Friday, February 26, 2016

A New Portrait

For the last several months, along with other paintings, I've been working on a new portrait. This one is primarily from life, although I'm also using photographs. Photos are useful to me for the nuances that make up a good likeness while life sittings help with personality, posture, and a lot of intangibles that also go into likeness. This particular work has taken a long time because it began as a "life-only" portrait, which I thought would proceed with regular sittings, perhaps weekly for a while. In real life, of course, things happen. In the end we weren't able to do regular sittings, there was a several months hiatus, and in the end I succumbed and took a number of reference photos to use as the portrait nears completion.

Portrait of Jule
In general, I begin portraits on a toned support, often 12x16 but occasionally larger or smaller, depending on whether the image is to be head only, head and shoulders, or half length. For most portraits, I tone with an umber, aiming for about value 5. For the imprimatura on this one I used raw umber mixed with ultramarine and thinned with turpentine. Another interesting color is turkey umber, a natural earth that gives a somewhat greenish tint. And for some purposes, raw umber alone is sufficient.

For me, a portrait must begin with life sittings. Even if I only manage a session or two, seeing the subject in the studio, in natural light, is most important. Although I've tried to do portraits from photos without having seen the subject, they're inevitably difficult and the results generally disappointing. Life sittings give me an opportunity to get to know my subject. Even if it's already someone I know pretty well, I find that sitting for a portrait provides opportunities to observe the sitter closely, both from the standpoint of conversation and physical appearance. I also shoot numerous digital photos that I can view on my tablet as I go. These are most useful with corrections to likeness, although today's tablets and laptops can provide very good color reproduction.

I begin the portrait with an ebauche, again commonly with an umber, to sketch out the main portions of the image. Most often, I wait until the support is dry and ready to accept paint but occasionally I've been impatient and worked into the wet imprimatura. Either way, this initial lay-in is intended as a kind of map of the features, an attempt to accurately suggest volume, and a value map as well. Some artists do a charcoal sketch or even a thoroughly detailed drawing over their imprimatura, but most of the time I simply draw with a filbert brush and relatively liquid paint.

Once an initial drawing--more or less detailed--is down, I decide how to proceed. Sometimes this initial paint-drawing in raw umber can be used as the basis for a grisaille.  In traditional painting, a grisaille, basically a monochrome gray underpainting, serves as a guide for the full-color finished work. Colors are laid over the relatively finished grisaille, matching values as you go, and variably kept as full-bodied and thick paint or removed, more or less, leaving various intensities of color behind and revealing more or less grey. That was the technique of many "old masters"--underpainting and then glazing. An important trick at that point is to remember to step all values in the grisaille up about one level to compensate for layering, which dims values. So skin, usually about value 7, would be painted at value 8 because of the dulling of value with overlying layers of paint results in a closer match to the actual value. In the end, when done with care and attention to values, this sort of technique gives lovely, glowing color. Many 18th and early 19th century portraits were painted using this method.

Another way to go about a portrait is to paint directly, matching the colors and values you see in the skin and hair of the sitter. This technique has the advantage of placing the sitter in the same location and time over a long enough period to give me real understanding of their features, bone structure, skin colors and color temperatures, and the like. Again, photos are indispensable as backups, of course. Care has to be taken to understand light in the photos and attention to how any photograph distorts features is also important. Photos (depending on lens properties, etc.) too often "blow out" lights and darks. Many gifted painters used a direct method like this one. From Hals and Velazquez to Sargent and Whister, the direct method provides a real sense of life and immediacy.

This portrait has been done directly in most passages, but also I've glazed layers of colors in a lot of places. The underlying layers were mostly cooler and my overlying layers warmer. This is the state of the painting as of February 20, 2016. I expect to have the sitter in at least once or twice more but it's very nearly finished as is. I need to adjust the colors of the complexion, and there needs to be some detail work on the eyes and finish work on the garments and any jewelry, etc. Julie is a graphic designer and patient model. 

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