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.

Sketching a Posing Pirate: Figure Drawing Tips

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper, approx. 20×18 inches

After posing nude for a couple of hours, our wonderful male model dressed in a pirate costume, complete with plastic sword,  with sea shanty and pirate songs playing on the stereo. He was such a delight, with a warm smile and a white beard ending in a long, skinny braid. I used four Conté Pencils in white, black, sepia and sanguine on black pastel paper for this long pose (90 minutes).

I’m finding more ease with life drawing lately as I apply the techniques I’ve been taught over the years but that hadn’t “clicked” until now. Finally I’m willing to do a little measuring of lines, shapes and angles instead of “just going for it,” which is fun, but always wonky (not that my drawing isn’t still wonky, even when I do my best to measure—but I’ve also learned that “wonky” is what gives work our own style and I like my wonky.)

Three resources that have helped me learn to draw better:

  1. The book Sketching – from Square One … to Trafalgar Square that explains better than I can, techniques to improve your drawing.
  2. Sadie Valeri’s excellent student handout that I got when I took a workshop at her studio, which she has generously given me permission to share with you: sadie-valeri_draw_block-in_08-2013-2 (PDF Download).
  3. Sadie Valeri’s free video demonstration of how to do a “Straight Line Block In.” All of her videos are excellent, free or paid. She is one of the most generous and clear teachers that I’ve studied with. She is brilliant at lifting the veil between the subject, your eyes and your brain so that you can see what’s really there and draw it.

Here are the ways I practiced some of these techniques in this drawing:

  • first determined whether the subject is wider or narrower using a skinny stick (e.g. a bamboo skewer or knitting needle) held at arm’s length to compare both directions so I know whether to place the drawing and the paper in portrait (tall) or landscape (wide) orientation.
  • marked where I want the top and bottom of the drawing on the paper (to avoid decapitation or leg/foot amputations).
  • measured the size of the model’s head with the skewer, marking the size on the stick with my thumb and then moving down his body, measuring how many heads fit from his chin to the lowest part of his body (e.g bottom of foot). In this case there were 5 heads.
  • divided the space between the top and bottom marks on the paper into 5 equal sections, using the sepia pencil so it wouldn’t show much.
  • noted where on the models body each of those “head” divisions were (e.g. chin bottom, right knee top, left knee top, right foot bottom, left foot) and indicated that on the paper. I also noted how many “heads” wide the subject was at the widest part and marked that.
  • sketched the head in its section.
  • held up the skewer along the angles from the top of the head out to the sides to find the shape of the imaginary “envelope” that the pirate’s body would fit into and drew those lines lightly on the paper (see Sadie’s handout).
  • broke that envelope down into smaller and more exact shapes, looking for negative space shapes and angles to help find the shapes that made up his body parts.
  • continued doing the same, ending with the feet, which I didn’t quite finish as time ran out.
  • drew the whiskey bottle (which was actually empty) during model breaks.

The model asked to take a photo of my drawing at the end of class. That was a first…and a great payoff to practicing the tools!

Happy Halloween: Figure Drawing Date with a Skeleton

Halloween Date, charcoal on paper

Halloween Date, charcoal on paper

For a pre-Halloween figure drawing session, the model posed with a skeleton as if they were on a date, making small talk on the sofa. While the model and the rest of the group took a lunch break I continued drawing the skeleton, who needed no break and continued posing nicely.

I think we had about an hour and a half on this pose with the model, plus my time with Mr. Skeleton. I wish I’d sketched in a bit of the background so that their funky sofa wasn’t just floating in space.

Portrait of Nick for Julia Kay’s Portrait Party

Nick K for JKPP, oil on Mylar, 9x12

Nick K for JKPP, oil on Mylar, 9×12 inches

Wanting to continue my alla prima portrait painting practice but without a live model, I picked a photo of Nick K. from Julia Kay’s Portrait Party to paint.

I recently looked up the saying, “Perfection is the enemy of good” and read about the Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule or the law of diminishing returns that states it “takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task, while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort.” This is so true with my painting. I can enjoy and complete the majority of a painting in 6 hours or less and then easily spend another 60 hours tweaking, finessing details, and overworking it until I’m sick of it. I stopped painting this one as soon as I’d said what I had to say, way before I usually consider a painting “finished,” but also long before it stops being fun.

After toning a sheet of Mylar (see previous post) with raw umber and letting it dry, I sketched out the image in thinned raw umber. Then I took a photo on my iPhone and using the Miira app, traced lines on my drawing to compare it to the original photo (first photo below). I could see I’d completely missed the boat and started another sketch on a fresh sheet, tested it again, and decided I was close enough to begin painting.

Later, I realized the mouth was in the wrong place and moved it. I discovered that when you turn a painting on Mylar over you can see the original drawing through the film (see the red arrow on the reversed image below, pointing to where I moved the mouth). I’m really trying to see the shapes and planes that make up the face and head. Holding up a bamboo skewer or knitting needle along the angles and “plumb lines” of the face really helps to visualize what lines up with what, and is helping my drawing tremendously.

Portrait of Pigeon Plumtree III

Portrait of Pigeon, oil on Duralar Matte, 12x9"

Portrait of Pigeon, oil on Mylar Duralar Matte, 12×9″

I took a fantastic 1-day Alla Prima Portrait Workshop with the amazing Elizabeth Zanzinger at her studio in Oakland. I spent most of the day watching and listening to her, which was my goal; to observe and learn from her. It was a revelation to see her approach to alla prima painting, which begins with dots to mark the edges of shapes and features and then proceeds with small tiles of color and value painted along the planes of the form. You can see her completed demo painting on her Instagram.

In the late afternoon I started my own painting but ran out of time. Fortunately, our model, the exquisite Pigeon Plumtree III, generously allowed us to take photos of her for a small fee. Although my iPhone wasn’t quite up to the task because of the lighting, it gave me enough information to make another attempt at painting her.

We painted our portrait studies on Mylar Dura-Lar Matte Film, similar to the Canson Vidalon Vellum that Sadie Valeri uses, but twice as heavy. Elizabeth tones the Duralar first with a thin film of raw umber which she allows to dry before starting to paint. I absolutely love painting on this surface; it is so smooth but not too slippery and very forgiving. It’s archival and can be mounted to a panel later to be framed.

Below are a few steps in the work in progress. Click any image to enlarge or view as slide show (and then click the x in the top left corner to return to this page).


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