Painting like you mean it; sketch for the Queen of Hearts by Richard Blunt

Back in February, Zak and I went to Cloud Gallery here in Brighton. They had this sketch by Richard Blunt, Study for the Queen of Hearts, oil on canvas, about 16 x 20 inches.

BPS Blunt Queen of Hearts sketch

(c) Richard Blunt

Blunt’s work has been compared with Jack Vettriano, the same nostalgic mood, and elusive simmering plot-line. Like a number of painters working in this genre, scenes of bar-rooms and nightclubs in a style between photo-realism and graphic novel, Blunt paints from photographs, with his girlfriend and himself as models.

I’m not normally keen on paintings taken directly from photos – to be honest I only began to think it was ok for painters to use cameras at all when I read that Lucien Freud used one. There’s a lot that the eye sees that the camera can’t – complete colour, volume the hint of the face about to move, the sense that you know what is on the other side of objects. As a photographer Zak might disagree with me on all of these, and cite specs to prove it, but there is a something that the eye sees alone.

So I was gobsmacked by this sketch. It’s a superb bit of painting, a study for the Queen of Hearts. The sketch focusses on resolving particular elements – the foreground objects, and the reflection and refraction of the woman’s leg and arms in the wineglass, as well as establishing the drawing of the woman’s hands, and the crucial spatial relationship of both figures, in this focal area of the composition.


(c) Richard Blunt, image from Cloud Gallery

Like painters since the invention of printing, Blunt’s work is published as prints, and like a Seventeenth Century his work comes in a range of prices, from original oil, to print, including limited edition hand-finished by the artist. A hand-finished print of Queen of Hearts is £995, so the sketch at £1,295 is extremely tempting.

BPS Blunt Queen of Hearts sketch

Blunt’s feel for paint and canvas, and the bones of what makes the look and feel of a painting is faultless. The sketch is a work of art in its own right, because he understands what makes a painting a painting, and not a photograph.

It is painterly, and it has the luscious physical power of life sketches, the sense that the painter has seen exactly how the light catches the knuckles and the line of the fingers, the way the woman’s knee reflects in the stem of the wineglass, and he captures its whole volume in two strokes of black and pink, mixed with white wet-in-wet halfway as he marks in the catchlights. And the economy of the bottom of the glass – a few dashes and marks in black and white on the grey ground but it’s all there. You could slide it across the table. This painterly observation gives the painting its atmosphere  – a straightforwardly arousing picture, at the time I wrote the glasses are half-full, the pile of chips is growing and the mood is thick with sex. 

The technique though. Bold impasto, firm drawing, grey ground, left unpainted to show the midtones. It’s absolutely beautiful – spare, bold and modern, like a sketch by Sir Godfrey Kneller. In this interview, Blunt explains that his grandfather was a painter, and his father worked as a picture restorer, and I can imagine that he feels a painting as a physical object, layered pigment on rough linen, and the way that the image is a thing that creates itself between the canvas and the eye. We see the triangle of card shadowed by the woman’s finger, the texture and the sheen of it, but there’s nothing there. It’s just the grey ground, unpainted, to represent the midtone. But the card is all there. It’s a technique that Kneller learnt from his master Rembrandt. And Rembrandt, so Kneller said, believed it worked best at a distance. ‘My pictures were not made for smelling of,’ he said to anyone who got their face in them. But there he’s wrong I think. Pictures are very much made to be smelling of, and getting right up, and far away from and right up to again, and in Blunt it’s great to see another artist with a relish for paint and canvas what they can do.

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