Beyond Process

As a topic, “process” is arguably more popular than ever. There are countless books about artists’ sketchbooks and studios; more than one book exists that is dedicated just to Francis Bacon’s studio. But a distinctive artistic vision cannot be taught in a classroom or learned from a book, though it certainly can be honed, refrained and explored in all sorts of ways. Flipping through these process books can be fun, and at times you might actually learn about the creation of work you admire. For me, these sorts of books tend to be more eye candy. Yeah, it’s cool trying to decipher doodles and see if you and your favorite creator have some of the same books. At times, an artist might toss out a nugget of valuable insight, but I’ve always been more interested in the actual work, the result of process. I think this because I believe that the best artists, the ones whose work is never forgotten or dated, can’t tell me how they do what they do; they can’t show me because on some level they don’t really know the how – it just happens.

Between November 2003 and April 2005, British art critic Martin Gayford sat for two Lucian Freud portraits, one in oil, the other one etched. Man with a Blue Scarf, On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud serves as a record of Gayford’s thoughts about being a part of Freud’s process. Because the two men spent so much time with one another over this period, and because they were friends to begin with, a great deal of the book is anecdotal. We learn that Freud likes to dine with his sitters after a night session; he attends Kate Moss’s birthday party; and enjoys the privilege of being able to meander through the National Gallery whenever the spirit strikes him.

What really makes this book work, though, is how Gayford is taken out of the critic’s role and fused into part of a master’s process. As the seasons change, he must maintain the same outfit he wore during his first sitting. With Freud finally moving from Gayford’s head to his shoulders the blue scarf finally comes into play. But something is not right. The blue Freud had mixed based on his initial impression of the scarf does not seem right now and it derails the session. At home that night, Gayford relates this to his wife, who asks him which blue scarf he had worn. Unbeknown to Gayford, he in fact owns two blue scarves, each one a slightly different shade. Gayford had never noticed but Freud had, months earlier.

Man with a Blue Scarf is full of such peeks into the mind of an extraordinary artist without discussion of Freud’s process intimating that you too can do what he does. Peppered with plenty of illustrations referencing Frued’s work and the work of artists he and Gayord discuss, this book counts among the best and most memorable books I read in 2010.

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