Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Need for Speed: Oil Portrait Sketches, Part Two

"Hasan" oil on panel, 9.5" x 9.5"

A few months ago I wrote Part One about alla prima oil portrait sketches. I'd just like to repeat: this isn't necessarily my favorite way to paint somebody. In an ideal world, I'd have lots of time, time to get to know a sitter, time to go slowly and get the likeness exactly accurate. I also really like painting a subject over the course of many days but I don't get to do this as often as I would like to. This is the real reason so many artists paint self portraits. ... they've run out of money for model fees, their family has grown resentful and their friends are sick of them. 

Thus, an artist may find herself in front of a model for a limited time period. I painted the portrait above at an open studio, seated in the front row and looking up at the model, which changes the facial proportions a little bit from what you'd see at a distance while standing. I've grown to like this angle because it tends to lengthen the neck and add some drama. But I don't always choose this angle. I like to mix it up and keep myself on my toes.

I suppose that's my first point I'm trying to make in this mini-series about alla prima portrait sketches. You can do a decent job from pretty much anywhere you place yourself, as long as you're not directly in front of a light pole, say, or directly behind another artist. You should challenge yourself if you're "just practicing". I've seen artists set up at spots where they're essentially painting the back of the model's head and they still manage to paint amazing paintings. 

One key consideration is getting enough light on your easel and your palette so that you can see what you're doing as you work. This is often a huge problem that only becomes apparent when you're in, say, near-total darkness and guessing at what the puddles are on your palette. (If this happens, try to clamp your palette so that it's parallel to your work so it's all in the same light. Or go over to David Kassan's website (see the links on the side of this blog) and get yourself a Parallel Palette!)

On the other hand, if you're painting in front of a group of people, demonstrating, or painting a portrait you'll sell to the sitter, you're going to hope to be in the best possible set of conditions that will ensure that the painting will be a success.

1. Make sure your equipment is to your liking and make a list to make sure you don't forget anything if you're traveling. This includes having your paints set out in the order you're used to so that when you're under time pressure, you know exactly where that yellow ochre should be. I'm guilty of violating this advice since I'm a compulsive experimenter and tinkerer, adding and subtracting new colors and moving them around, so it never really becomes automatic for more than a couple of years at a time. But I'm working on it.

2. If you get a chance to select a model in advance you might consider doing that. The best case scenario is where you've painted the person before and you've had a success with him/her. Not only do you get an idea what the person looks like and what face tones will be there, you'll know whether he or she can sit still and - this is important - whether the sitter can get back into the same place after a break.

Some of the best work I've done is where I've happened upon an exceptionally calm sitter who sits for an hour or so without actually taking a break.

By the way, the ability to know where you are in space is called proprioception. Dancers and many athletes have this ability to place themselves and remember exactly where they were when they get back to the pose after a break. If you ask them to tilt a quarter of an inch to the left they can actually do that. (But I don't think you should unduly stress out a model, I think some flexibility and going with the flow is a good thing.) I like dancers as models because they also don't mind being looked at, it's their job, as a matter of fact, and they can"give" you a lot, a certain attitude or feel that you can pick up on if you're sensitive.

Worst case scenario - for a fast sketch under time pressure - is probably a person who is fidgety, awkward and self-conscious about being looked at. If you add "sullen and reluctant" to the list that probably will describe most of the teens or young adult relatives of yours. Good luck with that. Lots of people just don't react well to holding still, so it's also a good idea to get used to people moving around. The artist James Gurney is one of the best people out there in terms of painting people who aren't holding still (see the link to his site on the right to find his videos and tips on doing this).

3. Many artists seem to work under the same lighting setup over and over again. I think this is a really good idea if you can manage it.  Personally, I don't do this - I always think it's a better idea to keep yourself on your toes by practicing a lot of different ways and putting people in different lighting conditions.

I think this is my personality type, too, to keep experimenting, change things up, try things out. I'm not sure this is always a terrific characteristic.

4. Finally, keep in mind that children have different head proportions than do adults and if you haven't worked with children much, a child model will be markedly different, plus they tend to move around much more than adults.