William works in oil and pastel. He views figures, landscape, or still life as opportunities to explore the effects of light on form. Painting from life, he seeks to capture the emotion of a particular moment and place. Sargent, Zorn, Fechin, and Sorolla have been his influences.
The great illustrator, Norman Rockwell, once commented, “They’ll forgive anything …except heads and hands”…It’s absolutely true!
Viewers grant artists a lot of leeway on other body parts, but the proportion and gestures of the face and hands must be reasonably accurate or the work looks amateurish. In fact, some portrait artists like Boldini habitually lengthened the proportions of their painted figures…their clientele delighted in the elegant distortions!
Painting the head is tricky enough, even though it only has two masses:
The fused bones of the cranium and
The lower jaw.
The hand has 27 bones and a number of tendons and muscles easily seen beneath the skin. The hand is as expressive as the face! Early on, I had to make a decision: I could avoid painting hands or I could “attack my weakness”. I bought a copy of George Bridgman’s Book of a Hundred Hands ($9, Dover Press) and spent six months copying every illustration.
Here are a few tips:
Use straight lines rather than curves, you will be more accurate…and the work will look more powerful.
Think of the middle finger; the distance from the wrist to the knuckle is equal to the distance from knuckle to fingertip. (Beginning artists tend to make the fingers either too long or too stubby.
The fingers taper.
The back of the hand is arched from side to side. The palm is concave.
Your palm has two muscular mounds: the hypothenar eminence on the little finger side and the thenar eminence on the thumb side. If you don’t show those mounds, the hand will look salamander-like.
There is space between the fingers where they emerge from the palm (they don’t form a sharp V).
The fingers aren’t parallel; they radiate from a point on the wrist (otherwise they wouldn’t fit when you make a fist).
I just finished filming an instructional video on painting heads and hands. Liliedahl Video Productions should release it in late 2018 or early 2019.
The great thing about being an artist is that the journey never ends. But some artists seem to hit a plateau and stop improving.
There’s an old saying, “If you do what you always did, you get what you always got”. If we keep practicing the same errors, we remain stuck. We need a change of mindset…to view of ourselves as perpetual students. If most pieces are learning exercises rather than finished paintings we can experiment and continue to add new tools to our artistic toolkit. In a Zen sense we have no attachment. Musicians are very clear about separating practice from performance. They practice scales and arpeggios so that when they perform a solo they have the command of their instrument.
We need to identify what we need to work on. As my friend Dan Gerhartz says, “Attack your weakness”. It’s usually: drawing (shapes), value, color temperature relationships, or edges. For example, I was dissatisfied with the way I was rendering hands, so I bought The Book of a Hundred Hands by George Bridgeman and copied every illustration into my sketchbook. By the time I had finished I not only understood the anatomy but also was able to capture the more expressive gestures of the hand. Here’s a detail of one of my paintings.
Bryan Mark Taylor calls this “chunking”. That is, identify one particular skill and practice that “chunk” until it is mastered. If you’re working on value structure, don’t worry about drawing, design, color, and narrative. Believe it or not this is the fastest way to master of a new skill. Martial artists practice each block, strike, or kick in isolation, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. Finally they learn to chain them together into patterns or combinations (Katas). In a combat situation they don’t have to think of each movement, they rely on muscle memory.
Another good idea is to work in a series. That is, paint the same object or scene a number of times to try out different approaches. This works well if you ask yourself “what if “questions. “What if I painted it in a very low key? What if it was high key? What if it was all in shades of blue? What if I sprayed it with alcohol and let it run? What if I did it in 25 strokes?” Some of these experiments may be terrible, but some may send your work in a new and interesting direction.
A great idea is to copy masterworks. Sargent did; Zorn did. In fact virtually all the great artists have done this type of research. The goal is to figure out the master artists’ thought process. Why did they make the choices they did? We all want to be original, but the more we learn from other artists the more tools we have to express our own personality. Again, think of musicians. Eric Clapton copied Robert Johnson and B.B King and other blues greats to develop his own style. A great idea is to copy a masterwork in a different medium. Here’s a Fechin oil painting copied in pastel.
Finally, we need to work as much as possible from life. The camera lies to us…especially about value, color, and edges. Working from life and squinting at the subject to simplify value, and edge relationships will help us grow. (working from photos will hold us back.)
When we first start painting, we’re so concerned with “getting it right” that we paint as tightly as we can. The result is usually a disaster – hard, over-delineated, and brittle. As we grow, we want to become more “painterly”. But how?
In my studies I copied masterworks by Nikolai Fechin and other expressive, loose painters and came to the conclusion that a major key was the treatment of edges.
Master artist, Carolyn Anderson talks about leaving “passageways” for the viewer’s eye to travel throughout the painting. In other words don’t “wall off” each area with a hard, sharp edge. The problem is that each brush mark or pastel stroke automatically creates a sharp edge. So how, and what, and when do we soften them?
If we know what we want to see, there are many routes to get there!
The most important thing I learned was to squint at the subject. With my eyes wide open all edges seem pretty sharp. As I close my eyes the last edge that remains visually sharp is my sharpest edge. I compare all other edges to that sharpest edge and identify the hierarchy. In a deep squint some edges appear “firm” some are “soft” and a great many are completely lost. So now I have a roadmap.
How to actually soften them? There may be an infinite variety of ways; here are a few:
Use a loaded brush with un-thinned (no medium) paint. Hold it parallel to the canvas. Make a light stroke so the paint slides off the brush in chunks…creating a broken stroke.
Paint across the edge with a soft brush to break up the stroke.
Rub it with your finger or a palette knife to blend the two edges together.
Scratch across the edge with the back of a brush handle.
Blot it with a paper towel.
Run across areas with an ink brayer (a small rubber roller).
Drag a squeegee across the painting.
In this demo from one of my workshops, I use several of the techniques I just mentioned. See if you can figure out which ones I used in each area.
I have received a number of questions about painting “backgrounds” specifically for portraits. Too many students spend their time rendering the subject and then try to paint the background at the last moment. The result is often a disaster; the figure looks pasted on or there is a formless envelope around the head. The problem is that the background is an afterthought rather than an integral part of the painting.
Don’t forget, someone looking at the painting sees the whole…not just the subject. In reality, the background is vitally important because it defines the center of interest. My pastel mentor, Harley Brown, told me “always work the background at the same time as the subject. The key is to give some thought to what you’re doing and why. Here’s a great quote from Quang Ho: “If you make a decision, it’s always right!” Think about it!
I think of three elements and three approaches when I make decisions about the background:
Value – is the background darker (like a typical Rembrandt portrait), lighter (like a more contemporary graphic piece) or the same value (used by some artists to lose the edges on the light side of the face).
Hue – A background that is the complement of the dominant color of your subject (either grayed or high-Chroma) automatically defines the subject as the center of interest. Furthermore, if you place equal amounts of the discords (two steps on either side of the subject’s hue on the Munsell color wheel) near the subject you reinforce the effect.
Shape – Rather than have a flat tone around the portrait (boring) you can create secondary points of interest…the three approaches listed below.
A specific scene or environment. Sargent did this in almost every portrait. He used columns, chairs and vases as secondary points of interest to create a mood.
A suggested environment. Abstract shapes still place the subject somewhere other than empty space.
A vignette- although the picture plane is not completely filled, the shapes that are there fulfill a design purpose. (I was taught that it’s a good idea to have a vignette touch three sides of the picture plane. I often design the “background” to have a movement that opposes the thrust of the figure.)
Here are some examples of all three approaches. By the way, I cover this (plus a lot more) in my workshops and DVD on Design / Composition Secrets of the Masters.
Students often struggle with painting eyes. Here are a few principles that might help:
The eyes are mainly in shadow. Back in art school, my life drawing teacher, Bill Parks, taught us that there are five shadows that define the human face (in normal light).
The shadow in the eye sockets
The shadow under the nose
The shadow of the upper lip
The shadow beneath the lower lip and
The shadow under the chin.
When John Singer Sargent painted a portrait he would often paint the structure of the head using those five darks. When he had a solid looking form he would paint the eyes into the eye socket like someone “dropping eggs into a pan.”
A second key principle is that eyes are constantly in motion. This means that they MUST be painted with soft edges or they won’t look right…much softer than you think.
A third key is that even within the basic shadow of the eye socket, the eye has a series of lit and shadowed planes that need to be represented. If we look at the diagram of an eye in its socket in cross section (from the side) we see:
The shadow area under the eyebrow
The top of the upper lid catching light
The shadow under the upper lid (shading the top of the iris)
The “spotlight” on the iris
The top plane of the lower lid catching light and
The shadow of the bottom plane of the lower lid.
Forth, Highlights are not white. They are darker and have a specific color temperature. (The highlight is caused by the light source reflecting off the wet surface of the cornea.
The “Spotlight”: Some of the light from the highlight passes through the cornea and is focused on the iris like a tiny spotlight. So, on the opposite quadrant of the iris from the highlight is a soft spot of the pure local color of the eye. When you place those two lights, you breathe life into the eye.
Step by step (This demo is in pastel, but I follow exactly the same steps in oil)
I set up the light of the flesh and the shadow in the eye socket
I sketch the placement of the eye lightly in charcoal. Then I use a deep brown to define the shadow of the upper lid. I also add a darker red to establish the deepest shadows in the eye socket. Even at this stage, I’m softening the strokes with the side of my finger.
I use black to place the pupil and a dark brown to establish the general shape of the iris. As usual, blending and softening my strokes with the side of my finger. I add a few strokes of light orange-red to separate the nose and cheek bone from the eye socket. I also add a couple of strokes of a mid-value olive green to the top of the eye socket where it rolls into the light.
I define the corner of the eye with a mid value red and “carve” around the iris with a gray (darker near the top of the eyeball, lighter near the middle.) I also add a light flesh tone to depict the top plane of the lower lid and add a bit more light flesh tone around the eye socket and a light purple where the face planes start to roll to the side, still softening and blending the strokes. I depict the eye brow.
Now I place the highlight with a couple of stokes (NOTE that they are not white). These strokes I leave unblended. The “spotlight” is a softened mixture of orange and olive green. A couple of light strokes to indicate highlights on the flesh around the eye sockets and on the lower lid and I’m done.
I recently taught a week–long workshop in Texas and then returned to jury the Pastel Journal’s Pastel 100 Competition, (Figure and Portrait category). Those two experiences back-to-back remind me that, for artists, drawing is the most important skill! If our drawing is off, masterful value, color temperature relationships and edges won’t save the painting. Drawing is the first thing most jurors look at…and most art buyers.
All the great masters were excellent draftsmen. Drawing is especially important if we’re painting a portrait or figure. The great illustrator, Norman Rockwell once said “The viewer will forgive anything…except for the face and hands.”
Fortunately, drawing is mostly measurement. If we are accurate in our observation of shapes, direction, angle and distance and replicate those measurements on our canvas it HAS to look like our subject. The good news is that drawing is a trainable skill; the bad news is that it takes a lot of practice to get good at it.
Here are a few steps from a handout I wrote on measuring the proportions of the head. (I skipped fifteen steps and the explanations.) If you’d like a copy of that handout (Drawing From the Inside Out) e-mail me and I will forward it to you. There are also many great books on drawing; Henry Yan, Zhaoming Wu, and Andrew Loomis are a few authors who come to mind.