"Frank H.," oil on canvas. 40 x 30 inches.
On Painting Portraits:
A Little History:
The portrait has been popular at least since the ancient Egyptians made sculptured monuments of their monarchs. The idea of memorializing someone with a likeness is a theme that has continued through time.
Because of the introduction of photography, particularly color photography, and the rising interest in non-realistic art, during the early and middle part of the 20th century, portraits fell out of favor.
But by the 1970's a revival began. And, by the 1990's a new broad interest in portraiture was accompanied by a rising concern with individuality and physicality of the human identity. An interest in multiculturalism and encouragement by the mass media helped the revival.
Maybe this recent interest in portraiture may be a backlash to abstract painting. Today, a lot of people are turned off with non-realistic patches of color on a canvas, or find it impractical to collect fragile sculptures or installations.
For a long time in the USA there was a feeling that painted portraits were only for the moneyed elite. But today, they are recognized as a more lasting and organic form than a photograph. They have become a way to capture memories of family loved ones, colleagues, friends, or even yourself.
They are a way to celebrate important birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, new businesses, a promotion, and important life stages. A skilled portrait artist always incorporates some of the personality of the sitter into the finished work. They are a form of self-expression. A portrait is for posterity.
In addition, painted portraits have grown in popularity as decorative images. As well as capturing impressions of someone you know or love, you may wish to display someone you do not know. Such a painting of a stranger may be a conversation piece for your next party, or even a way to gain an instant new family member.
Today, portraits have become very "in."
Portraits range from a simple “head" or "mug" shots” to showing the “head and shoulders,” “half length,” or “full body.” The intent is to show the basic appearance of the person, and perhaps include some artistic insight into their personality.
I like painting interesting people. I may paint a portrait as a commission for a client. Or maybe the painting will be of a complete stranger, inspired by an image captured on one of my photo taking excursions.
"Juana" 2007, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 16 in.
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Source Material For Interesting Stranger Portraits:
For some years I have kept with me a compact lightweight camera. Upon seeing something or someone that looks interesting, I take a picture (actualy often a burst of pictures). Today, my camera is digital, with a high resolution (10Mb), has a long zoom lens (x10), and includes an anti-shake system. An anti-shake system is important for obtaining a sharp image of a person or object far away.
So far, I have accumulated on my computer nearly twenty thousand "reference" images. When I am planning a new painting, my first resource is to research my reference files.
The Selection Process:
To make selection easier, I use image cataloging software (Expression Media 2) to organize and view of my accumulated images. Selecting source images for a new painting takes place over a few days, a few weeks, or even months.
As ideas for a new painting develop, I scan my reference catalogs for suitable material. Often interesting images jump out. Usually I have several paintings in various stages of process at the same time. I am thinking about future paintings, even while I working on a current work.
"Sofia" 2008, Oil on Canvas, 10 x 8 in.
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If the painting is to be a solo or group portrait, I look for interesting people who may be developed into a story. Quite often several reference images will be blended together to obtain a desired result. A subject’s lips in one pose, may not be as attractive as those captured in another. An arm may look better in one shot and a head from yet another. Similarly, dress, colors, hair, as well as lighting, shadows, and background may be change to suit my plan.
But always. the photographs must be interpreted intelligently, not merely copied. A camera, being a machine, is completely impersonal and totally objective. The lens records what it sees. While the eye often sees thing differently. Having painted for years en plain air and studio models, I have to remember and bring some "life" to the finished painting.
The Painting Surface:
My recent work is in oil on canvas or linen. This traditional paint and substrate has a permanency and appearance that is time proven. I prefer fine weaves for portraits. In the past I have painted with gouache, ink, or watercolor on paper, board, or canvas. Of these textured clayboard is a surface that is particularly kind for portraits, allowing fine detail.
My Studio Setup:
All current work is produced in my studio. Painting with oil, I use a nearly vertical easel, but which may be adjusted as needed from upright to flat. The easel is lit by daylight augmented by color corrected fluorescent tube lamps. For years I preferred to work standing. But in recent years, perhaps giving way to age, I have adjusted to sitting at my easel.
My main palette is a sheet of toughened glass positioned beside me on my right. For detailed work, I often use a hand held platic palette. My brushes, palette knives, medium, and solvents are nearby. So are drawers with tubes of paint. I work with a limited color palette.
I have accumulated a great number of brushes, but find myself working with just a few rounds, filberts, and flats. Most are of very small sizes.
Using The Computer:
I paint directly from the screen of my laptop computer. My computer is positioned on a stand to the left of my easel. It is adjustable and movable so that screen may be level and close to the current area of the canvas to be worked. If need to ensure that the color display of the image is correct, I may use a Panatone Huey light compensation tool.
The Huey sensor sits beside the computer and measures the room light falling on the screen. It automatically adjusts the displayed image to compensate for the changing light level in my studio. But often the exact colors are not important. I tend to adjust colors and values as I paint to improve the overall effect.
Sometimes I adjust the displayed photographic image, using Photoshop Elements software, to improve the contrast or to enhance the lighting to look into a deeply shadowed areas. Often I end up with several images of almost the same view, perhaps each with a different adjustment of the color, contrast, or brightness.
When painting a blend from parts of several images, each is prepared ready to display on my screen as needed. With a few keyboard strokes the details of each image maybe selected and displayed, enlarged or reduced. An enlarged image maybe dragged around the screen to show just a particular area of current interest.
Using A Projector:
Occasionally, using Photoshop Elements, the colored digital image of a chosen pose, I convert to black and white. By increasing the contrast and often eliminating the background, a sharp silhouette may be generated. This, when printed out on white paper, I use in my Opaque Projector.
After arranging the projected image to produce a desired size and composition on a new canvas, I sketch the outline in graphite or thinned Burnt Umber. Such outlines gives me scale and help to quickly get the painting started.
For years I have always painted with the same carefully honed limited color palette of light fast colors. By intermixed these colors I am able to create any tint that may be required.
"Señor Gormez" 2006, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 16 in.
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Look First At The Eyes:
Studying the eyes seems to bring out the sole of the sitter. The eyes, the nose, and the mouth, and their relationship to each other, for me are the very heart of the face.
When a person in a painting looks back at me, I see something of the artist's impression of the sitter - their wit, maybe their sense of self-image? Perhaps even a glimpse of their history?
On the other hand, when the person gazes away, sometimes this set up a feeling of intrigue. I have found that over time, for the viewer, this may develop into a fascination - even a conviction. Maybe with enough study, one day it will yield a revelation. Such is the power of portraiture.
Developing The Image:
After the eyes I work around the image, sketching lightly with thinned paint the whole face, quickly establishing the highlights and shadows. Next comes the rest of the body, the hands, feet, the clothing, and the background.
After covering most of the canvas with the thinned paint, I start into the details with thicker paint. Again, usually I start on the eyes and surrounding area. Slowly the details slowly emerge.
The time spent to paint a portrait varies with its complexity and size. I tend to work over its surface several times, adding more and more detail, and adjusting previously painted areas.
"Señor Ricardo" 2006, Gouache on Board, 30 x 22 in.
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As the painting nears completion, I hang it in full view on my Studio wall. As I work on the next painting, I look at the past painting. Ideas for improvements often become apparent.
My wife is my best critic. I encourage her to look over my shoulder. She has an uncanny skill of point out defects that until then have escaped me. But after she points them out - they are obvious.
Next the painting is moved to a place in my personal gallery. As I walk about my home, I glance at it - often with fresh eyes. Still more changes are frequent. Then I take it before my local critique group. Again fresh eyes provide me with feedback.
When finally I am happy, the work signed, scanned, and sealed with medium. After drying it is moved to my gallery area.
I always assume that the buyer will eventually frame my work. At least half of my buyers so do. They want the work to fit in with other art in their collection, or with their room décor. For commissioned portraits, the frame is always extra, and is usually chosen by the client. My oil paintings are offered unframed and with painted edges.
All my finished paintings are signed on the front and stamped on the back with a copyright marking. Each is given an assigned title and a reference catalog number.
Then they are hung in my private gallery, ready for showing.
Painting is a continual learning process. I am always experimenting - trying new subjects, new methods, and new materials.
If you are local or are planning a visit to Santa Barbara, email or call for an appointment to visit my Studio and Private Gallery. I will be glad to show you how it is done and examples of the finished work.
Painting is a continual learning process. I am always experimenting - trying new subjects, new methods, and new materials. If you wish to discuss these thoughts, please contact me.
If you are local or are planning a visit to Santa Barbara, contact me for an appointment to visit my Studio and Private Gallery. I will be glad to show you how it is done and to view examples of my finished work.
Updated September 2010.