A Painter’s Progress: A Portrait of Lucian Freud

by David Dawson

A Painter’s Progress is a collection of 241 behind-the-scenes photographs taken by David Dawson, who was Lucian Freud’s assistant for nearly twenty years. Many of the photos taken in Freud’s studio include nude models, portrait sitters, and his whippets, Pluto and Eli. There are photos documenting several iterations of works in progress. Other photos include Freud viewing artwork in museums, meeting prominent people, having breakfast, and relaxing at home. There are also photos showing Freud’s posthumous exhibition being installed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The messy walls are a quirky feature of Freud’s studio. “The walls were covered in semi-dry, clotted paint scraped from his palette when he cleaned. The paint was left to dry out of reach, building up over many years like deposits of guano on rock. He also used any bare wall to scribble reminders about a particular painting, phone numbers or paint colours that were running low. I would come to check the walls as a kind of ongoing diary.”


Awkward is a word often used by critics describing Freud’s paintings. “He always tried to catch a scene rather than compose it. Speaking to Bill Feaver, Lucian has said, ‘If I’m putting someone in a picture I like to feel that they’ve fallen asleep there, or they’ve elbowed their own way in. They are there not to make the picture easy on the eye or more pleasant…’ He liked things to look awkward in the way that life looks awkward. The idea of a story didn’t bother him as he thought ‘everything’s a story’.”

“He would come very close to the sitter to get more information from different angles. Once he had what he needed he would clean the palette of its previous colour with his knife, adding paint to the wall. Then he would remix a new colour for almost every brushstroke. He didn’t want a single colour to dominate a painting. Once the fresh colour was mixed he would look again at the sitter, make any further adjustments to the colour, and when he felt he had enough information he would paint. He wanted his portraits of you to be how you are.”

Dawson also includes some direct quotes from Freud about painting his subjects:

You have to trust what you see and what you feel… I never put anything into a painting that I don’t actually see when I’m painting… I am always reacting to what is there. You have the person in front of you and you are trying to relay something of who the person is as a physical and emotional presence.

If you don’t over-direct your models but focus on the physical presence, interesting things often happen.

Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait. A naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual. When someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves… That means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent their honesty. It is a matter of responsibility.

In a way I don’t want the painting to come from me. I want it to come from them.

“As a sitter you held the position of being passive, with Lucian continually encouraging you. He made you feel that you were understood by him. He could not be shocked by any confession or by anything said. He was immensely interested in other people. There was always a sense of balance around Lucian.”

The book includes photos of Queen Elizabeth II posing from her portrait at Saint James Palace. “The Queen was very generous and cleared her calendar for the amount of time that would suit Lucian and give him every chance to complete the painting. Henrietta Edwards, a courtier, stepped in as the model when it came for the diadem [crown] to be painted. The following year he painted Henrietta’s portrait, Woman with Eyes Closed.”

Dawson describes Freud’s friendship with Frank Auerbach. “The depth of the friendship between the two was reflected in the fact that when Lucian was near to finishing a painting we would always phone up and ask Frank to come round. He was the one person Lucian would listen to. He would take something from what Frank might say about a painting. Frank would arrive at the studio at first light. Lucian was a huge admirer of Frank’s work and lived with many of his paintings. He told me that these paintings were the ones he wanted to live with, learn from, and inspire him.”

For painters interested in Freud’s materials, the book includes a list of Freud’s twenty favorite paint colors. The author also notes, “Lucian told me that the most helpful book on paint is The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting by Max Doerner.”

The book has much less text than I expected. Given the author’s special access, I’m sure he has many more interesting insights and stories about the artist’s life, but maybe less is more. Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words. In any case, these photos offer an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the life of a contemporary master of representational art.

Dawson, David. A Painter’s Progress: A Portrait of Lucian Freud. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. Buy from Amazon.com

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