Featured work: Self portrait in green scrubs


January 2018


This month’s featured artwork is “Self-portrait in green scrubs” which was the artwork that afforded me the opportunity to participate in the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 which is due to be broadcast on the 6th March 2018.

Creating the painting

I had wanted to practice painting portraits, in addition to painting hands, getting to grips with proportions and practicing drapery and clothing – kill multiple birds with one stone. Thus, the idea of doing a ¾ length portrait was born. Turning to subject matter I knew I didn’t have the luxury of a model that would potentially be able to sit for the 40+ hours over the 5 months this took to paint so I had to think pragmatically: it would be a self-portrait, and I would work from a photo with a planned composition.

Now that I had planned to do a self-portrait, the next challenge was working out what exactly I’d be doing and the thought came to me whilst scrubbing for a case in theatre. It was during this 5-minute scrub that I thought “this is it”: I would paint the moment I was about to scrub. That moment you put your hands under the water to make sure it isn’t too hot or too cold to maintain a constant stream that would permit hand washing for several minutes. In my mind I saw the figure facing the viewer, as if the viewer were the taps and the figure (me) would be about to wash. In order to give the scene some context the sink with the taps would be incorporated into the background.

Sketch and underpainting early in the process

I generally hate painting backgrounds as I never know what to paint or what colours to use. Often it’s a process of trial and error however as the composition entered my mind I was drawn to the arch. A feature used a lot in old religious paintings the arch framed the head and the background helped delineate the anatomical proportions of the body with the arch forming almost a perfect circle with the arms the centre of which would be the heart.

Having sketched the composition on the canvas I followed the step-by-step guide on www.willkepartschool.com in order to paint the portrait. I tried to apply his method in all aspects of the painting except the background. The background I kept simple using a dark, neutral palette and keeping the lines as straight as possible with masking tape.  The neutral background would help the green scrubs stand out more. Having shown this portrait to many people, I am surprised and thrilled at the many different interpretations that people have of this painting and people ask me what it all means. I will attempt to explain.

The arch forms a circle the centre with the arms the centre of which should be the heart (although I guess anatomically speaking it falls just above it!)

Painting my self portrait in my room

Influences and themes: religion, rituals and transformation

This painting is inspired by old religious paintings by previous masters stretching back from medieval times to the Renaissance. The practice of many religions involves rituals which also feature prominently in the practice of surgery. When I became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2015 this involved a ceremony and ritual steeped in tradition for a college that is over 500 years old. We donned gowns, and recited words in a grand building in Edinburgh surrounded by portraits including one of King James IV of Scotland. A ritual is defined as a “….ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”. In day to day practice, scrubbing for a case is inherently a ritual. A standard set of movements designed to optimise the surgeon for the case to minimise the risk of infection and harm coming to a patient. Artistic licence was used as often when you are scrubbing you are wearing a mask, however that would have defeated the purpose of practicing painting the face!

Identity is an area explored in this painting and I feel it is almost impossible to paint a self-portrait without conveying of a sense of the painter’s personal identity. It could be argued that the act of scrubbing is a transformative ritual that inherently erases your previous identity and allows you to form a new identity. You assume the identity of the surgeon about to operate. You are about to put knife to skin that in any other context would be a violent act and a violation of another person but because of this cleansing ritual you have performed you adopt an identity of someone who heals.

“The act of scrubbing is a transformative ritual… and allows you to adopt a new identity”

The pose itself offers multiple interpretations as well including asking for communion, making an offering or begging. I enjoy how the painting offers something different each ime to the viewer however I guess for me, I like the idea that the pose represents an act of humility by the surgeon, asking for the trust of the patient and offering his own hands in order to bring about the act of healing.

This was one of the longest paintings I have ever completed and I am grateful to Will Kemp for his online lessons. This painting is just one version of me painted in a style that started off as an exercise but evolved into a deeper study into what defines me and how this is represented to the world.

I am looking forward to sharing this painting with you all during my heat where I will compete alongside 8 talented, different and brilliant artists.

This painting will feature on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 to be broadcast on the 6th March 2018.