Exercise: Conveying Character

11 & 14/09/15

Exercise: Conveying Character

This study could be a portrait or self-portrait. Whichever you choose, the aim is to convey character through facial expression… Choose your sitter then decide what aspect of your character you want to convey – gentleness, moodiness, humour, etc…You don’t have to paint someone you know, you could choose to paint a television personality, for example, but you’ll need to decide in advance what aspect of their character you’re aiming to convey and think about how you’re going to achieve this.

I relished the opportunity to paint a well-known person, and when talking about character, I decided to concentrate on politicians.  Whether it be consciously or sub-consciously, we make up our minds about people by the way they look and their physical attitude a large percentage of the time. There is one politician in particular that I can never fathom. Boris Johnson often appears to play the bumbling fool, however, you don’t get to the position in life he occupies by being so – I was tempted to try to capture both sides of the coin. I made two drawings in my sketchbook and I think they are fairly successful likenesses, however, we are conditioned not to trust politicians and this one was too good an actor.

Conveying Character Boris Johnson Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Conveying Character
Boris Johnson
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Politicians like to give the impression of saying exactly what the electorate appear to want them to say. However, sometimes, their facial expressions give them away, and there is one in particular, in my opinion (other opinions are available), that has the perfect, sanctimonious sneer.  Again, I tried a drawing first in my sketchbook, concentrating on tone as much as I could from the photo reference.

Conveying Character George Osbourne Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Conveying Character
George Osbourne
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

The expression comes over in the drawing and as noted next to it, the impression given is one of a self-satisfied thought that’s showing through.

I struggled with the likeness, however, this is the one I decided to paint as I could have fun with that expression.

I again used a canvas board 10×12″ as I wanted to zoom right in on the face. Likewise, a dark background would emphasise the features. I have exaggerated the slant of both mouth and nose purposely, not to the extent of a caricature but enough to accentuate the expression. I also decided to work in oil again to keep the fluidity of the paint and brush marks.  I initially worked only from the sketch to set the positioning of face and features, and to try to achieve a three-dimensional appearance. I then used the photograph for colouring, returning to just the sketch for more tonal modelling, and final touches again from the photograph, particularly the eyes.

Again, I haven’t wholly captured the likeness, however, it does make me think of a politician’s sneer, which was my objective.

Conveying Character The Politician's Sneer Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Conveying Character
The Politician’s Sneer
Oil on canvas board
10×12″

When you have completed this exercise, review all your portraits and consider which ones are the most successful.

I think the most successful of the portraits ie ‘self-portrait’, ‘head and shoulders’, ‘mood and atmosphere’ and ‘conveying character’, are the ones where I was working from observation. I am particularly pleased with the head and shoulders painting of my husband, although, it is more of an oil sketch than a complete painting I suppose. The limited amount of time I had, plus obviously seeing him most days, made me look hard and record what I saw but not to overwork it. As soon as I saw a reasonable likeness, I stopped there. This is also the one I had the most positive feedback about.

What technical demands did you encounter?

Technically, I found the self-portrait the most challenging.  The very fact that I had to stay still as a sitter, yet keep moving back as the painter threw me out all over the place. I also, in hind sight, was less enamoured with the acrylic paint. At the time, I enjoyed it as I could over-paint easily where I needed to make adjustments, yet now it’s dry and I’ve had time away from it, it has a tendency to look flat and harsh.

How hard did you find the interpretive element of portrait painting?

With the exercise, creating mood and atmosphere, I struggled because I chose the wrong mood and went against how I was feeling. Had I acknowledged this at the time, I think it would have been more successful.  The quick, unplanned and spontaneous ink and pastel painting I did afterwards was much more evocative.  The final exercise, conveying character, was difficult when trying to achieve a likeness, however, the character was there and I enjoyed the experience. This time I had chosen the right subject and media and worked fairly quickly, so all the best elements came together (apart from the likeness).

 

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