Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

by Martin Gayford  

Art critic and author Martin Gayford sat for two portraits by Lucian Freud: a painting which took 40 sittings spanning eight months (November 2003 to July 2004) and an etching over a similar period of time (August 2004 to April 2005). Through the author’s observations and conversations with the artist over many hours working and dining together, this fascinating book describes the studio set up, the artist’s process and quirks, as well as Freud’s views on art and various other artists.

STUDIO. “The studio is the setting for numerous works of art, many in the past, several going on at the moment. In addition to the picture of me and the full-length of Andrew Parker Bowles in uniform, there is also an etching of the girl who comes in the afternoon and a nude, almost finished, that a model sits for on evenings when I am not there… He likes to call his nudes ‘naked portraits.’”

SCHEDULE. Freud was in his early eighties during this time and was maintaining a very busy schedule “comprising the horses, me, the afternoon girl, Andrew Parker Bowles, and the nude with the cherries… ‘I usually have five or six going on at a given time.’ … He takes as long as the painting seems to require: always dozens of hours, sometimes hundreds… There is no sense of hurry. That is one reason why it is relaxing, almost therapeutic.”

TALKING. “I asked if talking is allowed while I’m posing, and LF says it is… In practice we alternate between conversation and periods when his concentration is intense. During those he keeps up a constant dance-like movement, stepping sideways, peering at me intently, measuring with charcoal.”

“For the artist it is important to elicit the facial movements, glances and expressions through which in large part we recognize and communicate with each other. But to do so the artist must interact with the sitter. Thus conversation is not just a by-product of the portrait sittings, a way of passing the time and keeping the subject from sinking into a slough of boredom. Of course, it is that too… But it is also necessary.”

PROCESS. “He then repaints the shirt collar, taking out a rather beautiful shadow on the left and which he has trouble putting back. ‘It was nicely painted but roughly painted, and I don’t like to paint roughly. All the way through with this painting, it’s gone like that. First of all I painted something loosely, then more carefully.’”

“He continues on the theme of brushwork: ‘In a way I work the way I do because I can’t see what I’m doing. I decided long ago not to wear reading glasses when I painted, although I do when I make etchings because that is very close work. It’s only by stepping back that I can see what I’ve been painting, so it’s more like aiming at a target while I’m actually putting the paint on. But I’m sure if I wore glasses it would affect the way I paint. Also, I don’t use my left eye very much; I have something called a lazy eye, which was discovered too late to correct it.’”

Man with a Blue Scarf, 2003-04.
Painting by Lucian Freud

REFLECTION OF THE ARTIST. “In his memoir Avant et après, Gaugin made a remark that seems relevant to his own picture of Vincent—and perhaps also to LF and me. ‘Pictures and writings’, he pointed out, ‘are portraits of their authors.’ In other words, all works of art and literature reflect the minds that created them. Gaugin’s theory implies that Man with a Blue Scarf is a reflection of LF as much as of me.”

“Then again, perhaps the true subject of a portrait is the interchange between painter and subject—what the sitter consciously or unconsciously reveals, and the artist picks up.”

POSING. “‘You look different every day.’ ‘More than most people?’ ‘More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered. The features don’t change, it’s more the way that they are worn.’ This, I suggest, must be to do with the fluctuation of my moods. ‘Well, that’s what I assumed.’”

Freud lived in the moment rather than following a strict plan. “I arrive unusually disheveled, having had a long and complicated day… The net result of all this activity is that my hair is sticking out all over the place. LF is stimulated by this sight. ‘I had expected to paint a shirt this evening, instead I find I am painting hair. It’s a good sign when I change plan like that.’”

MODELS. “LF’s taste in plants and landscape are very much like his preferences in human models. He likes them unadorned, as they actually are.”

“He has painted aristocrats—the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Baron Thyssen, Jacob Rothschild—but also burglars, Soho drunks, artists, writers, a jockey, several bookmakers, in fact a whole gallery of individuals who appealed to him as subjects for one reason or another. The categories of people who seem not to intrigue him are those who are playing a role—not themselves—and those who lack any intensity of personality: the nondescript.”

He is constantly on the lookout for potential subjects. “The qualifications are hard for him to state. ‘I choose the subjects of my paintings on impulse. Because I’m not very introspective it’s hard for me to say just why that is.’ Sometimes he depicts people he knows well, but he has known some friends very well for many years without getting round to painting them. Experience of working with other artists is a positive disadvantage.”

ARTISTS. Freud liked the work of Mondrian, Rodin, Ingres, Van Gogh. He and Francis Bacon were friends. On the other hand, he thought Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the “nearest painting can get to bad breath.”

He liked some of Nicolas Poussin’s work. “‘There’s a very good one at Chatsworth… It’s one of the ones that don’t rhyme.’ … What LF means by pictures ‘rhyming’ is a graceful flow of forms, each interlocking or echoing another. ‘I think that somehow, if all the forms fit together smoothly and neatly, the painting is never really memorable.’”

“Above all, he is mad about the two late Titians… ‘These Titians are so full of light, and air. Since then, they’ve been my absolute favorites. I love so many things about them. I like the way that, the more you look at them, the more dogs you seem to find. And the way the drapery flung over the branch to the right of Diana and Callisto, and the curtain to the left of Diana and Actaeon, were both obviously done at the last minute out of pure joie de vivre… The water, the dogs, the people, though they are involved with each other, are there to please us. To me, these are simply the most beautiful pictures in the world. Once you’ve seen them you want to see them again and again.’”

“But vastly as he loves certain pictures—those Titians for example—LF feels it is important not to look back with too much reverence. A painter must see all that has been produced up to now as merely an aid to his own work… ‘Excessive reverence for the art of the past [would be] completely crippling.’”

QUALITY. “Once again, for him quality in art is inextricably bound up with emotional honesty and truthfulness.”

“It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again (this point has been made to me by apparently very different artists, including Luc Tuymans and Richard Serra, as well as LF). Also, a certain work of art may produce quite different feelings in different people; in fact, it evokes altered responses in the same person at differing times.” Side note: This topic was explored by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the book The Art of Seeing.

LUCIAN FREUD’S ART. “A certain range of colors is characteristic of LF’s work—oatmeal, greys, whites, beiges, light yellows, creams, browns, and blacks. He once called them ‘the colors of life’, and one quality they have in common is that they don’t call attention to themselves. His house and his clothes are the same. LF dresses for the most part in that same range of grey and cream shades. Nothing shouts. In contrast, some other painters favor flamboyantly bright hues in both their work and their surroundings. Such matters, LF points out, are a product of temperament: ‘In the end, nothing goes with anything. It’s your taste that puts things together.’”

“I pass on an intriguing observation of Hirst’s about LF’s pictures: ‘What I love about Freud is that interplay between the representational and the abstract. His work looks so photographic from far away, and when you get up close it’s like an early de Kooning. You can always tell a great painting because when you get close there are all these nervous marks.’ LF is pleased. ‘Oh, I like that. It’s like the people in Paddington saying, Lu, your work is funny. When you look at it from a distance you can see what it is, but when you look at it close to, it’s a complete mess.’”

“The awkwardness that critics sometimes complain of in LF’s work is deliberate.” In another section of the book the term “unhomogenized reality” is used to describe what Freud was aiming for.

“LF is highly conscious of a painting’s physical constitution. He is already thinking, he says, about how his own works will age through time, and wishes restorers would allow ‘old things to look old.’”

Portrait Head 2004-05.
Etching by Lucian Freud

While working on the etching, he said, “When I’m working I want to think about forms and not to be too conscious of the lines. I want to feel I’m doing a painting.”

Noting that the painting and the etching were very different, Gayford quotes Van Gogh: “The same person supplies material for very diverse portraits.” During the same time period of these sittings Martin Gayford was doing research for his next book, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence.

Gayford, Martin. Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. Thames & Hudson, 2010. Buy from

Note: I have modified the spelling to appease my American spellchecker.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


A Painter’s Progress: A Portrait of Lucian Freud by David Dawson

Lucian Freud Portaits, a film by Jake Auerbach and William Feaver consisting of interviews with some of Freud’s models, including Andrew Parker Bowles, David Dawson, David Hockney, and others.