A radiologist looking at an x-ray of your chest cavity can see things in there that you can’t — and that makes her a professional.
Observation: It’s not important to some of us, but it’s very important to a lot of us. Take the human head for example: There’s the well-known business of spatial relationships and proportions. We need to look carefully for the relative distances between points on the face. We need to truly see the deceptively incongruous shapes of shadows, the distances between the shadows and lights, and the location of cores. (The darkest area of shadow where the light is most tangential) Also, we must look out for nuances we may have formerly missed — warm areas around eyes, tiny gradations on eyelids, individual skin tones, minor intrusions and protrusions. Then there’s the subtle way the hair integrates with the face, the way edges are often surprisingly softer than we thought. Then there are auras, eminences, and the overpowering value of silhouette. We must pay attention to transitions and the effects of backlighting. Light through the transparency of ears. Reflected light on the chin, nose and upper lip. Evidence of moisture. At the same time we must not be averse to the truth and potential of caricature; we must see the “look,” that makes this a unique human head.
Look out for psychological depth as well — see beyond the surface. Spend time. Gently deceive this human’s head into a state of control. Let him take charge and then take it away from him. He will give glimpses of his personality that would otherwise take years — cockiness, shyness, thoughtfulness, impishness, naivete, that sort of thing. The power of observation, and its fast partner, understanding, are the stuff of portrait work that separates out the frosh. If you would be professional you need to teach yourself to read the x-rays.
PS: “Take hold of objects by their centres, not by their lines of contour. The contour accentuated uniformly and beyond proportion, destroys plasticity, bringing forward those parts of an object which are always most distant from the eye — namely its outlines.” (Eugene Delacroix)
Esoterica: Did you know that we automatically try to pull the facial features of others closer to accepted cultural ideas of beauty and normalcy — as well as toward that of our favorite face — our own? Look out for “you” in the faces of those you paint.
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
by Dickson Matthews
Where does one now go to learn this sort of thing? What art school knows of the nuances of which you speak? What you are saying is that there is a bit more to it all than meets the eye — and portrait work in particular takes a careful study and self-training. “What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.” (Samuel Johnson)
(RG note) The art of teaching portraiture art is almost a dying art. J. S. Sargent had Carolus Duran. Sargent also leaned hard on Velasquez, dead 200 years when Sargent started to pay attention to him. I’m a believer in finding someone you admire, living or dead, and trying to figure out the methodology. Further, we have better books now than ever. Choose carefully. An excellent online site is the Society of American Portrait Painters “Signature” at http://www.portraitsociety.org/
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville Florida
I am artist-in-residence at the local hospital, working in the “Arts in Healing” program there. They left my job description open, so I could explore the hospital and find my best place. I’m most active at night, and the only place full of awake people at two a.m. is the E.R. This joint is always jumping. I drop by about once a week with my pastels and suede mat board (cut to fit into clear bags). I walk through the triage area, looking for likely subjects. I look in on a patient, say, “Hello! I’m the hospital artist here to do your portrait!” and once they understand that there’s no charge and they will get to take the pastel home with them they allow me to come in and work. An artist could not find more interesting subjects. Because we never know how much time we have, I work quickly, using broad strokes with soft pastels, capturing likeness, gesture and expression. Everyone seems to enjoy the process. My subject appreciates the attention, and his family is glad to watch. Most of these drawings end up being pretty rough, but I think I’ve done some of my best work at the hospital. The lighting is less than ideal, I am often interrupted, and all the portraits are simply given away, but the face-to-face encounters with frightened, bored, bleeding, angry people connect me to my community in a very special way. And it’s a great way to practice portraits!
The face you can’t forget
by Sandy Triolo
Funny, in my last painting class during a portrait session, of the 12 people in the class, about half painted someone that looked like themselves! I’ve gotten a lot out of doing self-portraits but I do not want to see “me” showing up in other work uninvited!
by Henry Lum
The best likenesses are created when the person you paint is not commissioning. The relaxation that comes with just painting to no particular end produces the best work. I recommend that artists who wish to get good at commissioned portraiture should first do many without obligation before setting to the task of satisfying.
by Lionel B Smith
There is altogether too much emphasis these days on simply going in there and splashing paint around. The idea of finding the artist within has its limitations. While there is nothing wrong with free expression there are some aspects of art that require concentration and care. There will be lots of opportunity to make it look easy later. “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent Van Gogh)
In search of “soul”
by Nick Nieto
The only thing of real importance in a portrait is the soul of the subject. This is as much a function of what the artist has to offer the subject as what the subject has to offer the artist. Great artists transcend surface appearances. “I want to make portraits and images. I don’t know how. Out of despair, I just use paint anyway. Suddenly the things you make coagulate and take on just the shape you intend. Totally accurate marks, which are outside representational marks.” (Francis Bacon)
(RG note) “If the artist only reproduces superficial features as photography does, if he copies the lineaments of a face exactly, without reference to character, he deserves no admiration. The resemblance which he ought to obtain is that of the soul.” (Auguste Rodin)
by Cindy Schave, Platteville, Wisconsin, USA
I was rediscovering the creative aspects of my personality, and was doing an exercise from Betty Edwards’ book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I had taped my paper to the table behind me, and was drawing my hand which rested in my lap — a pure contour drawing. On that hot and sticky Wisconsin day, the flies were abuzz, and one landed on my bare leg. Rather than being annoyed by it, I continued drawing my hand, and then became aware that a separate part of me was watching that fly in amazement, realizing that I had no physical sensation at all of it being there. At that moment, everything around my hand went dark, as if it were night with all the lights turned off, and then I noticed a sparkling, undulating aura of light surrounding my hand, and the many colors of which my skin was comprised. I don’t know, either, how much time passed.
by Tracy Verdugo, Australia
I am a very “beginner” artist. At 34 I started lessons 10 weeks ago, once a week as a way of taking some time out for myself. I seem to be a late bloomer — maybe it’s just that I am finally finding the confidence to express myself! I am enjoying my art so much and it has opened up the world for me. I am seeing so much more beauty and intricacy and emotion in everything I look at. We started with drawing and charcoal and went onto pastels after a few weeks. I have fallen in love with this medium. I can’t believe I did not take art in highschool. I think I compared myself to those children in primary school who I thought had a “natural” gift and just made a natural mistake and decided that I wasn’t an artist.
by Monika, Graz, Austria
I am currently taking a class called NLP — Neuro-Linguistic Programming. This class teaches individuals to observe the reactions of others and thus coming back to oneself. The idea is to learn to observe without classifying. Not classifying anything, particularly in the arts is a very good way. For example, just to listen to a picture, (it could also be music or literature or a poem) is enough to tell what is important about it. Open-mindedly observing either nature or individuals, or simply mediating on human behaviour gives the possibility to see clearer the lights and shadows.
by Dawn A Moser, Brooklyn, NY
It doesn’t take much to put yourself into “observation mind.” You may have noticed when traveling, particularly in foreign countries, you are more open and aware because you are expecting to see something different. How easy it is to put our observation minds to sleep while around home. Here’s an exercise: Travel a familiar street — but look at it as if you are freshly arrived from outer space. Take your time and you will see things you never believed possible.
by Yaroslaw & Olga, Moscow, Russia
Nobody prohibits now us to sell our art world-wide. Now it even supports by State to look for business contacts anywhere. So we are looking forward with optimism. Also, to have good art business it is not enough to be artist only it is necessary be man who understands what is truth or lie, what is corruption, what is wild criminality or civilized Mafia, what are those people, enforced to become bad people and why it must to happen. But to learn it not possible instantly, it must be wrote the “Large Book of Life” about that as artist saves the souls of those people. We create our art works to be working as curative objects. Those are saving the man’s souls.
You may be interested to know that artists from 86 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Elle Fagan of Connecticut who with her Macpowerbook, was visiting a friend and trying to pay attention to her work, “and their cat brought home a friend, a young squirrel, who is now in my dress pocket, napping, and making me giggle. ‘Hopper’ is very tame, is nearly litterbox trained and has very elegant fingers.”
And Mario Rocio, who was just heading off for his first portraiture class.
And “ManWoman” who has published a book of his observations of the historical and often unthreatening aspects of the swastika.