Thursday, 7 January 2010

Portraiture. Three Lessons I've learned.

"Lauren, my daughter".  Approx 9" x 9" Prismacolor and Derwent Coloursoft pencils on Brown La Carte sanded paper.

This is a cropped piece of a larger drawing, 10" x 12", showing the drawing at an early stage before I messed it up.  I didn't pause to upload it as a WIP because I'm impatient and wanted to keep going and finish it.  At this stage it doesn't look too bad, I've got the basic tonal areas and features in.  From here on in, however, the whole thing went off the rails and this is how it ended up.

It doesn't look like the same person, does it?!  Whilst the final version is more finished-looking it has the look of a plastic doll, particularly the eyes, the shading is overworked and it just looks wrong.  More importantly, the first version is a much better likeness of Lauren - according to her elder sister who tells it like it is!  So what went wrong and what have I learned?

Well, I'm not going to beat myself up about it but be constructive instead.  Firstly, portraits are a tough genre in art as we all know because traditionally we are seeking to get a good likeness - unless, of course, you're wacky and off the wall like Picasso.  So.....practice, practice, practice is key.  I do not do enough of this.  As others have said before me, you have to put in the graft if you want to do well in portraiture.  So that's Lesson One.

Secondly, I think the first picture is fresher because I began by working swiftly, putting down quick strokes and generally drawing with an eye for the WHOLE image, all at once.  On this sanded surface you can get colour down quickly with pencils, more like using pastels, which I enjoy.  Also, you can work more spontaneously because you can put lighter colours over darker ones so you don't have to worry about reserving space for your lighter tones or going too dark.  

When I moved on to refine the tonal areas and focus on the features, I began to lose spontaneity and got bogged down in the detail - too bogged down.  Although it obviously needed to be refined and adjusted tonally, the key issue here, I think, is that I stopped looking at my drawing as a WHOLE image -  working each area or feature in relation to all the others.  I just zoomed in on one bit at a time and promptly lost the plot!  Then, when I stepped back and looked at it, the likeness had gone and it looked stilted and 'dead'.  So......Lesson Two......always keep the whole image in mind when working on any one part of it.

Thirdly, because I was enjoying the drawing, at least at first, I worked fast and furiously - like a woman possessed! - to get it done so I could stand back and admire it (Hehe).  I was so totally immersed in it that my eyes became tired of the image and judgements about colours and what needed adjusting became blurred and unreliable.  It's sometimes hard to stop and have a break when you are on a roll.  But........... Lesson Three.....I have to learn to take at least one good, long break, maybe even a few days, while working on a picture.  I will then be able to look at the picture afresh, see things I didn't see before and get it into perspective again.

I'm off now to knit me a lovely warm woolly hat, just bought the pattern - this cold, snowy weather looks like it's in for the long haul! 


alison staite said...

Great post Janet. I so identify with your lesson 3.
Enjoy your woolly hat - i wish i could knit!

Carolina said...

Well, I have to say that the first one looks better than the second, but, the second is not bad at all!, I wish I could do that! Anyway, thanks so much for your honest and candid post, more than one lesson learned from it :) (not only about painting...)
And lovely face that of your daughter, by the way :)
Best regards,

Teresa Mallen said...

Great job on the portrait! Okay, the second image isn't as pleasing but still, portraits are not easy and kudos for getting so much right. Simply put the first image has the right energy and freshess and you just overworked it. Easy enough to do when we go it to crisp up some final details. Looks like you have learned some helpful lessons so congratulations! We always learn from each piece.

Janet Pantry said...

Thanks Alison, Carolina and Teresa. Yes, I did learn a lot from doing this one. That first pic really does look like Lauren, spooky!


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