Question: What do you look for when creating a portrait sketch and what decisions do you make to create the final painting?
Of all the subjects I enjoy painting, none has brought me more enjoyment than the head study. People have always been my favorite subjects, but I was not introduced to the joy of painting portraits from life until figure painting class in college. The adrenaline rush from the limited time frame coupled with the challenge of capturing a complex subject quickly had me hooked.
The typical brevity of a life painting session simply does not allow enough time to capture everything. This time limit can be exhilarating, but it is also challenging, as it forces the painter to set goals, prioritize, and simplify.
My goal is to truthfully capture the subject’s beauty. On a technical level, this can be achieved by faithfully depicting the subject’s appearance in these four areas: drawing, value, edge and temperature. By prioritizing these four in this order, I find I can capture the most important information in the shortest time possible. I don’t always meet my goal to my complete satisfaction, but I find I can consistently come close using the systematic process I’ll demonstrate.
I build a head study (or “portrait sketch” as I call it) as one would build a house–from the ground up. I start with the foundation of drawing (the act of placing the correct marks in the correct places). I then build a framework of general shapes of value (shades of dark and light). At the same time, I consider the basic relationships of temperature (a color’s relative “warmth” or “coolness”). Next, I analyze the edges between each shape of value. In the beginning, the shapes I paint are broad and simplified, but they become gradually smaller and more specific as I progress. Likewise, the edges, temperature relationships, and colors become gradually more refined. I paint the details last.
Toning & Drawing
First, I tone my surface. Darkening the initial stark white of the canvas makes it easier to gauge values. I usually tone my canvas with a grayed version of the scene’s overall, average color. Using a flat brush with a fine edge, I draw with thin, precise lines. A general outline of the head establishes its size and placement. A line down the center of the face helps capture any tilt and/or rotation of the head. Perpendicular to this line, three lines can be drawn to place the center of the eyes, the base of the nose, and the mouth opening. Remembering a few general rules of proportion can greatly assist the drawing.
• The centers of the eyes are halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top of the skull.
• The base of the nose is about halfway between the brows and the bottom of the chin.
• The mouth opening is at the top 3rd between the base of the nose and the bottom of the chin.
Once I’m confident I have a reasonably accurate foundation of drawing, I’m ready to start thinking about value. However, there is never a point in the process when I stop drawing. Even as I make my final brush strokes, I am still concerned with placing the correct marks in the correct places.
Establishing a Value Range
Capturing the effects of light and creating the illusion of 3-dimensionality begins with value. Painters must carefully analyze the relationships between the values in the subject, or else risk the painting looking “flat.”
The first values I paint are the very darkest value and the very lightest value in the subject. I paint these first to establish a value range for my painting. These initial two values serve as anchors against which I gauge the other values.
Blocking In General Values of Light and Shadow
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast array of values visible to our eyes. That’s why it is essential to simplify the subject’s values, especially in the beginning stages. At this time, I paint two more values–one average value for the lit side of the model’s face and one average value for the shadowed side. To mix these values accurately, I study them with my eyelids halfway closed. Squinting like this makes comparing values easier. While squinting, I look at the lit side of the model’s face and ask myself, “How much darker is this value than the very lightest value?” I look at the shadowed side of the face and ask, “How much lighter is this value than the very darkest value?” I compare the lit side to the shadowed side in the same way. I mix one average value for the lit side of the face and one average value for the shadowed side, then paint these two values as large, general shapes.
Certainly, there are many variations of value within these two shapes. However, a careful inspection reveals the variations are surprisingly very closely related to the initial average values. When I become preoccupied with painting all the minute value variations too early, I usually break the delicate relationship between the lit and shadowed values of the head, and my portrait ends up looking “over-modeled.” I also resist the urge to become preoccupied with color. Remembering my time limit and priorities, I resolve to put value above color at this stage of the painting. Now is the time to establish a strong foundation of value to capture the appearance of light and form. Later, I can take time to mix more specific color, but for now, one average color for each value shape will suffice.
Though I don’t focus on specific color right now, I do consider the basic temperature relationship between the lit region and the shadowed region. Because the model is illuminated by a light that is cooler (whitish or bluish), the resulting shadows are comparatively warmer (containing a bit more yellow or red). Very early on, I strive to establish this temperature relationship by mixing my average color for the lit region cooler than my average color for the shadowed region.
Blocking In Midtone Values / Most Intense Color
Next, I block in the “halftones” or “midtones”–the values that occur between the lit and shadowed regions. I maintain accuracy by continuing to squint and compare. It’s a good habit to paint the most intense or saturated color at an early point. Much like I use the very darkest and lightest values to determine other values, I use the most intense color to measure other colors. When mixing a new color, I ask questions like “How much grayer is this color than the most intense color?”
Blocking In Other Elements
Just as I “blocked in” the face, I now simplify the other elements into two values for each–one value for the lit side, and one value for the shadowed side. Still squinting, I compare each new value to ones I’ve established previously. As I mix each new value, I ask myself, “Is this value lighter or darker than one I’ve already painted?” Then, I ask “HOW MUCH lighter or darker?” Asking and answering these questions helps establish correct value relationships, which in turn enables the convincing portrayal of light and 3-dimensionality.
Painting Smaller Shapes
Once I’ve laid a foundation of broad, general value shapes, I start building on top with progressively smaller and more specific shapes. For each new shape, I squint and compare. If you squint at this image, you’ll notice that the large initial regions of light and shadow are still evident. Even though I now add value variations within these regions, I strive to carefully keep these variations properly subtle and closely related to the general value families I’ve established. To keep from pushing these subtle value variations too far, I remember that within each object, no value in the lit side can be as dark as any value in the shadowed side. Conversely, no value in the shadowed side can be as light as any value in the lit side.
Painting Even Smaller Shapes
Once the basic shapes and values of the eye sockets are in place, I begin painting the smaller, more specific shapes on top. At this point, time has run out for the life painting session, but I will complete the portrait later using a photo.
The block-in stage helps to properly understand the subject’s forms in a simplified fashion, as though the forms were composed of a mosaic of angled planes or facets. However, now it’s time to consider the edges between these planes. An abrupt angle change between planes will yield a harder edge. A gradual, rounded transition between planes will yield a softer edge. A “lost edge” occurs when the boundary between two shapes is indiscernible. To avoid my painting looking labored, I strive to paint edges with as few strokes as possible. I create softer edges in two main ways– 1) by dragging one shape into another with a clean, dry brush or 2) by adding a shape of intermediate value between two other value shapes.
Typically, very few sharp edges occur within the human face. While relatively sharp edges may occur in spots like the top edge of a nostril, the highlight of an eye, or the outer edge of the jaw, the majority of edges within the face tend to be relatively soft. At first, I like to slightly over-soften the facial features. Later, I may place a few smaller, sharper-edged strokes on top, but only if necessary. Just a few of these sharper-edged shapes, contrasted by an underlying foundation of softer shapes, are enough to convincingly convey the great variety of edges that occur in real life.
Here is a close-up of the mouth in the block-in stage.
I soften the blocky shapes of the mouth to more closely match the edges in the subject. Softening can also reduce glare by flattening the surface of the paint. To do this, I use a dry, soft-haired brush (such as a mongoose hair or sable brush) to make very light vertical strokes, so that the brush hairs barely touch the paint.
Now, the mouth can be finished with just a few smaller, firmer-edged shapes on top.
This is my framework of basic shapes for the eyes.
Painting on top of this framework, I bring the eyes to completion with a few little shapes of detail.
A question I’m commonly asked by students is “how do you know when your painting is finished?” Artists have many different answers to this question. I consider my painting finished after I’m satisfied I’ve met my goal of truthfully capturing the subject, but before I ruin visual energy and vitality resulting from the life session. At this point, it is time for me to call the painting “done.”
Adam Clague has a Masters degree in Fine Art and lives an Missouri. To learn more about Adam and his work, visit his website.
This looks pretty cool. A light show using birds. Check it out.
Blessings for a creative week.
Those landscape painters among us can’t recall a single fist fight breaking out over our humble art form (Okay, maybe that ONE time. But SHE hurled the first swing. But really. I digress). Historically speaking, most would not consider landscape painting as the controversial art form we think of with, say, a Jackson Pollock or Damien Hirst .
For heavens sake, landscapes are so harmless that THIS was my last year’s Christmas Card.
But perhaps, like your cat, those greeting card landscapes aren’t as innocent as they look. And among their ranks, are the artists of the Netherlands.
BadAss Dutch Landscape Painters
You could fit the Netherlands into Maryland. But you’d have to shove pretty hard to include all its groundbreaking artists as well. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bosch, Breugal, Vermeer, Mondrian, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Frans Hal…well heck, they can’t even fit around this table at Applebee’s.
Many of those on the list are landscape painters; landscape painters with an axe to grind. And the object of their discontent was none other than the Catholic Church.
Not So Sunday School Suitable Anymore
Like all the the European artists of the time, previous 15thc. themes of the Dutch centered around religion. However, after the Spanish Wars and subsequent suppression by those conquerors, painters voiced their protest (get it? Protestant?) in paint.
Landscape painters of Northern Netherlands (Again. Protestant), like Bruegel, sought to break from the religious-themed paintings that served of reminders of the rule of the Catholic Spanish Kings. Instead, they chose more secular themes in rebellion against those.
Their home-town team fight-song came in the form of paintings of farms and hunters and peasant weddings.
Later, it would be the English who chose Landscape as their messenger of choice.
Those crazy tree huggin’, outdoor lovin’ Romantics
In the early 1800’s English painter, John Constable bucked the entrenched system of hoighty toighties by choosing NOT to paint the mythological, historical settings, and instead, as he put it, “I should paint my own places best.” This mantra is the writers’ workshop equivalent of “write what you know.”
He and other Romantic artists warned against the encroachment of the Industrial Age. Constable’s diary reads like a Sierra Club handbook.
Likewise, the American version of the Romantic painters. A stern “talking to” in paint.
It is harder to find Waldo than the moral message encoded in a American Hudson River School Artist, Thomas Cole landscapes.
So take the ruler with which he is rapping our knuckles and draw a diagonal through his 1836 painting, The Oxbow.
In a time, when Western Expansion was a political hot potato, he gives us this flip chart demonstration of what civilizing might look like.
If you ever read From Rembrandt to Diebenkorn , painters like to supply other painters with good rules of painting and living. One Dutch artist, Karel Van Mander (master of Frans Hals. In his popular Painter’s Book ), he supplied this list of do’s and don’ts. It is pretty telling.
- Do not get drunk or fight
- Do not fall in love too young and marry too soon. The bride must be 10 years younger than the groom. (Uh…)
- While traveling avoid little inns. Always examine the bedding. (okay that’s a good tip)
- Be careful in Italy for there are many opportunities for wasting your money (That 6 euros for a gelato, for example)
- Keep away from prostitutes. It is a sin and they make you sick. (yeah. I would say so)
- Show Italians how wrong they are in their belief that Flemish painters cannot paint human figures.
- In Rome, study drawing, in Venice, painting.
- Finally, eat breakfast early and avoid melancholia.
Later, in France, those crazy Impressionists would continue the rebellious tradition. Their patches of unblended color, the spontaneity and the everyday subject matter would cause the critics to claim ‘foul’.
So. I ask you. Are you badass enough to landscape paint?
Jean Cauthen is a Painter and fake Art Historian. She has a studio in Mint Hill, NC and teaches Arts and Culture classes at UNCC. Her painting workshops in Italy always include a “Gelato and Art History” tour of Florence, Italy where she asks that participants keep any discrepancies to themselves and focus on the gelato.
A brief history of Ultramarine…true blue. The Paris Review published this article, True Blue, on one of stables on a painter’s palette last fall and I keep forgetting to share it. But not today. Go Blue.
Question: When conveying strong emotion in a figure painting, what should I keep in mind?
For me, my life-interests manifest in my work. I am deeply fascinated by the psychology of humans. Despite the overpopulation of the world, we all share certain emotions – anger, love, betrayal, etc. The interesting part comes when each individual shows these feelings outwardly. The subtle changes in a face’s “tells” are endlessly intriguing to me.
All artists hope to tell a story non-verbally. My goal has always been to say something deeper than just “here is a model.” Each person I paint/draw has their own traumas and obstacles they have encountered in life. I want to tap into that. I want to portray emotions. With that comes different manifestations of each emotion from subject to subject. No two people are the same. They all process information differently, and, thus, show things differently. The realness of a mood is very relatable, though, not always welcome. Some people will, naturally, choose to suppress non-happy feelings. Which is another aspect of human psychology that interests me.
With a constant flood of tiny variations to even one emotion, I am always ready to put them down in charcoal or oil.
Once I decide on general mood for a piece while brainstorming, I then mentally zoom out and start thinking more about atmosphere. I think that body language is all-encompassing. Moods aren’t only portrayed with eye-rolling or death-stares. The placement of hands can run the spectrum from soft and delicate to menacing and violent. Zooming out even farther, the placement of the subject in the composition is also something I weigh heavily. Composition is what first brings the viewer into a piece – it makes them look longer and notice all the other things that the piece has to offer. When I enter a wing in a museum, I sweep my gaze around, and typically always beeline for the piece with the strongest composition. In a world of online thumbnail versions of our work, the composition needs to be incredibly strong to lead the viewer to take a second look and to also support the main idea.
I can become very connected with my art. Since I am trying to bring emotions to the surface, it’s important to feel that emotion as well. If I didn’t try to tap into it myself, the piece wouldn’t be as raw or real. When trying to truly connect to someone, I think that I need to be an authentic vessel – carrying a mood from conception to viewing.
This can be both completely exhausting and also gratifying. All of my feelings are right at the surface when I work. When painting for a solo show last year, there were times that I was wiping tears away while working. Not because I was “sad” particularly…it was a more visceral than just “sad.” I was feeling many different moods back to back, as a result each piece in the show was a flow of moods. This allowed me to reflect and work through issues in my personal life. It was a cathartic and healthy experience.
Kate Zambrano is an American painter hailing from across the United States. She grew up, with her sketchbook in hand, having a fervent desire to recreate the things she found beautiful.
To learn more about Kate and to see more of her work visit her website at KateZambrano.com
Start your week with this video of Van Gogh’s still life paintings. Listen to critics, Blake Gopnik and Christian Viveros-Fauné take on 4 paintings of irises and roses. I always enjoy their take on art.
Question: How do you bring a fresh approach to a scene that you’ve painted several times before?
Painting the same scene or at the same location can have it’s challenges. I may paint an area that I’ve painted frequently in the past because of necessity- maybe a gallery prefers paintings from that location or perhaps I am participating in a plein air show in the area, or I might just really like the location.
The first thing I do when I get to a location is take a quick walk around, composing a painting in my mind or doing a few really quick thumbnail sketches in my sketch pad. I might see a scene that is the obvious choice but find a way to tweak that view, or pass it up completely and look for different angles or a design that would still incorporate everything that I was attracted to in the first place.
Sometimes, I may come upon a unique view by accident. While walking in Paris one evening at sunset, I came around the corner and was confronted with this grand close-up view of the Eiffel Tower and it’s immense size and scale. I immediately knew that I wanted to paint that view – it was so different then anything I had seen before.
When painting at a plein air show at the Grand Canyon, I know that I can’t compete with all those wonderful painters who paint the sprawling vistas and the grandeur of the canyon really well. So, I’ll hike down the trails, looking for something different, or even narrow my focus to something in the distance, maybe a view of the river winding through a gorge or a cloudscape.
One year, I painted one of the sight-seeing planes at the nearby airport and drove over to the canyon rim and filled in the background with the view of the canyon, to make it appear that the aircraft was in flight. I had more fun painting that scene and it was certainly different from any of the other paintings in the show. To do something like that, you really need to know your strengths and weaknesses as a painter.
With my background in illustration, I’ve always felt more comfortable drawing than painting, so getting an airplane down quickly, in the right perspective, was not a problem and I knew it might be worth the challenge. I later tried the same thing at a show in Carmel and won an award for the painting, but now I need to avoid that subject for awhile – I don’t want to be pegged as the plein air airplane painter (then it’s no longer unique).
When painting the coast, especially Crystal Cove near Laguna Beach, I’m always looking for some different idea, whether it is a view from above the beach or below, using the light in a different way, perhaps focusing on an activity on the beach. I might not even show the water, just showing the long trek across the sand in the morning haze. Finding something new can seem like an impossible task – the coastline here in Southern California has been painted inside out over the past century, and I’m sure I’m not breaking any new ground. As long as I find something that interests me, I know that I will enjoy the process and that, hopefully, the viewer will feel my emotional response to the scene.
It’s always important to remember to paint what interests you, and not what you think others might find interesting. When searching for something unique, don’t paint it just to impress others or to stand out among your peers. Find something that YOU like, that you know you can paint, that is fresh in your eyes. The painting will have a greater chance of being successful. I have found scenes that I’ve never seen painted before, that intrigued me so much that I didn’t know where to start, or what NOT to include. I came across a view over downtown Los Angeles where every turn on the old road had something new to offer. I had never seen this view before. I did a series of pencil sketches and then small painting sketches, trying to capture as much as I could, moving things around, but remembering to keep that feeling that I had when I first saw it. After finally settling on a view for a painting, it no longer seemed unique or new to me. Only after getting some positive feedback on the piece after it was finished did I realize that it was still a somewhat fresh view.
Finding a good painting spot can take a lot of energy and work (why do all the best views seem to be from the middle of a highway where you can’t pull over?!?). Sometimes it takes a little walking around, getting away from your comfort zone, sketching some designs and compositions that work. Think outside the box a little bit, but remember what it is you are trying to convey, what story you are trying to tell with your painting.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not so much what you are painting, but how you paint it. But that’s a blog post for another time…
Michael Obermeyer is a Signature member of LPAPA.
Visit his website to see more of his work.
I have been a Gamblin Artist Colors fan for over 10 years. Their products and the information that they share on the website is great. I have called them on numerous occasions with questions and always got a wealth of information. Full disclosure they are one of our Art Muse Contest sponsors but I was Gamblin “girl” long before then. Despite the fact that I’ve visited the website for information many, many times I somehow overlooked the video about varnishes. I thought I’d share it with you. Happy varnishing.