Vince Laws: Painting Myself Happy

Vince Laws writes: At the start of 2021, during Covid lockdown, I needed a creative project to distract myself from the wider world. I’d been doing a lot of pet portraits, and felt ready to try human portraits again. I usually have three or four paintings on the go at various stages. Sometimes I hang them up on a wall and look at them for a week or more while I decide what the painting needs next. Often they get worse before they get better. I like oils because you can keep working until you get it right. You can even scrape the paint off and start again, which you can’t do with other types of paint.

Oil painted man, head and shoulders, looking straight at the viewer, his right hand raised level with his chin holding a small cigarette. The man is white, wears glasses, and a blue sweatshirt. The background could be a sunset, top third blue, middle third pink, bottom third orange. There’s a sense of calm and space. 

Selfie in blue sweatshirt. 22.5” x 22.5” (57cm square) Oil on recycled canvas.

I sat down opposite a mirror and painted myself in a blue sweatshirt, to get my eye in. Quickly painted over a couple days, first my head and shoulders. I added in the hand holding a cigarette about a week later. I like the shape of the hand, it could be making the sign of the cross. At first the background was plain white, radiating from my head. Months later, when I was looking at Gauguin’s colours, I came back and livened up the background.

Head and shoulders of a man looking straight at the viewer. He’s a white man, with very short hair, wears large glasses, a green and red striped scarf, and a black top. The background is red. It is painted over a previous artwork and some of that texture comes through. The man looks glum, but actually that was due to concentration. After painting this self portrait I determined to paint myself with a happier expression. 

Selfie red and green scarf. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Acrylic on recycled canvas.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to use oils, so next I sat opposite the mirror and painted myself using acrylics, which dries much quicker. Too quick. I looked at these first two paintings. In one I look neutral, but in the other I look miserable, not deliberately, that’s just me concentrating, but it reminded me that I’d done a series of self-portraits a few years earlier, and the close scrutiny and introspection had been detrimental to my mental health, so I needed to find a way to avoid that.

Head of a man looking over his right shoulder at the viewer, wearing a long blonde wig, with head tipped back, laughing, hair tumbling over his shoulder and framing his face. White man, blue eyes, with white stubble and sideburn. Quickly painted with energy and movement. 

Selfie laughing blonde wig. 10” x 12” (25.5 x 30.5cm).

I decided to paint myself happy, laughing, in a long blonde wig. It was fun to take a photo and then paint from a photo.

White man doing a thumbs up outside No. 10 Downing Street. Dressed as Boris Johnson, using a blonde wig, a facemark bearing a clown nose and smile, and a cardboard suit tied at the neck with a blue ribbon. The thumb looks a big too big. Lampooning Bojo.

Selfie as Boris Piffle Johnson. 10” x 12” (25.5 x 30.5cm).

Next, I dressed up as Boris Piffle Johnson, a comedy alter ego. He wears a badly cut blonde wig, and a cardboard suit tied at the neck with a big blue bow. He’s outside number 10 Drowning Street doing a thumbs up. He wears a face mask with a clown nose and smile on it. It would be hard to take such a painting seriously, it amuses me to paint it, and to share it. Its very existence makes me chuckle.

A white man wearing glasses stoops to take a selfie next to a sunflower, pulling a silly face. The background is blue green with fence scratched into it. The man has blue eyes, short grey hair, white stubble on his chin up to his ear. 

Selfie sniffing a sunflower. 10” x 12” (25.5 x 30.5cm).

I have a photo of me leaning over and sniffing a sunflower and making a silly face, so it would be rude not to paint it.

This is a vibrant group. Top left is a rainbow umbrella, which is held by a white man, with a big grin. The other figures are (left to right) a ginger dog with a rawhide bone in her mouth, a white man with blue eyes and a red vest, a dark brown spaniel with a white muzzle, and a small black dog wearing a pointy white hat in the long grass. 

Holy Family II. Vince, AD, Jess, Flute, & Badger. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Oil on canvas.

I wanted to do a family portrait of my family. Me, my partner Adrian holding a Pride umbrella, my dog Jessica holding a bone, and a neighbour’s dog that we see a lot of, Flute. Also there in the grass is Badger, no longer with us, but never forgotten. Some bits of silver glitter indicate his otherworldliness.

Two white men, one above and behind the other. Lower man is wearing a peacock waistcoat, with bare shoulders. He has a necklace spelling ‘Vincent’, white stubble, blue eyes, pursed lips, short cropped grey hair. The upper man has big brown hair, black eyes, pursed red lips, and wears a blue jacket. He has his hands in front of the lower man’s face, with thumb and forefingers touching, so they look a bit like Dame Edna glasses. The upper man has a white halo. The background is green and black radiating from the figures. It has a sense of cheeky fun, as if the two men are caught posing for a silly photo. 

Wearing Egon Schiele. 16” x 24” (41 x 61cm) Oil on recycled canvas.

While I was painting self portraits, I was reading about self portraits, and artists who produced lots of them. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, among many others. I decided to see if I could reproduce Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait in a Peacock Waistcoat, and somehow include myself. It was a challenge trying to copy his colours in a different medium. I was using oil paint on canvas; he used gouache, watercolour and black crayon on paper. I painted him first, not sure how I would fit in. I thought his lips look pursed, so I pursed mine. I tried different hand positions and liked this best. Egon’s jacket could be a big blue wig on my head, his cuff button could be my earring.

Head and shoulders of two white men side by side, painted in Van Gogh’s style. Man on the left has blue flesh below the chin, his face is green, with orange shadows, blue eyes, he wears a white hat. Man on the right is copied from a Van Gogh self portrait, wearing a pale blue suit, and white buttoned shirt. His face is in green and yellow tones, with green eyes, and orange hair, beard and moustache. The background is in blue squiggles with a heart between the two men. Both men look straight at the viewer.

Selfie with Vincent van Gogh. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Oil on canvas.

Next, I tried copying a Van Gogh self portrait. He is staring intently, so I found a photo of me doing the same, and tried to paint me in Van Gogh’s style. I look like I have a chef’s hat on, but actually it is a squashed milk container, and knowing that amuses me.

Very stylish white woman driving a green Bugatti. She’s wearing a tight fitting hat with a chin strap, a massive scarf that looks like ski slopes, and big brown gauntlets. She’s looking straight at the viewer. Beyond her, in the passenger seat, is a white man in an identical hat, with a big grin on his face, looking at the driver, doing a thumbs up. He wears a green jacket, big red gauntlets, and a red and green striped scarf blowing behind in the breeze. On his lap is a ginger dog wrapped in a gold blanket, her ears blowing behind in the breeze. 

Hitchin with Tamara. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Oil on canvas.

Suddenly I could see a whole series of me and my artistic heroes, their self portrait somehow interacting with my self portrait. Tamara de Lempicka had an interesting life, and in 1925 she was commissioned to paint the cover of a German fashion magazine, similar to Vogue. She painted herself driving a green Bugatti. Copying Tamara’s self portrait was a challenge. She creates such a highly polished finish, tones blended seamlessly. I had a lot of fun adding me into the passenger seat with Jessica on my knee. I’m wearing the same hat as Tamara, doing a thumbs up in massive red driving gauntlets.

Two men side by side, seen from the midriff up. On the right is Picasso, copied from a self portrait, white man, short dark hair, in a white v-neck shirt. His left sleeve becomes a palette held by the other man. The only paint on the palette is a red heart. Picasso’s right hand is in the centre of the canvas, in a cubist style, he’s holding a paintbrush, dipped in red, and using it to paint a smile onto the other man’s face. The man on the left is in a cubist style, the viewer sees both his profile and his face straight on. His skin is literally white and merges with his white shirt. He wears a red and black jacket, with O M G pinned down one lapel, with gold tassels, and military stripes. He has bananas on his head.

Posing for Picasso. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Oil on canvas.

The idea of painting myself as Picasso might have done, amused and interested me. I copied his Woman in a Fish Hat to get my eye in. I like Picasso’s cubist hand, the red paint on his brush literally paints a smile onto my face. His sleeve become a palette I am holding. I’m wearing my red jacket with the OMG I got from a Queen. Bananas suited me better than fish.

In the foreground is a copy of Paul Gauguin’s self portrait, white man with brown curly hair and droopy moustache, in a blue shirt and jumper. On the jumper is an orange dog, and a badge “Ask Paul Tahiti Tours’. Behind Paul is a Tahitian landscape with a blue sky, white clouds, purple mountain, yellow sea, pink sand, green grass. Behind Paul’s left shoulder is a white man with short grey hair and white stubble. Out of his head grow two palm trees. Behind Paul’s right shoulder is a white man in red trunks and an orange t-shirt holding six colourful parrots. Either side sit two Tahitian women from Gauguin’s paintings. Slightly surreal, dream like quality. 

Dreaming of Paul Gauguin. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm) Oil on canvas.

Next, Paul Gauguin. I copied his monumental self portrait. He could be carved out of rock. I decided to put him in Tahiti, and copied elements of his landscapes and colour palette. About that time Adrian found an old photo of himself with six parrots, which I thought would fit in with the tropical theme, and if he was going to Tahiti so was I. Gauguin became our tour guide. A couple of Tahitian beauties joined us.

18” x 24” (46 x 61cm) Oil on canvas.  White man naked, lying on the grass, with a Gauguin book behind his head, and holding a hot water bottle over his groin, this is a parody of Gauguin’s painting of a Tahitian beauty. Blue sky, purple mountain, orange sunset. On the right a white man prunes a kiwi vine. There’s an orange dog stalking a cock pheasant, an abundance of flora, a couple of tomatoes, and some impasto dandelions.

Queen of Beauty (after Gauguin). 18” x 24” (46 x 61cm). Oil on canvas.

Talking of beauties, it amused me to paint myself naked, lying on the grass, like so many female portraits over the years. I copied the pose in Gauguin’s painting, Queen of Beauty. Instead of a fan, I hold a book about Gauguin behind my head. Instead of drapery, I have a hot water bottle covering my groin. Adrian’s there in the background pruning the kiwis. Jessica’s there stalking a cock pheasant. Symbolism darling.

Tahitian landscape in Gauguin style, blue sky, white cloud, big purple mountain, orange slopes, a mixture of foliage, trees, bushes, pink sand, and in the foreground two white men meet. Gauguin on the left wears a blue coat, straw hat, has brown hair and beard, and holds out a sunflower with a heart shaped centre. Van Gogh on the right wears a pale blue suit, hat, tie and gloves. He has his arms open to give Gauguin a hug. Above him flutters a white dove with a sprig of olive. 

Friends Reunited! Gauguin welcomes Van Gogh to Tahiti. 16” x 20” (41 x 51cm). Oil on canvas.

What if Gauguin and Van Gogh were alive today, and could meet up in Tahiti, knowing how successful their art had become? Me, Adrian and Jessica are there in the background watching this historic moment. Gauguin carries a sunflower with a heart shaped centre. A dove of peace descends above Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s wearing his best suit.

Features two white men, in a garden, one painting a chair, the other painting a cottage. Man in the bottom left corner is sitting in a gold armchair, painting at an easel. He’s wearing a red sweatshirt. He has short grey hair and white stubble. At his feet, the top half of a ginger dog lies upside down on the grass, laughing. The man on the right wears a blue baseball cap, a grey hoodie, and blue jeans. A tree seems to rise behind him like angel wings. He is painting a chair in rainbow colours at a table. On the table is a tin of ‘Gay Paint’ with a rainbow rising towards the chair. The lower end of the ginger dog appears at the right edge of the painting. In the background is a pale green shed with pompoms at the door, paintings on the walls, sunflowers at one window, Tahitian landscape at another window. 

Selfie painting AD painting a chair. 18” x 24” (46 x 61cm). Oil on canvas.

I was painting a lot and one day Adrian started painting too. He was painting a chair, so I painted him, with my studio in the background, and Jessica stretching out so long that she appears in both sides of the painting.

Two white men. On the left is a copy of a Van Gogh self portrait, with a bit of an added smile. He wears a blue cloak and white shirt. His face is in green tones with orange hair. Behind him are a mass of sunflowers, thickly painted. The man on the right has his head on Van Gogh’s shoulder, and is reaching round hugging him, with his fingers clasped, in a heart shaped knot. He’s wearing a bright orange sweatshirt, his face in pink, purple and yellow tones. He has cropped hair and white stubble. Both men look at the viewer with smiles.  

Hugging Van Gogh. 18” x 24” (46 x 61cm). Oil on canvas.

I started reading Van Gogh’s letters. At one point I just wanted to give him a hug. I’ve been painting sunflowers a lot, and of course he did too, so I’ve used sunflowers to give us both halos. I put more of a smile on his face than in his self-portrait.

On the left is Van Gogh, head and shoulders, copied from a self portrait, green face tones, with orange hair, beard and moustache. He wears a blue catsuit (like Elvis in Las Vegas!) with a Japanese print decoration, showing an orange unicorn under a waterfall. On the right is a white man, with blue eyes, wearing white face and hand make up, red lips, dressed as a Japanese lady, with a black and orange kimono, elaborate black hair festooned with ribbons, comb and pins. He clenches magnolia blossom between his teeth, a sign of hope, and with his right hand he’s painting in Van Gogh’s teeth. The background is a blue sky with a white sun between the men.

Making Van Gogh Smile. 18” x 24” (46 x 61cm). Oil on canvas.

I read that Van Gogh tried not to smile because he had lost most of his teeth. That struck me as sad, and I decided to paint him with a smile on his face.

Click here to view images and text about how Making van Goph Smile was created.
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