I had decided it was time for another ‘Close Look” blog. A number of possibilities came to mind but as I began preparing, I realized it was almost Remembrance Day. So it made sense to choose work related in some way to war. I began to recall pastel portraits I’d seen somewhere along the way, pastels of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. I began to dig and soon I was rewarded with a name – the British artist Eric Kennington (12 March 1888 – 13 April 1960). And oh yes, his powerful, expressive pastel paintings!
And so it was decided – I’d share three of his portraits (three because I just couldn’t choose one of them!). The first two are done in 1940, the third in 1941. During these years, Kennington worked for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (headed up by Sir Kenneth Clark) and then the Air Ministry, painting numerous portraits. (In 1942, 52 of his RAF portraits were published in his book, Drawing The RAF: A Book of Portraits.)
Eric Kennington captured not only the physical characteristics and confidence of these three service men, he also revealed the essence of their being, albeit in an idealized way. I look at these portraits and, oh my gosh, I can almost imagine what each man might say if I spoke to him, the things others might say about him, the behaviour he might exhibit. With so little, the artist says so much about these individuals.
As you’ll see, Kennington worked effectively with a limited palette of colours. He let the colour of the paper (a middle value warm neutral colour in all three cases) become an intentional part of the whole. He was an excellent draughtsman, rendering the anatomy and various parts of the face, body, and clothing in a three-dimensional believable space. This comes from knowledge and working from life.
Since I’m including three examples, I’ll only select a few things about each to focus on but I encourage you to look closely at all the various parts.
Let’s look at the first portrait.
Eric Kennington, “Portrait of Stoker A. Martin of HMS Exeter,” 1940
You’ll see in this portrait how much Kennington utilizes the colour of the paper. This ability takes a deep knowledge of value and of colour and how they work together.
Below, you can see this clearly at work. On the right side, where the light hits the hat, there’s not much to be seen of the paper. In the middle part, as you move towards the left, more and more of the paper is visible until finally, you encounter untouched paper on the hat’s shadow side.
Interestingly in this portrait, Kennington leaves much of the background untouched except for one area behind his subject. Why include this strip of pastel? Can you see how it anchors the subject in space? It gives it a context. It also pulls the blue seen in the man’s eyes and in the fabric on the collar, and thus relates the subject to the background. You can also see how Kennington sometimes brightens the area of transition between subject and background. This subtly pushes the subject forward by emphasizing the edge.
I’m in awe of the neck. I find this generally a tricky area to paint, to find the balance between putting enough in to make it read as neck and not too much which over emphasizes it. Here the neck takes up a large area of the portrait yet we aren’t distracted by it. Kennington successfully manages to relay the anatomy without drawing our attention to it. In fact, if you weren’t an artist, you may not even remark on the neck! Look closely to see how little pastel is applied, how the artist leaves much of the paper untouched, and how light and shadow are shown. And yet note also how much of the muscles, tendons, and adam’s apple are revealed.
Another area where Eric Kennington utilizes the paper effectively is in the clothing. Have a look to see just how the artist uses pressure on the white pastel to either obliterate or leave the paper to read as the shadowed area of cloth.
Eric Kennington, “Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC,” 1940
Now let’s have a look at the second portrait, also done in 1940.
You can see immediately that this portrait is done on a smoother paper. (The texture of the previous portrait makes me think of the gridded side of Canson Mi-Teintes paper.) It almost gives the appearance of blended pastels but look closely and you’ll see it’s not blended after all. It’s more to do with the pressure of the pastel and how much of the paper comes through. Have a look at the cheek and ear lobe below.
And what about that nose!! Brilliantly done. You can feel the fleshiness of it with the bone beneath the bridge. Look at how impressively Kennington used a limited set of colours!
Now have a close look at this one eye. I could admire it for ages!! Look at the way the light catches the inner and outer parts of the eye socket, the brilliant highlight and the subtle shadowing on the eyeball, the green that glows from the iris, the red-tinged lower lid, the barely indicated eyebrow. There’s soooooo much to study here!
Now let’s have a look at the very restrained way Kennington indicated the clothing and insignia. So little is shown yet we easily read what all the bits and pieces are meant to be.
One of the things I found interesting was the stripe of yellow pastel Kennington applied to show light on the sliver of neck seen on the left side. Look at the whole portrait and it fits right in, look at it closely and it seems a bit out of place. Somehow he made it work! One thing to notice too is how well it’s balanced by the light strip of hair diagonally opposite.
Eric Kennington, “Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC,” 1941
Now let’s have a look at the third portrait. Done in 1941, it returns to a more textured paper. Eric Kennington used colours on the face that are a lot brighter and warmer than those in the portraits above. They reveal a youthful glow and perhaps a person who spent a lot of time in the sun.
The sitter has no hat this time so we can see how the artist dealt with the hair. It looks as if Kennington applied the colour lightly, using the texture of the paper to reveal the lighter parts, and then applied more pressure to the pastel stick for the darker areas. You can also see the line of brilliant blue the circles the head, bringing our attention to the edge where hair meets background.
Kennington used an olive green colour over both skin and clothing. On the skin, it shows the shadow side of the face, in the clothing, it shows the colour of the fleecy collar. In the former, it acts as a darker colour, in the latter, it acts as a lighter colour. This is a great example of relativity. The colour takes on a perceived value depending on what it’s next to, the amount of area it takes up, and the physical thing it is representing.
I’m fascinated by the way we receive so much information about this subject’s mouth and the way it sits in the face, with so little pastel information. It’s all about pressure and knowing where to place emphasis or not. You can again see how Kennington used the paper to his advantage. I love that he didn’t fuss with the line that separates upper and lower lip.
The background is blue and echoes both the shirt and the sitter’s blue eyes. It’s also a nice contrast to the orange-reds of the skin.
And finally, let’s look at all three sets of eyes together. None of them look out at the viewer. This gives the feeling of detachment, of the subjects being in their own worlds. Study these if you’re keen on doing portraiture!
Brave men and women serve in the military, the navy, the airforce, ready to fight for us and others when they are needed. These portraits by Eric Kennington give us a look at three men who fought for Britain in World War II. They’re individuals whose characteristics and personalities pulse through the years, inviting us to get to know them decades later.
As I said, because I didn’t limit myself to only ONE portrait, I didn’t go into all the details I could have shared for each portrait. So I’d love to hear about the things that strike you, particularly anything that I didn’t mention! Let’s call them portraits A, B, and C as an easy way to refer to them.
I very much look forward to your comments!!
Until next time,
PS. To see more work by this artist, visit the National Portrait Gallery (UK), the Imperial War Museum (UK), and the Tate Gallery. At the Tate, see especially the fabulous portrait of Mutter Il Hamoud Min Beni Hassan done 20 years prior to the portraits in this blog. Eric Kennington met T.E. Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame) and some of his work was used to illustrate Lawrence’s book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for which Kennington acted as art editor.
This book looks fantastic but I haven’t previewed it yet!