Henry Ward: in the Studio

Working from carefully composed photographs his studio in Burlington, Ontario (Canada), Henry Ward takes a traditional approach to portraiture; each artwork taking many months, often years, to complete.

Here, the artist talks us through his process, which balances the classical use of chiaroscuro (working with a single light source) with a meticulous attention to detail in order to both conceal and reveal the subject.

“My interest in light first stemmed from the work of Caravaggio. His painting The Supper at Emmaus, with its extraordinary use of scale and dramatic lighting, led me to research his process and the effects of light on the subject. His use of a single light source led me to my process with photography.

When making preparatory photographs, I situate the subject in front of a black backdrop and rove over the subject with a spotlight in a darkened room. This allows me to push back, or pull forward, the lighting, to create the perfect balance of figuration versus abstraction.

Technically speaking, all my works start with a sketch. This is developed into an imprimatura underpainting (an initial stain of colour) before being refined, through the blush colours of Rembrandt’s ‘dead colour palette’ (ochre, sienna and umber) into the fully rendered subject.

When all the details in the painting have been rendered in full, a wash is then applied vigorously and aggressively over the dark side of the head. This is brushed up, or scored back, in varying levels of opacity to create the desired balance of specificity versus archetype.

I extend the darkness to an intersection of light and dark, which turns into the round by means of blush colours and careful value changes. The intersection of planes and the undulations of the form necessitate the use of fine sable rigger brushes. These are used to brush, and then brush over, the intersections in order soften the colour intersections, whilst allowing these to undulate through light and dark. 

Darkness increases perceptually when placed against light; as such, the working up of the intersection gives greater focus to the sitter, whilst obscuring their immediate identity.

By using light to obscure the identity of the subjects, and by presenting these portraits together in a series, I aim to create an equality of subject that depicts us all, in our diversity, as one species. 

Rembrandt once memorably said: ‘When you have mastered the appearance of the form, you are at the beginning’. That is to say, the existence of the subject does not solely warrant its reproduction; it is the means by which an artist develops and expresses their philosophy.

The From Darkness to Light series is the culmination of over thirty years’ painting practice, whereby my philosophy has developed into a cohesive narrative based on those of the Old Masters in whose works light represented the presence of the Divine – darkness, our universal origins.”

Photographs (throughout) by Jason Gordon.

From Darkness To Light: Portraits by Henry Ward is on display in the Watlington Room from May 10 through to October 15. With support from the Christian Humann Foundation, Centennial Bermuda Foundation and D&J Construction.