by Greg Ruth
As part of my ongoing self-assigned weekly drawing thing I do under the title, THE 52 WEEKS PROJECT, I decided to take on a series of portraits of everyone's favorite Time Lord, the Doctor himselves. Aside from my geeky admiration for the series, especially of late, (sorry folks, I know it's the fashion- not a Moffatt hater), The character brings everything you'd want to a portrait series like this: a consistent, theme specific group of completely distinguished individual characters. So. I had the subject in place, but the real motivation was in fact me trying out the full extent of what I could do with my newfound love for the marvelous Blackwing Palomino graphite pencils, and wanted to see how far I could take them. Since I have a rather unhealthy knack for hyper-detailed drawing, which my usual tool of the sumi brush helps keep in check, I wanted to explore the idea of super-realism and manipulating the photographic qualities it invokes by manipulating some basic darkroom and camera notions of depth of field, focus and visual attention. The first go at this you see here below in the form of a portrait of Bela Lugosi as Dracula. I wanted to shorten the depth of field so much that something the tip of a nose, or in this case, an ear, would come forward us as sharpened and in focus leaving the rest of the face to fall away into a fog of space and blurriness. All of this really then is an experiment in a new technique, but its opened up a lot of doors to new ideas and other projects. The rule of the regular 52 Weeks Project remained the same: A new portrait posted live each and every monday morning without missing a deadline. To date in now four iterations of this exercise, I have not missed a week yet, (knock wood). But instead of emailing them out- because email has both been subverted by messaging apps and the horrible terrible assault of spam, I created a web page devoted to the series and posted to facebook, tumblr and twitter. I do miss the email responses the old way provided, but things change and we must adapt.
I'm all for fences and rules until the get in the way of purpose, then they should be scuttled. Especially when I'm the one making the rules. I mean if you can't enjoy being boss, then what's the point right? This is after all, a self-assignment and as long as I stick to the consistency of medium, size and shape and delivery date... the rest is flexible case by case. My favorite turned out to be Matt Smith, perhaps because of all the Doctors, his is the face I loved the most. A quirky madcap nutty professor man-child time-God will always win the day with me. Plus he made fezzes and bow ties cool again (as if they ever weren't).
I wanted to make sure to capture each of these characters at their most essential, get them at their best so to speak. But also to avoid duplicating an exact already present portrait. Each also needed to be the same, front-facing approach and to the same scale. So this meant sitting down in front of certain episodes and compositing a final set of traits for each. I am familiar with most of these fellows, but not all. The most difficult tended to be the middle three or four- mostly the post- Tom Baker era to Christopher Eccelston. Getting a grip on those guys was rough at times. Especially for those like Sylvester McCoy who began their tenure in a vastly different place than where the ended up. Researching these turned out to be best kind of fun, and thankfully since so much time has passed, there was more than enough perspective and insight as to their place and context in the long line of those that came before and after. So like most curious undertakings, I ended up coming away learning a lot more about the subject of the series as well as the new technique for executing them.
I also decided to cheat the canon slightly with Moffat's cheating by featuring John Hurt's War Doctor as the proper #9 off setting the following four's count as a result. Its a storyline that came forward when Eccelston arrived and had been an underlying character burden for every iteration after making him the sole survivor of a race of people he himself killed off. It added a darkness and a core to his purpose that haunted every action and explained his travelling. One of the themes for Well's TIME MACHINE that I've always loved to see crop up was this notion of time and catharsis. Can you move through enough days and weeks to escape regret as if it were a locale rather than a simple emotion? Could a genocide like the Doctor ever outrun his actions or save enough people to reconcile that genocide? It's dark stuff but it's one of the aspects of the character I really love: The Doctor is a bit scary and spooky. And I do love me some spooky.
As a disclaimer, I also really came back to the fold of Who via R.T. Davies' return with Eccelston. These Nu-Whos are the ones I much prefer to be honest. And of them all I am a Moffat man all the way. That said one of my favorites of all really was Patrick Troughton's, and it follows given my Matt Smith love as in many ways he is Smith's precursor. Troughton also had I think the greatest burden to carry. He was the replacement for the show's iconoclast, William Hartnell and because of him we have the whole idea of regeneration to begin with. If he'd had blown it with his audience the show would have died soon with him. Instead he did what is rarely ever done well: He took a role set in marble by a previous actor, and re-owned it for himself. He may well be the first popular actor to really do this, and set the stage for all that followed as a result. His being so different in character also meant that difference was sought after, despite the knee-jerk desire to see the same type repeated over and over... Pretty damned impressive I think.
While I grew up seeing Baker's back in the 1970's, it was always by accident late at night on pbs mostly because it scared the hell out of me. With his portrait I truly cheated the rule of blurriness. He should be a good deal more fuzzy than he is here, but as much as his hat and scarf and crazy hair are icons of his person, those wild mad-house eyes and chompers could not be ignored. So I sharpened focus on these areas specifically letting the need of the content rule over the rules of the project.
So. How were these made? Well I had some nice cotton rag paper cut into 8 1/2 x 11 sheets, and after some quick mapping marks and under-sketching, set out working on them in earnest. I never had time while doing these to scan progress shots or step by steps I'm afraid. I seem to only think of doing that kind of thing long after its too late- like now. But with the earlier portraits, I would find the areas of most detail and begin there. I always like to start with the eyes, because that's where it all swims or sinks, really- especially in portraits (and taxidermy). You blow it with the eyes, the rest doesn't matter. And there were times where I had to tear it up and start anew- I think I had to do David Tenant at least three times to get him right to be honest. In any case, once decided, forever learned. I tened only to have to redo one of these once more after this )I spilled single drop of water on the face of John Hurt right after I finished it, and it meant having to do him all over again. Or live with what looked to be a sizable zit below his eye. Which I could not.
It would be the latter ones that made the challenge of drawing out of focus the most tricky. Largely because it robbed the pieces the usual crutches of detail to denote who they were. I honestly wasn't sure if they'd "read" at all given this technique. How blurry could you get before they simply got lost to the cloud of graphite? Turns out with these distinctive fellows, you could really out there and the center would hold. Hartnell was the most obvious success of this in that he's almost entirely identifiable in silhouette given his hair, gate and costume. With these and the bliurriest aspects of any of these portraits I used the side edge of a sharpened pencil to lay down, very gently, the marks. Once that was done I would immediately use the high tech studio tool and secret weapon of all of these... my finger, to then rub the hell out of those areas and blue them.
So in the end, we have our family. I confess after doing the last of these it made my eyes water as they consistently attempted to focus the out of focus drawings. Something which I was happily surprised with. I love conceptual theory and science around how we see and perceive the world, and this pointed out and wiggled a weird little part of how we see. We as a hunter species have our perceptual vision centered around focus and isolation- this comes from our ancient survival necessity to pull prey and threats out of an environment so that we could properly eat or run from them. We still carry that legacy with us today as seers, and it uniformly dictates how we see the world on a daily basis. That said, this habit can be suspended or at least unlearned for short periods of time, the greatest surprise from these was how it tickled that singular aspect. I love how it makes me squint even though I know squinting will not bring them into focus. The art bites back. Every time I do these
So this is certainly a thing I plan of taking further, and while we now leave
these Doctors behind, I look forward to seeing how far this new method can go. For all of you who rode this road with me, thanks for keeping to it. If you'd like to pick up the last remaining portraits you can do so by visiting the gregthings.com shop... HERE.
If you'd like to see the permanent online archive of the whole series, please visit HERE.