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.
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.
This year I will be the juror of awards for the annual Pastel 100 Competition (figures and portraits) sponsored by the Pastel Journal. I will also judge the OPA Western Regional Exhibition. I know that virtually everyone except for the top prizewinners will disagree with some or all of my selections. (I’ve never seen a show where I agreed with all the choices). I’ve heard artists grumble, “ They never accept nudes” or “ they only like cowboys and Indians” or “they only pick their friends.” My experience is that most jurors don’t do any of those things and, in fact, take their job seriously.
I think most jurors don’t look for particular subject matter:
• I look first for good drawing. If the right parts aren’t in the right place no amount of rendering will make it better.
• Good design is probably number two…by that I mean an interesting distribution of light and dark masses and a dominant harmony.
• A solid value structure to create the illusion of three dimensionality
• A command of edge relationships
• “Meaning” – this is a subjective quality. But in the most interesting paintings the artist is trying to show us something unique about the subject. It’s not just a meticulous rendering of every detail.
The jurors of acceptance generally look at images on a computer. They typically rank them on a five-point scale. There may be three or more jurors whose rankings are combined to arrive at the final acceptance list out of 2000 or more images. The top paintings are easy to identify – the 5’s. So are the 1’s and 2’s. The middle group requires three or four viewings. And often the cut-off point between an acceptance and rejection is very slight. The juror may spend ten hours or more judging the show.
A couple of points worth noting: your position in the viewing order can help or hurt you. And you can’t control that. For example, if I’ve just seen three killer portraits in a row, a fourth of slightly lesser quality may get rejected whereas if it were sandwiched among a group of landscapes it might have been chosen. Secondly, derivative work is more likely to get cut. There is a noted still life artist who teaches a lot of workshops; his students tend to paint like the instructor. I have juried shows where there were literally over 100 paintings with the same gray-green background, the same types of objects on a horizontal shelf and the same treatment of light. Many of them were well done, but you can’t have 100 clones in a show.
Selecting the winners also involves a ranking process. Usually a few paintings jump to the top but deciding on the exact order of awards can be challenging. I generally go through the show five or six times before I reach my final decision.
Here are a few good ideas:
1. Take good photos of your artwork. I have a photography area in my basement with color-corrected lights on each side. I shoot with a white balance preset for that light (see your camera’s manual) and use a polarizing filter to get rid of glare. Square up the images and crop them in Photoshop so only the painting shows.
2. Calibrate your monitor. There are several programs to do this; I use Colorvision’s Spyder. That way the image you see on your screen will actually look like the file does.
3. Ask someone you trust to help you select which images to enter. They may be more objective.
4. If you get in or win an award, be happy…but don’t take it too seriously. If you get rejected, don’t take it personally. The noted portrait artist Everett Raymond Kinstler told a story about the painting above his mantle. On one side was the letter of rejection from the National Academy; on the other side was a second letter also from the National Academy dated one year later announcing that the same painting had won Best of Show. I’ve had a similar experience with “Red Brigade” (below) rejected in one show, awarded Best of Show in Another.
In our journey as artists we spend a long time learning how to render. We focus on drawing, values, edges, and color and eventually learn how to paint a decent head, or vase or figure. However, we often paint the subject in isolation; the “background” is almost an after thought. In essence, we create a “study,” but many artists never make the leap to creating a finished, complete painting. Masters like Sargent and Sorolla painted hundreds of studies but as preparation for the masterworks we admire in the top art museums.
So what’s the distinction?
A study is concerned with likeness, and rendering. A painting is concerned with meaning, narrative, relationship, and emotion. In a study the subject is paramount, the background relatively trivial. In a painting the “background” is essential. It provides context and narrative. In the study the focus is on depicting a person or object. In the painting, the overall composition (distribution of light and dark shapes) is crucial. Every square inch of the painting is important.
How do we get from here to there?
In the 19th century advanced students at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris or the Repin Institute in Russia were expected to create large, complex, narrative paintings. They worked under the guidance and advice of their professors. Nowadays, such rigorous training is largely absent. (There are a few notable exceptions such as the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, the Florence Academy, and the increasing number of representational ateliers that have been founded over the past two decades.)
If you fall into the do-it-yourself camp, expect to spend a lot of time and effort learning this element of our craft. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to think! As the master illustrator Andrew Loomis wrote, “All creativity is in the planning. The rest is just good carpentry.”
We need to train ourselves to think like a filmmaker. As you plan ask yourself the crucial questions: who is the subject? What is happening? When? Where is the scene taking place? Why?
Once you start to formulate a concept, how will you depict it? There’s a dramatic way to portray any situation, it’s up to us to figure it out. Should the painting be in a high or low key? Will the setting “tell the tale” or will it be the model’s expression or body language? What accessories do you need? How should the models be dressed? Use sketches and “roughs” to work out the concept. (Hint the first idea is usually not the best idea.) When you’ve worked out a good idea then set it up, hire models and go for it…don’t try to make it up
I suspect that many artists are in such a hurry to get to the “fun” part that we skip the requisite planning. Here are some of the studies that Sargent used to prepare for his masterwork, “The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale.”
One of the challenges we face as artists has to do with the way the human brain works. We filter out the commonplace while focusing on the new or unusual. (Evolutionarily speaking -- Ignore the wind rustling the leaves; pay attention to the saber-tooth tiger coming through the meadow.)
This filtering means that any error we leave on our canvas for 10 or 15 minutes becomes invisible to us… until the next day! It’s not that the “evil painting trolls” come out at night and attack our paintings. It’s just that it takes a fresh eye to make the flaws obvious.
Here are some good painting practices that can help:
• Squint at your subject to simplify value and edge relationships…it helps to see the big picture.
• Step back frequently.
• Have a mental checklist. (How’s the alignment? Is the drawing OK? How about values? Are the temperature relationships correct? Do the edges range from razor sharp to completely lost?)
• Use a mirror to see your piece reversed (a great way to spot alignment problems).
• Use a black mirror above your eyes to see the image inverted.
• Take a photo on your smart phone. Sometimes just seeing a small version of the painting is all we need.
• Use a program like Value Viewer, to gain a new perspective.
One of the most helpful things I learned was to ask others to critique my work. If you can get input from a master artist, great! But a spouse, friend, or even a non-artist can tell you if something’s not working. It’s much easier to see problems in others’ work then in our own. Hint: Don’t get defensive! Thank them for the input and then decide for yourself if you need to act on the advice. Here are some "before" and after images in response to well-founded criticism.
Good instruction helps with all of the above. It can show us our blind spots, give us ways to correct the flaws, and teach us principles to organize our thinking (a road map.) Perhaps, most importantly, it can sensitize us to habitual errors. For example, I have a tendency to make the iris of the eye too large. This leads to enlarging the eye and then the space between seems too small. One small initial error causes the whole painting to rapidly spin out of control. Just knowing what to watch out for is invaluable!
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