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Drawing Faces Oil Painting Painting People Portrait

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


When Marcy offered to pose for me for my birthday, I had no idea it would take 6 months, more than 2 dozen mostly awful drawings and painting attempts and lots of study before I could produce a portrait that actually: a) looks human and b) resembles my sister…See the progression of my study below, from the hilarious to the hideous to the almost-but-no…

Marcy_#24-20160111_Sleepy_Sister_004-Edit-2
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.

34 replies on “The Marcy Portrait Project: 6 Months of Trying to Paint My Sister”

Thanks Nina! It’s a little embarrassing showing my struggles but I really believe that failures are only failures if you give up and I’m definitely not giving up!

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I love the your sister’s beauty!! To me, what is missing in 24, is your sister’s neck and her wonderful curls as her hair is painted down so smoothly and her neck is on the skinny side instead of celebrating her years. I am so glad that you show us your work in such detail. Thank you, Jana! God bless, C-Marie

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Thanks C-Marie. It’s true, that even though she did have her hair pulled back I didn’t do justice to her curls as you said and you’re so right about her neck! Sheesh! I didn’t even notice that until you said it. I had gotten the painting to a point that I had nothing more to say and was eager to get on to the next one so didn’t spend time finessing it. The idea right now is to keep making starts, which I think I can learn more from than taking one painting all the way as far as I could go with it.

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I agree with the previous posts- that your sister is beautiful and each of the portraits you did are incredible, especially the last one! Keep at it- your persistence has defiinitely paid off!

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Wow, amazing post, you have done really well, I wish I could do faces half this good. I bet you feel as if you know your sister a whole lot better after all those amazing sketches and paintings. Or maybe that is why you were so critical with yourself, because you DiD know her so well? Just a thought? Really enjoyed reading and following your sisters progress in this post, inspiring, thanks, Bec

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Thanks Rebecca. It was really interesting getting to explore her face so thoroughly. Reading your words I realize that I still feel like I don’t really know it yet. So many things we see but don’t really see. I do feel that I know her person very well, but her appearance, not as much.

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Funny–Your comment about dogs appeared under the painting of my sister–were you referring to the painting of my dog Millie? I just googled Kelpie and you’re right–they do have a similar adorable appearance.

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What a great blog post. I loved seeing the progressions, and I’m very impressed by your “grit.” You really stuck with this and the final painting is beautiful. I’m curious about her ideas – did she have one or more drawings/paintings that she felt captured her best?

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Thanks Shirley. Grit is a great word for the kind of persistence it took to keep starting over. I still don’t feel like I’ve really got it yet. She’s coming over for another session in February. I asked her to leave a comment about her thoughts, which she did, and listed the ones she liked best.

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Really stunning lady, Jana. I loved seeing the progressions. Wonderful tutorials, as many of your blog posts are.
It was so informative, following you on your many journeys to celebrate her face and what she means to you.

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Hi Jana, Loved your process. I liked 5, something archetypal about that drawing. The hair especially. Also liked 20 – soft
reflective and intimate. I liked 22 eyes and smile conveyed a person present and again reflective. I also liked 24 . This one showed a touch of fragility, also elegance and the maturity of a woman who has lived and examined her life. You are a wonderful artist! Chris

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First of all, thanks for the sweet comments about my beauty because it was a little tricky seeing so many pictures of myself. I had some good laughs (scary ghost etc) but mostly admiration for the quality and amount of work my sister did. Jana is such an amazingly dedicated and driven artist who has taught me a thing or two over our lives as sisters. She always has some great advice about materials I should try and is very supportive of my own work, fortunately we have very different styles. I loved posing for her, we would chat a bit, stay quiet a bit and then take breaks and play with her sweet pup, millie. I’m hoping to do some more posing for Jana in the future. I think my favorite pieces are #17 (no wrinkles) #20,and #24 because I think that’s how I’ll look as an older lady (I can’t possibly look that old yet)

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You are so welcome!! But I really love your wispy gentle curls here and there, in the photos, and yet appear to not have been painted in. God bless, C-Marie

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I applaud your perseverance and determination! You came a long way in that six months, I hope you feel your efforts were rewarded, it’s a beautiful portrait.

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Thanks Sue. It is a bit nerve-wracking to share the more awful attempts and is so time-consuming to post it all (let alone paint them!) but I’m glad to do it if it is helpful to anyone. Certainly doing the work was helpful to me. And there will be more as she seems to have become my muse. I’m afraid the sadness in some of the pictures was probably coming more from me and my frustration than from her!

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The last portrait really showed the culmination of all that you have learned through the previous 23. In my own work passion for a singular subject is something that I’m searching for desperately I hope to have as much motivation for my futures subjects as you have for your sister.

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Thanks Nickie. I like that suggestion of doing a time-lapse. I think there’s a way to do that on the iPhone, if I could figure out a way to set it up take a photo automatically every so often as I paint. I do often take in progress shots — I could try to put them in a slide show…

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Hi Ruth, I’m sorry it took so long to reply. I thought I’d have the post up with that information much sooner. But I did finally get it posted today. I’ll send you an email in case you don’t see it.

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Jana, what a fabulous birthday gift! I love your final portrait of your sister. It’s lovely and I SO admire your perseverance. No doubt that the first thing about painting is knowing how to draw and understanding values, and I consider you quite an expert. Seeing how hard you worked makes me realize I should be less frustrated with my own attempts. I need to plan better, think ahead, and draw out more value sketches prior to painting. Thanks for this valuable lesson, always helpful! Aren’t we lucky to have sisters!! Marian

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Thanks Marian. I’m so glad that seeing my many failed attempts helped you to be less frustrated with your own. You make a very important point about values, which I struggle with. I tend to be afraid of too high of contrasts and tend to paint everything in middle values. I have to really push myself to get lights light enough and darks really dark (and everything in between). And yes! Having a sister is wonderful. I do feel very lucky to have them.

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