The Marcy Portrait Project: 6 Months of Trying to Paint My Sister


Marcy #24 “Sleepy Sister” Oil on DuraLar, 9×12 inches

When my sister Marcy offered to pose for me for my birthday, I had no idea it would take me 6 months, more than 2 dozen mostly awful drawings and painting attempts (pictures at bottom of post), and lots of study before I could produce a portrait that actually: a) looks human and b) resembles my sister (as I see her).

Although I have a long way to go before I feel competent at this, I am choosing to pause here briefly to honor and share my progress before I raise the bar again on my study of portraiture.

Attempt #1: painted live in about 2.5 hours. I learned how much I didn't know about alla prima portraiture.

Attempt #1: Painted live in about 2.5 hours. I learned how much I didn’t know about painting portraits

After my first try (above) and many more failed attempts (displayed at bottom of post) I realized I needed a better understanding of head anatomy. I accepted that I can’t fix a bad drawing with pretty paint. I studied my books and videos, tried to memorize proportions and divisions of the head (e.g. eyes are halfway between top of head and chin) and did some head drawing exercises (again…) that I still didn’t quite understand. And I continued failing at drawing and painting Marcy from the photo I took when she sat for me the first time, again from life on another visit and then from other photos.

I’ve done portraits I liked in the past, either by drawing freehand and then correcting again and again, or by enlarging a photo and tracing it onto canvas or paper. But I just couldn’t reliably draw one from life. So I read more books, watched online videos and investigated in-person and online classes. I found a comprehensive online academy last month that is giving me just what I wanted to learn. I think you can see how it is making a difference, starting with #18 below, drawn from life when Marcy posed for me again. In my next post I will review and share links to the learning resources I found.

You can see the progression, from the hilarious to the hideous to the almost-but-no, sorted with most recent first. Some are just bare starts; as soon as I could tell it was unsalvageable, I added the piece to the pile of fails and started over. The paintings are all oil, 12×9″ on Matte Dura-Lar except for the earliest ones on panels. The drawings are mostly on Vidalon Vellum except for the first few 14×11″ on paper.

Portrait Process: Start to Fail and Start Again

Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12x8"

Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12×8″

My first attempt at painting Sylvia, a lovely young Bulgarian architecture student, ended in an abandoned failure, displayed at the bottom of this post in 6 steps. I altered my course for the second attempt (above), starting with a better drawing, and was able to complete the study more successfully. I tried to practice for alla prima painting, not going for a “finished” portrait, even though I painted from her reference photo on Julia Kay’s Portrait Party, instead of from life.

What made the difference between failure and success was that I took the time to make a more accurate drawing first (above). I drew on one side of a sheet of Dura-Lar Matte Film (after first reversing the reference photo in Photoshop) and painted on the other side. Then I turned the sheet over, toned it with a transparent umber stain, and reversed the photo back to normal. That way I had the lines of the drawing to refer to, along with the photo without obliterating the drawing. It’s still visible on the back of the painting and could be traced over onto another sheet of Dura-Lar if I wanted to paint her again from the same drawing.

Below is the failed first attempt, where impatience and hubris led to a quick, sloppy drawing (with the evil thought, “I can always correct the drawing when I paint,” which I need to ignore in the future!). The captions describe what went wrong at each step:

Figure and Portrait Drawings

Figure drawing wall in studio

Figure drawing wall in studio

I just made a big leap in my understanding of figure and portrait drawing so wanted to share previous sketches and paintings before the new work. Above is a photo of the “figure drawing wall” in my studio. I’d covered this wall with black non-fade bulletin board paper to avoid reflected light when I’m at my easel (that stands just to the right of this photo). Then I hung black metal grid panels that I got super cheap on Craigslist and use little magnets to stick the drawings to the grid wall. Now it’s easy to add, move or replace drawings with better ones as my skill improves and I can hang framed paintings from it with grid wall picture hooks.

Below are assorted figure and portrait drawings from past Friday Figure Drawing sessions. Click on any image to go to slide-viewing mode and click through them using the arrows on each side.

Crockett’s Funky Main Street

Crockett Main Street, ink and watercolor, 10x8 in

Crockett Main Street, ink and watercolor, 10×8 in

Inspired by a wonderful urban plein air painting workshop and demo by one of my favorite artists, Randy Sexton, I sketched the main street in the funky little town of Crockett that houses his studio, Epperson Gallery and a tattoo parlor. Randy is one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever met, as well as a highly skilled and talented painter, and a gifted teacher.

Crockett is home to many oddball characters and funky old bars and shops. When I said I’d love to paint portraits of some of the local denizens he said he’d been doing just that, starting from when a professional model didn’t show up for a figure painting session. He and his fellow artists just popped in to one of the neighborhood dive bars and recruited a regular to come pose for cash and beer.

Leo Take Two: Same Dog, Revised Painting

Leo, Dog Portrait, Take Two, oil on panel, 8x10

Leo, Dog Portrait, Take Two, oil on panel, 8×10

After I varnished Leo’s painting and was going to deliver it to the family that commissioned it, I realized I wasn’t satisfied with the background. I asked for and was granted permission to adjust it. It’s a good thing Leo’s people are very patient: I asked for an extra two weeks but then my dog Millie started having epileptic grand mal seizures and my cat Busby got sick and I was spending more of my time nursing animals than painting them.

Finally, after many visits to the emergency vet hospital, my family vet, and a veterinary neurologist (thank goodness for pet insurance) Millie has stabilized on her meds (no seizures in over a week), and Busby has sadly has passed on to Kitty Heaven. He was a beautiful cat and my remaining kitty Fiona misses him, even though he was a bit of a bully, like big brothers can sometimes be.

Back in the studio I explored how to rework the background. What bothered me was the way the it divided the painting in half vertically and how vague it was. With my realistic approach to the dog, it felt like the background needed more detail so I tried to suggest some of the actual greenery in Leo’s Northern California backyard (see photo below) and added some sky to add depth.

Below, copied from the previous post, are the reference photo and the work in progress before I got to the finished painting above.

EDiM Medley: Days 5, 6, 7

EDiM 5-6-7: Hot, Bristles, Envelope, ink and watercolor, 8x10

EDiM 5-6-7: Hot, Bristles, Envelope, ink and watercolor, 8×10

May 5 was “Draw Something Hot.” I went for the obvious, a cup of hot tea because I like this cup and I was short on imagination and time due to some “first world problems” (iPhone went bad and required way too many wasted hours to restore it).

May 6 was “Something with Bristles.” I wanted to draw the odd, bristly whiskers under my dog’s chin but she wouldn’t hold still long enough. Instead here’s a bristly bottle brush with a bonus soft cotton tip. I bought it to clean something I apparently no longer own since I haven’t used it in years and can’t remember what it was for. I created the bristles by painting in watercolor and then adding white gel pen.

May 7 was “Envelope” and this is the Mothers Day card and envelope I sent to my mom after I sketched it.


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