• Paul Williams

The Old Master

I suppose I can blame John Crace.

The Guardian journalist responded to a Covid challenge by posting an image of himself and his wife as the Duke & Duchess of Urbino as painted by Piero della Francesca in the 15th Century.

Having recently returned from Florence where the original was one of the many works I enjoyed in the Uffizi this resonated with me, and so I was inspired to do my own recreation of a Renaissance masterpiece. I'd already decided on a series of contrasting self portraits while my hair grows ever longer during lockdown, but this needed far more planning.

The first step was to choose a painter to emulate. Caravaggio would always be my first choice; what photographer doesn't love his chiaroscuro? Conventional portraits weren't his style though so Rembrandt was my next thought, photographers refer to a particular lighting style as "Rembrandt lighting". I was initially excited at the prospect, but as I considered options I realised that all of his male subjects wear hats, and quite elaborate ones that would be difficult to fake for my image and with no access to my favourite milliner I had to think again.

Which is when a BBC 4 documentary about the impact of lockdown on a Titian exhibition at The National Gallery took me in a new direction. Titian painted many portraits and without headgear. What's more the plain clothing worn by Giulio Romano, the "grey eyed nobleman", or the "man with glove" might be easy to replicate. I've a few props that I've acquired for photoshoots over the years but my dressing up options tend to be for size 8 models so there weren't many that I could make use of, but a black kimono and a fake fur stole made my mind up for me. The descriptively titled "Portrait of a Man".

Add in a white T shirt, a little purple organza, and lots of gaffer tape and I had my version of the outfit. A grey bed sheet provided my backdrop and using a flash in a beauty dish I was able to restrict the light to me rather than the sheet. My version is more "Rembrandt lighting" than the Titian work but here is the version straight out of camera...

I say straight out of camera, but in truth I'd already processed it to try to make the T shirt a little more wrinkled, and I'd removed a couple of facial cysts that are clearly not on Titian's model, but the lighting and backdrop are exactly as I started. Time for the serious photoshop work, by which I mean turning my patchy great goatee into a full dark beard.

No problem! I could have made it longer and thicker but this was more in keeping with my face shape. Now to fix that backdrop.

Before I began I'd created a blank page in photoshop and then using the various brushes available in the application painted and smudged a variety of deep and muddy colours across it until I had something that looked more appropriate to my project. I overlaid this onto the portrait and reduced the opacity so that some of the texture of the sheet was retained and the erased the parts that covered me so that it only affected the background et voila...

Now I could have stopped here. I like this degree of contrast, and indeed Titian's work may have been similar when first painted, but with centuries of dirt and discolouration to take into account I did a little colour matching to get closer to his version still.

The Old Master

I don't think the Indianapolis Museum of Art will come calling for my version any time soon, but I think it trumps a cast iron pan on the head!

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