A little background: Diarmuid Kelley is an oil painter from England. He studied at Newcastle University and received his Masters degree at Chelsea College of Art and Design. He is a successful artist (yay!), with work held in a variety of collections and institutions, such as the National Portrait Gallery (London), Chatsworth House, and Steven Spielberg’s private collection. He was even commissioned to paint Dame Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2010 for the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.
I very much enjoyed steeping myself in his work! After a while, I came to notice an interesting difference between his portraits and his still life paintings…
Part One: THE SUBJECTS
The subjects of Kelley’s work are generally composed of finer brushstrokes. He is attentive to details within the form, and his excellent technique creates objects that verge on realism. However, the strokes have not completely lost their painterly quality (Figure 1), and this is actually a very important aspect to note. Realism blurs the lines between real and representation, and the time spent marveling at the artist’s technique moves attention from the narrative within the image to the space between the artwork and the real world.
So what role do these small strokes play in the painting? The answer, I believe, is intimacy.
Imagine painting Figure 1. Your eyes would be whipping back and forth to the subject, searching for and memorizing every detail of its surface. You compare and paint and correct every millimeter of the subject on the canvas, your head leaning close to the surface to paint those small strokes. You are present with the real object and the representation for quite a while, witnessing and observing the effects of time. That exchange of minutes and hours is significant, and Diarmuid Kelley respects this. According to an interview with Huffington Post:
Kelley has used mainly friends as his models. ‘It’s important you get on with your subjects since you have to spend time painting from life, for if you don’t, the painting will often fail.’ Among his muses is the actress Olivia Williams who, while famously sitting for him for the first time, found it therapeutic enough to persuade her to dump her fiance. Kelley sees a portrait as a measure of the relationship between artist and sitter.
In fact, the intimacy of this painting process is transferred to the audience. The detail draws the viewer physically close to the canvas, too! Kelley’s brushstrokes are distinct enough to hook the eyes, promising a visual meal, a delicate landscape of the artist’s touch.
Many of the portraits have strong dark/light contrasts due to direct lighting on the face and hands (Figure 2). Subjects are rarely looking at the artist, tending to have their eyes closed, covered, or cast downwards, though even those with open eyes do not really appear to be looking at anything in particular. They seem inside themselves. The way one looks at a person or an object communicates many things, like interest, hostility, affection, etc. These portrait subjects are inhibiting the flow of such information, choosing to close themselves off to the viewer.
Many people are clutching something, too, like a piece of clothing or themselves (Figure 3). This kind of body language can indicate that the person is putting up an unconscious barrier between themselves and others.
Kelley rarely paints portraits of active figures, most are sitting or lying down, exerting as little physical energy as possible.
Still life subjects are simple with more vivid hues than in his portraits. Kelley opts to feature fruits, vegetables, and flowers, which all appear ripe and healthy (apart from being off the plant, of course). He sometimes includes ceramic elements, too, that have a pleasant character about them, being colorful or shiny (Figure 4). The contrasts of light on the objects’ surfaces are less intense than in the portraits.
In many still life paintings, Kelley places objects on surfaces that appear a bit old and battered, with details such as stains, chipped paint, dents, and scratches (Figure 5). In comparison to these structures, the featured objects appear even more healthy, young, and beautiful.
Part Two: THE BACKGROUND
Many of the brushstrokes that create backgrounds in Kelley’s paintings are larger than those composing the subjects. They are wilder, more unpredictable, sometimes even changing character (becoming watery or changing to an entirely different color) in those areas where the painting appears “unfinished” (Figure 6).
Just as small strokes communicate intimacy, larger brushstrokes communicate unfamiliarity. Unlike the subjects, backgrounds are not detail-heavy, so the larger strokes feel like a summary, leaving a lot left unknown. In fact, these bands of color are applied like bricks or bandages, intended to cover and hide (Figure 7).
The portraits’ backgrounds are mostly dark and neutral tones that surround the subject. With the direct lighting illuminating with subjects’ skin the forms appear to bloom out from the duller, darker areas. At first glance, the eyes are immediately attracted to the bright face of the subject, and the small strokes and nearly-realistic representation of the person’s features invites the viewer to expect this stylistic approach in other areas of the painting. However, the dark space does not offer us much in the way of detail and information (Figure 8).
I do want to note, however, that these backgrounds are not all dark and mysterious. Kelley uses lighter tones and efficient detail to to suggest space and place, so the subject is not just floating in a strange nebula of pigment. However, I noticed that the subject’s head is usually either enveloped by or connected to a larger area of darkness.
The backgrounds in Kelley’s still life paintings are generally a bit lighter and more colorful than those of the portraits (Figure 9). Whereas the darkness of the portrait backgrounds seem at odds with their subjects, the backgrounds of the still life paintings seem to have a more harmonious relationship with the objects.
Part Three: THE OVERALL CONTENT
The relationship between the background and the subject is definitely a big player in the content of Kelley’s work! Painterly quality and unfinished areas insert a sense of energy, echoing of the action of painting. They are most often located at the edges edges and corners in the background while the subjects appear smooth, real and fragile, wrapped in (and at the mercy of) the action of the surrounding space.
Kelley paints his still lifes with brighter colors, using fruits, vegetables, and flowers full of life and texture. I might even venture to say that their color is a light source itself, brightening the darker space around them. They are bold, exuding characteristics like strength and vibrancy. These objects are decidedly separate and beautiful from what is around them. They appear much less affected by the background than the subjects of Kelley’s portraits.
As noted above, the portraits are a drama of light and dark. There is enough detail in the background to give the scene a sense of place, an environment that makes the subject more relatable to the viewer. However, there always seems to be darkness around the head of the subject, and these areas seem to take on a more intense, offensive quality when compared to the defensive body language of the subject.
However, even if it seems like the subject is submissive or defeated, almost sinking into the background, Kelley manages to plant them firmly as the centerpiece of the work. Direct light cuts through the space and unveils their skin. The intensity with which Kelley paints the minute details of their features records the unique features of each subject. In fact, that change from broad, background strokes to smaller, detailed strokes creates an kind of “zooming” effect on the figure, always bringing them back to the center of attention (Figure 10). They cannot be ignored and cannot be forgotten as the viewer gazes at the canvas. But, unlike in the still life works, the light and attention is cast upon them more than they themselves are the source.