Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Looking Backward to Move Forward

Two months of portrait studies - some good, some bad. 

There was a time when I wouldn't dare paint a portrait from life. The model moved too much. It took time to capture a model's likeness. Layers of paint needed time to set up. I had a number of excuses for why I would only work from photos, but none of them were legitimate.

My reluctance all stemmed from my time as an illustrator. As a student, life drawing and painting was an everyday event. I enjoyed it, and the practice built confidence. Moving into the professional illustration world, I often had to paint people or places that I didn't have access to. This changed my work habits. I became reluctant to take chances, and my confidence in working from life slowly eroded. I noticed a change in the energy of my work. 

After ten years with Hallmark cards, I decided to leave commercial work behind and focus on portrait and studio painting exclusively. I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Carolyn Anderson, and painting from the model every day was a real breakthrough. Carolyn would ask me questions about why I made certain decisions during the process and forced me to recognize repeated failures or successes. When I returned from the workshop, the paintings I brought back were filled with a life and energy that I hadn't produced in many years. My wife, Kimberly, declared that I should never paint a portrait from photos again unless I had no other choice. She was right, but it took me many years to fully embrace the idea.

For a number of years, I continued to produce portraits from photographs. The results were mixed, but the process was always a struggle. When frustrated, I walked away. Some paintings literally sat unfinished for years. 

During this time, I taught portrait painting classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. At the beginning of every session, I would paint a demonstration from the live model. I was always a bit anxious prior to the demo, but it always went smoothly, and I was usually happy with the results. The more classes I taught, the more my confidence returned. Most importantly, teaching forced me to analyze how I painted. I had to be able to explain every decision I made to my students.

I started analyzing the issues I had when painting from photos. Working from photographs allowed me to walk away at any time and come back whenever the urge struck. This can be a double edged sword. Yes, the subject is forever frozen in time, but it completely changes the approach. Without the urgency of changing light or a moving subject, brushstrokes can look boring and calculated. It's very easy for portions of the painting to look disjointed, as some areas are dry before others are even touched. Wet paint into wet paint is very different than wet into dry. Even color can be less harmonious, as mixtures on the palette from the first session are long dry before the second session.

Fast forward to today, and I find painting a portrait from life far more rewarding than working from a photo. Although I still work from photos when necessary, I look forward to every opportunity to paint from a live model. For the past two months, I have been lucky enough to find places like the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, and the San Antonio Portrait Painters where I can paint from the model every week. 

At every model break, I take progress shots, so that I can go back and determine what I did right or wrong. Below are just a few things I tell myself (with some examples), after looking back at my progress shots. Remember, there's no wrong or right way. This is just my approach, but I do encourage everyone to analyze their own process.

• Forget drawing with lines. Block in the light and dark values with thin paint. This will create form in the first session that can then be pushed and pulled into a likeness.

This is about 20 minutes. Very thin paint
just to establish where I want everything.
It's very easy to move if necessary.

• Get the values correct. The shadows are almost always darker than they initially seem. Without a proper value change, the form is lost.

Also about 20 minutes. I had to get the shadows,
lights and dark of her hair established quickly
to evaluate every other intermediate value.

• Don't go for detail in the eyes too quickly. Tightly rendered eyes tend to pop out of the image and look strange. In the end, the eyes might not need any detail at all.
Almost no detail in the eyes.
In the end, it wasn't necessary.

• Color temperature is far more important than local color. Are the lights warm or cool? Are the shadows warm or cool? If the temperature is correct, it doesn't matter what color it's painted. Getting the temperatures right also avoids "muddy" color.
I really pushed the color intensity on this one,
but it works because the temperature differences
between the light and shadows hold it together.

• Pay attention to the edges. Too many hard edges, and the eye doesn't know where to look.
I kept her right eye softer than the left
to drive the focus to the left side of her head.

• Don't paint when the model is on break. There's nothing to refer to, and you'll just screw it all up!

• Don't be afraid to paint over any area. There might be a passage that I initially love, but it's never safe if it doesn't fit with the overall painting.

• Even if the final painting is a failure, the practice was not.

There's far more to be concerned with and always more for me to learn and practice. There will always be circumstances where I need to work from photographs, but regularly painting from a live model makes me better at it. I even pretend that the photo is a live model, and set artificial time limits.

In the end, I realize that I need these opportunities to make mistakes and push boundaries. I don't believe in natural born talent (that's an entire blogpost itself). Practice is what truly brings confidence and growth, but reviewing what went right or wrong during the process can take my paintings further, faster.