Doodles in the margin from an artist living and working in the Scottish Borders.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Twenty Lire and a Salami Sandwich.

Fausto Coppi - oil on board, 16" x 22".

So, new territory. A human being.

Hang on, you're saying: Fausto Coppi, two time Tour De France winner, cycling legend and cause celebre? Il Campionissimo himself? How come you move in such elevated circles, Rich - not to mention that he's been dead since 1960: what gives?


I was doing a lot of reading about the Tour de France and Coppi's story is a very interesting one. He was, above all, a phenomenally good cyclist. One of the giants of the sport, to this day. The interruption of his career by the Second World War (he was a prisoner of war in North Africa*) leaves it open to speculation about how much he might have won, but in the years either side of the war he was the dominant force in cycle racing, his achievements only ever exceeded by Eddie Mercx.

*(British cyclist Len Levesley, stretchered out with polio, awoke to find Fausto Coppi giving him a haircut.)

A certain amount of scandal pursued him - and by 'a certain amount' I mean that when his affair with Giulia Occhini ('the Woman in White') was revealed, Pope Pius XII told him to return to his wife and refused to bless the Giro d'Italia because Coppi was riding in it. Italy in the 1950s was not a place to look tolerantly on adultery, particularly when the Pope doesn't like you, and Coppi was publicly execrated, abused and spat at by spectators. After the scandal broke, his career went into a decline, and in later years he was described as almost literally a shadow of his former self: "a magnificent and grotesque washout of a man, ironical towards himself, nothing but the warmth of simple friendship could penetrate his melancholia."

Another, unignorable, fact about Coppi that would be as familiar today as tabloid headlines of a sportsman caught in adultery was his open admission to using drugs. Famously, when asked if he took "la bomba" (Italian road slang for amphetamines) he replied yes, when it was necessary. And when was it necessary? "Almost all the time."

There don't seem to be any great cyclists about whom you can't have reservations, but despite everything there is the legendary litany of Coppi's victories: five Giro d'Italia, five Tours of Lombardy, two Tours de France (he only ever rode three), Milan - San Remo three times, the horrible Paris-Roubaix, the hour record and the World Championship. He was good.

And he had an interesting face. He had a strange look about him on a bike, almost as if his legs were too long for it, but contemporary accounts all say how fluid, elegant and just damned stylish he was, as well as being tremendously effective, obviously. So, greatness and controversy, with style. That was what I wanted to paint.

The first thing that came to mind, almost before I'd really thought about who it would be, was the posture. I had Titian's Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve in mind:

because I wanted to allude to that sort of classical Italian greatness. I chose the deep red background for the same reasons, because it was imperial and at the same time suggestive of infamy. Also the sleeve in Titian's portrait says a great deal about the sitter, it sticks his opulence and wealth right there under the viewer's nose - get a load of that. I wanted Coppi's arm, the wiry muscle, the tan and that pallid band of flesh under his sleeve, to be as much of a statement about who and what he was. The goggles too were a symbol of his profession, but mainly I just thought they were pretty cool. I had to look up a lot of photographs to see whether such goggles were an anachronism or not because I was dead keen to put them in. Most of the photographs show Coppi riding in a pair of pretty snazzy sunglasses, but I came across a picture of Jean Robic in the 1947 Tour de France wearing a pair so that was enough for me. (Jean Robic won the 1947 Tour de France, and was five feet one inch tall. But that's another story.)

Rather than just copy (pardon) one photograph, I did some sketches based on a number of photographs, to get familiar with his head as a three-dimensional object of changing expression:

In the absence of a model (Mr Coppi, as mentioned above, being dead for the last fifty years) I wanted some suitably scrawny, pigeon chested individual to step in and pose. Luckily I have one such person close to hand. The final composite image was a horrible mess, badly patched together (with overdubbed arm and goggles) on GIMP, but all roughly in proportion so I could transfer it onto a grid for scaling up:

For the scaling up I used an OHP transparency divided into 5 and 7. I cut the board to the same proportions as a sheet of A4 paper and marked out the grid with thread, also increased by the same proportions. I was able to sketch out the outlines according to what was in each box. It meant I was able to have real colours, shadows, tones and the fall of the fabric to work from.

I won't go through the whole process of painting, but suffice to say I learned a lot. Not least that the tiniest brush strokes can alter entire expressions, and even the degree of resemblance. It's extraordinary. I worked and re-worked the mouth and the end of his splendid nose so many times. I was also haunted by his startling resemblance to Dimitar Berbatov.

I looked up the classic Bianchi shirt (an Italian rider had to be wearing a Bianchi shirt) and if it's not baby blue then I'm sure someone will correct me but frankly it's too bloody late now. Also in real life he's less pink than it looks in the photograph. And yeah, I'm happy with it. There may well be some tinkering yet to do, though...

And if you've read this far I'll reward your perseverance with the Fact that twenty lire and a salami sandwich were a fifteen year old Coppi's prize for winning his first race.

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