(An unsuccessful portrait study and unsuccessful painting)
A portrait by definition, must embody the personality, the light, the very being of a subject, filtered through the artist’s eyes. Of course, this does not have to be in a traditional or figurative fashion. But, if we are talking about a figurative portrait, a likeness of face, gesture and personality is essential. Sometimes-HA CHA, it all comes together naturally. When this happens, an artist may feel a little bit like a magician or an instrument of an artsy spirit;) When it doesn’t happen, a young or novice artist may become frustrated. I’m sure there are parallels in all of the arts.
I am personally awed and thrilled when a piece just happens seemingly on its own. But, I’ve been working long enough to know that I can’t count on the magic. There are times when a portrait becomes a bit of a struggle. It can seem as if everybody but the subject have made an appearance on my canvas. When this occurs, I don’t worry , I don’t stress about it. I walk away…
But I do come back. Here are my tips. They can often save a portrait;
I always work on at least two pieces or projects at a time, so when I abandon one for a while, I move to another. This allows me to disentangle from the work and when I see it again, it’s with fresh eyes and attitude.
I’ve also created a “formula” for getting at an elusive likeness. The formula link will take you to my blog for young artists (directly under the sketchbook info, at the bottom of the PRACTICAL INSPIRATION page). It’s useful for helping me analyse the spacing between features. Since none us are completely symmetrical, the shape of a space surrounding a feature and the shapes that comprise a feature are great places to troubleshoot a portrait that isn’t working.
I use a mirror behind my easel to check the subject against the work. This changes up the perception and allows for delightful moments of discovery. It invites the magic in and what’s not quite right in the work often becomes clear.
If working from photos I turn them and my canvas upside-down. This allows for the same sort of magic as the mirror.
I include errant hairs and moles and wrinkles in a portrait that I’m struggling with to act as landmarks or anchors within a face. If I’m working in an opaque medium, I can easily edit and remove them or make them more subtle later on.
I always try to get to know the subject a little, see how the subject interacts with others, and pick up as much as I can understand about the individual. If I must work from photos that I have not taken myself (because the subject is no longer with us), I ask lots of questions about the subject and request as many photos as I can get my hands on.
If the subject is a child, but appears too young or too mature in my portrait, I check the spacing of the forehead. As you see below, the spacing of a forehead does make a difference.
Values play a huge role in the molding of form. So, correcting the value of an area can change the structure of a face or body in subtle but important ways.
Despite using all of these tips, this portrait isn’t working. You can clearly see it in the progression below. This subject’s youth and freedom of spirit inspired a really loose and colorful underpainting that soon became a loose cannon. As you can see, I’ve wrangled with this likeness, and it shows.
Occasionally, despite all of my tried and true tips, a painting simply does not work. If (for lack of a better word), the “spirit” isn’t there, then I don’t have a good painting. Sometimes the struggles show, and the painting reflects the battle, so I’ve got a bad painting all ’round. I’m showing off some really bad work here, because it’s honest and part of the process. Every now and then it happens. It is not a reflection on the subject, just a poor attempt. This portrait is a perfect example of a do- over. But that’s ok. The experience just gets me more fired up to paint a much better portrait.🙂