You can paint a sculpture

In my first year of the MA, a tutor at Brighton told me, “you can’t paint a sculpture.” There was quite a lot of other stuff about honesty of materials and that whereas paintings created an illusion, viewers did not grant the same freedom to sculptures; they had to be the real thing.  The tutor was absolutely right that my attempts to paint the damn thing was a failure. (I add in my defence that I knew it myself,  but believed it was not the painting per se that was the problem, rather that I had run out of time and not applied enough paint) but he was absolutely wrong about the principle. Why, the Greeks and Romans did it, and you cannot look for better credentials than that.

Such proclaimed rules always evoke in me the, usually silent and internal, response of “oh yes I can.” I had a similar reaction on being told by somebody else that the detail had to be contained by the form and spent days trying to sketch out intricate but fuzzy and indistinct outlines. I must admit that didn’t work terribly well either. But I was reminded of the prohibition against mixing painting and 3d when a few days ago I saw this wonderful sculpture by Sean Henry at the National Portrait Gallery. It is of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. It is rather pleasing therefore, that you can Google him, look at images and see both more pictures of the sculpture and some photographs of the man himself and so compare the two.

berners lee
Sean Henry’s portrait of Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the National Portrait Gallery

I find this work fascinating. The size is in itself unusual; it is just slightly smaller than four feet high. This gives it a curiously intimate feel. Although on a plinth, he does not tower above you and you can get close enough to study the face. But it is the painting of the bronze that makes it seem so characterful. Henry has avoided attempting to produce a super realistic finish.but has allowed the brush strokes to be visible in an impressionistic style.  This enables viewers to apply their familiarity with that form of portraiture to this work. I think this is why Berners Lee seems so alive particularly if you compare it with typical wax works which you might have expected to be more realistic – right size, life-like colouring, but which always seem so dead. The impressionistic tradition continues in the way that the brush strokes become even loose, the further they are from the face. Look at the rucksack in which Berners-Lee used to carry his laptop and the brush strokes are particularly fluid, So if you also tend toward the view that you cannot paint a sculpture, go to the National Portrait Gallery and allow yourself to be proved wrong.

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