Bacon’s Working Practice

Still of Emmanuelle Riva from Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais, 1959, plate from an unknown book
(one source image for the painting)
Still of Emmanuelle Riva from Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais, 1959, plate from an unknown book
(one source image for the painting)
Francis Bacon, Study of Henrietta Moraes, 1969

Bacon generally began a painting by roughly sketching out the composition directly onto the canvas, in thinned oil paint. In forming these images the preliminaries to the first assault on the canvas often took the form of brief, handwritten notes, and the manipulation of photographs.

Isabel Rawsthorne, Soho, 1965
Photograph by John Deakin
(one source image for the painting)
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967
Frame from ‘Men Wrestling’, The Human Figure in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, 1955
(one source image for the painting)
Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953

Since the invention of photography many artists have made use of ‘mechanical reproductions’, from Degas through Picasso to Warhol. Bacon transformed what was frequently banal photo-imagery into paintings of exceptional potency. He was deeply secretive about his unconventional working procedures, and even intimates were seldom allowed to inspect the thousands of books and magazines precariously stacked on shelves in his studio, or the multitude of images spilling across the floor. The dialogue between Bacon’s nudes and Muybridge’s kinetic figure studies was identified as early as 1950, as was his admiration for Velázquez, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, but only since Bacon’s death has it been possible to begin to apprehend the full scope of his visual stimuli.

Frame from ‘Man Shadow Boxing’, The Human Figure in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, 1955
(one source image for the painting)
Frame from ‘Man Shadow Boxing’, The Human Figure in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, 1955
(one source image for the painting)
Francis Bacon, Study from the Human Body after Muybridge, 1988

Little of Bacon’s pre-1961 archive remained intact at his death. During his thirty-one years’ occupancy of the Reece Mews studio he instigated regular clear-outs when the floor became too densely clogged, even for him, with detritus. In 1981, he destroyed 24 sacks of this material, including, as Valerie Beston noted with chagrin, all his copies of Picture Post magazine. His complex syntheses of pictorial sources are becoming better understood, but although images he encountered in printed media resonated powerfully with him the process should not be confused with the end result, which depended on his performance in spontaneous, fluid paint. As Bacon declared to Sonia Orwell in 1954, ‘I want to paint, not hunt for newspaper cuttings.’ In order to ‘trap this living fact alive’ he sought the spectral quality of the human body in flux, re-forming flat images into vivid evocations of his living, breathing, but transient subjects.


David Sylvester discussing source material in Bacon’s studio.
From Bacon’s Arena documentary, 2005
(originally broadcast on BBC1, 18 September 1966)

Martin Harrison on Bacon’s working practice.
From Bacon’s Arena documentary, 2005