My First Portrait Painting: Gwithian Towans Beach.

From coloured pencil portraits to acrylic paint on canvas. Read about how I painted 'Gwithian Towans Beach' using the Japanese Zen Buddhist principle of no-mind.


Gwithian Towans Beach, 2021, Acrylic Paint on Canvas.


On a November afternoon in Cornwall, I took a photograph of my boyfriend on Gwithian Towans Beach. He stood facing the waves, armed with a bodyboard, ready to brace the cold winter sea.


Gwithian Towans Beach has long been a favourite holiday spot. Even in the depths of winter, when the waves are crashing hard and the wind is howling, it is a beautiful expanse of golden sand embraced by grass-topped sandy dunes. It was a perfect spot to capture a photograph from which I would attempt my first portrait painting.


The dramatic landscape empowered by stormy skies made this painting not simply a portrait, but an interesting study of both figure and environment which provides the piece with its strong atmospheric quality.


I began with a pencil study, finding the right proportions through a carefully measured grid. Since this was my first portrait on canvas, I wanted to start with a good outline, rather than just diving straight into the deep end with a free-hand, more abstract approach. This is the method I have always used with my coloured pencil drawings to get the right proportions, and so I thought it best to start with a familiar and practised technique.


When the time came to layer the colours, however, I allowed myself some artistic license and freedom to experiment. What I really liked about using acrylics was the fact that I could simply paint over the colours I wasn't happy with. Unlike coloured pencil, which is rather more permanent and difficult to remove, paint is easily built upon and easily altered by adding more layers on top.


When it came to choosing colours, I let myself go and trusted my instincts. The only method I was confident in following was mindless intuition. It was in a state of no-mind (to borrow the Zen Buddhist concept) that this painting was created. By removing my mind, by not thinking, not feeling my emotions, but rather, existing in a mindless flow of intuitive and empty creation, I was able to know how best to tackle this painting.


Mindless painting, or painting with no mind, was an experiment. I wanted to see what my intuition would do without the restraint of my cognitive and emotional capacities. Of course, removing the mind altogether is not possible for any sustained period of time - our thoughts and emotions have a way of sliding in through the back door, most especially when we are trying not to entertain them.


However, a few years of meditation, self-reflection, yoga, and therapy has provided me with a rather good insight into how to achieve a mindless state of being. This experiment provided me with one further insight: that what I find in artistic creation is just what I have searched for through meditative techniques, a state of mindless Being.


And yet, whilst this state of Being is empty in the sense that no conscious content tempts my perception away from action, it is not a state of nothingness, but an act of fulfilment and active creation. From a state of no-mind, where the ego is largely overcome, intuition, feeling and the authentic self are allowed free reign to pour self-expression onto a blank canvas.


The result was this:


Most paintings and works of art are infused with the emotions and mental content of the artist. The artist's doubts, worries, self-loathing, and despair are poured onto the canvas, saturating each stroke of paint with the hefty content of their ego.


To what extent I may have succeeded or failed at an ego-less expression in this painting, you can decide for yourself. Of course, it would be very difficult for the contents of my mind to have evaded this portrait entirely. Something of the artist always remains in her work. Yet what I hope to have achieved, by moving my mind out the way, is to allow the contents, atmosphere, and mood of both the environment, the figure, and perhaps also in the movement of creation, the substance of my deeper self, to spring forth and illuminate the work of art.


I noticed something of Van Gogh in the swirling cloud of the sky, not to mention the bold complementary colours of blue and yellow dividing the sky from the earth and the human being from the physical environment. The sweeping hair complements the windy skies, whilst the deep blue of the wetsuit calls out to the dark, brooding sea which creeps in from the left side of the canvas, and is suggested by the penetrating gaze of fixed blue eyes.


The extent to which I enjoyed making this portrait painting surprised me. As a newcomer to the world of acrylic paint, I was happy with the result and very pleased with the lessons I learnt along the way. I anticipate a self-portrait as my next major venture on canvas, and wonder, what new problems and questions will arise when I face my own ego head-on from an ego-less state of mind.


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