals and they give me a headache after too long. I did a friend’s portrait from a photo, and now I’m using old photos of me, finding photos where I’m dressed up in a silly costume or pulling a face, because that helps me keep in a happier mood as I paint.
My approach to painting depends on various things. Sometimes I use old canvasses and paint over them. If you want to paint something fiddly like a tree, it’s best to put the background in first. If I’m painting a portrait, it’s easy enough to paint around it and put the background in afterwards especially if it’s a single colour. With these portraits I paint the outlines straight on to the canvas first, get the composition I want, and then work on the portrait without worrying too much about the background.
I like bright colours. I often start by using a colour that’s already on my palette. The group portrait I’m working on ‘Holy Family’ began with blue outlines. I’m using four photos on my laptop to create a composition with me, my partner, and three dogs. I put Adrian in holding a rainbow umbrella using just pink and yellow for the moment. Then a green background so I could see how it all looks, adding a bit of green in the portraits where needed. Then I added chrome yellow to the ginger dog and me. Then I added red collars to two of the dogs. I decided my pink vest strap would be nice in red too. I’ve yet to decide where the red umbrella section will be, but it creates a rhythm of red tumbling down the left of the painting.
One section of the umbrella will look like a pointy hat on the ginger dog, so I need to consider what colour will work best there. That will echo the small dog on the right in the grass with a paper cone on his head – that’s Badger, now at rest, dressed as the Norfolk Unicorn. The umbrella section nearest the grass can be anything but green, so I need to bear that in mind too.
I added red to the portraits, then pink, then a pale yellow, filling in most of the painting, except for the dog’s white chest, and the brown dog in the foreground. I tend to work quickly, wet paint onto wet paint. I’ve tried painting slowly, taking months over a painting, putting it away for a while, working on something else, but I lose the enthusiasm and spontaneity, and don’t enjoy the process as much.
That said, one of the best tips Eugene gave me was to stop and give yourself time to look. I often stop and make a coffee, roll a smoke, and hang the painting on the wall opposite and see what it needs next. (*I’ll send photos of this one in progress… title Holy Family II)
Selfie 1, in oils, looking in a mirror.
I’ve been looking at Egon Schiele portraits, and wanted to start simple. He did some portraits with a monochrome background, ie no clues to who the sitter is, and in contrast to the prevailing style of decoration embodied by Gustav Klimt. I painted myself looking in a mirror, head and shoulders, wearing a blue sweatshirt. I looked, decided it need a hand, added in me holding a smoke. I like the shape of that hand, it looks a bit like a cross. I painted out the background with white so that it radiates from my head. I like it.
57cm x 57cm on a box canvas. £200
Selfie 2: looking in a mirror
Acrylics dry so quickly! I prefer oils. This canvas had a weird painting on it of a tree with a giant eye! Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t sold that, so I painted over it with acrylics because it dries fast, and just got carried away and kept on painting in acrylics. I’m wearing my favourite scarf, knitted by my Auntie Carol. I look a bit miserable but that’s what happens when you stare in the mirror.
41cm x 51cm box canvas. £100
Jan, a friend, who played Lucifer in Faust! Oils
I’d like to paint more people from life, but what with lockdown and social distancing that might have to wait for a while. I took a few photos of my friend, Jan, and painted this from a photo while my laptop was being repaired. I wanted to keep the background simple, so merged her black top into the sofa, and stuck with a monochrome background. I’ve given this portrait to Jan.
Selfie 3, Sunflower. Oils.
This was the first painting I decided to do for comedy value. Determined not to get gloomy while painting, I found a picture of me with a sunflower I grew in the garden last year. It amused me to paint me, making a silly face.
25.5 cm x 30.5cm canvas board. I like this one so I’m keeping it for now.
Selfie as Boris Piffle Johnson, a comedy alter ego. Oils.
I’ve been creating a comedy character called Boris Piffle Johnson. I wear a badly cut blonde wig and a cardboard suit tied at the neck with a blue ribbon. I’ve made a podium with ridiculous slogans on, and a cardboard backdrop of the front door at 10 Drowning Street. Here I am doing a thumbs up while wearing a mask with a clown smile on it.
25.5 cm x 30.5cm canvas board. Framed & posted £100.
Selfie as Spirit Guide ‘Little-Long-In-Tooth’. Oils.
I have a bag of wigs I bought from a neighbour. Sometimes I dress up and take silly photos. Here I am in blonde plaits and feathers, with 2 giant front teeth made out of paper. It made me giggle while I was painting it. I think we need humour in times like these. I try to cheer people up with my art.
25.5 cm x 30.5cm canvas board. Framed & posted £100.
Commissions in Vince Laws style from £100. For further information contact vincelaws[at]gmail.com