Technique & Studio Practice
I decided to become a professional painter at the age of nine after seeing the paintings of Medici Villas by Giusto Utens during a trip to Florence with my parents. This early introduction to the paintings of the early Italian Renaissance had a major impact upon me. I was drawn to the beauty and the magical effects achieved by the 'Old Masters', whose paintings magnetised and mystified me. I was thrilled to discover that many artists in the past wrote down their working methods. They were at pains to explain how to behave professionally in order to succeed as an artist, and that the calling to be an artist was a noble pursuit. Back in England, I set about following their instructions by copying the work of some of the artists I most admired. At the age of sixteen I made a full-size copy of Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Mrs. Siddons. At eighteen, I made a copy Hans Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas Moore (which you can see here). Being a passionate autodidact and an only child I embarked upon all this activity entirely on my own. I worked in opposition to all contemporary ideas about how art should be created. I desired to learn the craft of my profession before I expressed anything in my pictures. In the 1980s the act of figurative painting was universally frowned upon.
Whilst studying at The University of London, by day I read 'The History of Art & Architecture', and by night I was an alchemist, devouring treaties written by the Quattrocento masters. I meticulously followed the practical advice I discovered in ancient books, such as Cennino Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook, and I spent three years learning how to make the perfect gesso from rabbit-skin glue and chalk dust. While studying in the library at The Courtauld Institute I discovered Leonardo da Vinci's own descriptions of the 'verdaccio' method in his Treatise on Painting. Firstly, one creates a fine drawing (or cartoon) on paper, which is then copied onto the canvas or panel in great detail. The techniques I learned in my early twenties are the same ones I used to create my portraits of country houses and gardens for twenty-five years.
I generally prepare all my own 'supports' (canvases and panels), by applying several layers of my own hot gesso to Belgian linen which is laid onto a timber panel using animal glue. After adding a sepia 'ground' onto this gessoed surface I then paint the entire composition in monochrome. (grisaille) This is finally 'glazed' with layers of oil colours in extraordinary detail. Although the method I use is extremely time-consuming, it ensures that the painting possesses unusual richness and great sense of depth.
I use paints manufactured by 'Old Holland'; a company that once supplied Dutch masters such as Vermeer and van Ruysdael. The pigments are ground between porphyry rollers rather than steel, a process which ensures their purity and permanence of colour. I also like paints manufactured by Michael Harding, and I also make some of my own.
Building up an oil-painting in layers in the way I've described above is the method that was used from the late 13th century until the early 20th century. It requires great patience and completing a painting takes several months. This technique is known as 'verdaccio'. Paintings executed in this way have enormous luminosity and will last for hundreds of years with very little change to their appearance. If properly cared for they will stay as radiant as the paintings of the European Renaissance. I also used the 'verdaccio' technique for my portraits of people.