Collaborations: Michael Alford on Painting the Nude

Tangerine Silk painting by Michael Alford

Based on an interview with Michael Alford

The attraction to painting nudes is that it’s so difficult to get it right. You need correct draughtsmanship, colour, tone. You have to understand anatomy, even though you’re not really painting it.

You start with a real person. You want to capture the specificity of her form, her pose. But from this point the process moves in the opposite direction of portraiture. You’re not painting individuals when you’re painting nudes—you’re painting archetypes. The less individualized nudes are, the more successful they are.

At the same time, the right model is essential. It isn’t just about the way she looks. The authenticity of the painting comes out of an understanding between me and the model about what we’re trying to achieve. Painting a nude is in effect a collaboration. Some models understand what I’m trying to do, some don’t. The process works better with some people than others.

For mood, a lot of it is down to the way the model poses herself, her demeanour, her poise. I’m aiming for a certain kind of natural introspection. The models are not performing; there’s not much engagement with the viewer. The pose needs to be relaxed but with a certain amount of tension. I pay a lot of attention to the position of hands and feet. It would be disingenuous to claim eroticism has no part to play in a nude painting, but elegance and a sense of intimacy are more important.

Method, materials
I use a limited palette: Payne’s grey, white (titanium and zinc in a mixture of 3:1), cadmium red and yellow ochre.

I work on board because its solidity allows me to attack the painting and to paint fast. For the ground I like a messy mixture of cerulean or Prussian blue and raw sienna, scrubbed in. I want it to be resistant, so the paint doesn’t sink in.

I paint the image on the prepared board wet-in-wet, using a little clove oil to keep the paint fluid. I work as fast as I can. I stop working if I get bogged down and return to the painting when my eye is fresh. I want a feel of spontaneity in the finished piece.

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