Practice of Painting – Assignment 3

26 & 28/09 – 01/102015

Assignment 3

Now that you’ve worked on several figure and portrait studies, consolidate what you’ve learned by working in a more planned and considered way on a portrait or self-portrait in either acrylic or oil paint. In this assignment you’ll be showing how your skills in handling paint and interpreting your subject are developing.

Looking at other artists’ portraiture

Explore some of the endless possibilities for arrangements in portraiture by looking at the work of other artists… Make notes in your learning log, concentrating on works that you find especially arresting or admirable.

Arrangements/composition/brushwork/colour in portraiture:
I have seen some fabulous examples of portraiture over the years that are purely focussed on the sitter. Many that do this use chiaroscuro to draw attention in onto the subject with dramatic effect – Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Da Vinci are obvious examples. A more recent example, both in era and my actually seeing it, would be Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913). This left a lasting impression for its sheer dominance of a space.  I enjoyed the way the left shoulder was lost into the background with the slightly more unusual light source coming from the right. As most of the background and figure itself was dark, the flesh of the face and hand on the right had significance and you understood the character of the man from this. Using the same artist, a converse treatment is one of the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife 1885. The figures are contained within an interior, however, neither are centre stage, certainly not “His Wife”, who seems almost insignificant going off the right edge of the canvas. Sargent doesn’t dismiss her completely though, as her clothing is elaborate, however simply rendered. Although we are left in no doubt as to whom is main subject of the painting.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to go to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries – there was a wonderful array of styles, subjects and interpretations by current portrait artists. To choose one or two favourites was almost impossible, however for this purpose I settled on these examples. “Norman” by Jason Sullivan is a narrative work showing the man within his environment. The painting is set in the Salt Marshes on an overcast day, all tones are related back to this, even the red windcheater Norman is wearing fits right into the grey tones yet gives the image a lift. Based in Lymington in Hampshire, not so far from me, Norman lives on his small boat (which is in the background of the painting), is in his seventies and has previously cut reeds for New Forest thatchers. He seems at one with his world, we have the sense that he needs no more.

The other painting I absolutely loved is “Fire” in oil by Simon Davis RP RBSA. It measures only 6.5 x 5.5″, yet for me, packs a punch. A simple head and shoulders view of a young woman, a limited palette with bold decisive marks. It has a variety of soft and sharp edges and the face is moulded by its brush strokes – if ever (in my humble opinion) the handling of paint and clarity of colour was an example of less is more, this is it. Simply beautiful.

(NB I was unable to find “Norman” or “Fire” on-line to create a link to the actual paintings unfortunately).

Assignment 3 – Self Portrait

After lengthy consideration throughout this section, I have decided to attempt another self-portrait. This is for two reasons: me being the only model I can guarantee has availability as required; because I find this genre particularly challenging and need to face it (no pun intended) head on (sorry!).

My personal challenges with a self-portrait are:

  1. keeping still as a model yet moving back to assess progress as a painter
  2. portraying my character rather than the grumpy painter that’s struggling
  3. ignoring my perception of what I look like and really looking at what I can see
  4. working the entire painting rather than fiddling with detail – I have less trouble with this when painting someone else
  5. chasing the light – can become so involved in the task, I don’t notice light changing until it’s too late!

Preparation:

Alluding to number 3 above and possibly 2 and 4, I decided to angle the mirror back so that I was looking down into it, thus avoiding the traditional face on, three-quarters or profile views. This is also not an angle I usually see myself from, so hopefully would avoid pre-conceived ideas of myself.

I was hoping to reflect some aspects of my work area in the painting for visual interest, however, the mirror angle just gave a view of the ceiling!

As I wanted to use a mid-sized canvas board and the only one I had was pre-used, I decided to recycle. The board was 38x46cm and had previously been not one, but two quite impasto acrylic paintings, therefore there was a lot of texture on the surface. I had already washed over a warm neutral ground colour, however, it was a little too bumpy for a portrait. I sanded the surface so that some texture was retained but not huge crevices. This, I hoped would compensate a little for having a simple background.

Preliminary Tonal Drawing Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Preliminary Tonal Drawing
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

 

In my sketchbook, I drew a frame 50% smaller in scale than my board to create a sketch to work on tone and composition.  As I was already clear in my mind how I wanted to work, I found this was enough. (In assignment 2, I also thought I knew what composition I wanted but still tried others just in case – this time I am already certain).

We were also advised in the course notes, to premix our flesh colours, this I admit, I don’t normally do. I was conscious of keeping a fairly limited palette so chose warm and cool versions of red, blue and yellow, plus some earth colours and white. ls ten a limited palette?

Colours used:
Cadmium Red (warm)
Alzarin Crimson (cool)
Ultramarine Blue (warm)
Manganese Blue (cool)
Cadmium Yellow (warm)
Cadmium Lemon (cool)
Naples Yellow
Burnt Sienna
Raw Umber
Titanium White

Using varying combinations of some of the above I tried to create dark, mid and light tones in warm, cool and neutral mixes. Retrospectively, the neutral wasn’t far removed from the warm. Making swatches of these colours with mixing notes I taped the sheet to my easel for easy reference. During the portrait classes I attend, we are encouraged not to overuse white as it can cool colours and make them chalky, hence the Naples yellow.

Flesh colour mixes and notes

Flesh colour mixes and notes

Set up for self portrait: mirror, board and easel, preliminary sketch, colour mixing notes, palette and brushes ready to go.

Set up for self-portrait:
mirror, board and easel, preliminary sketch, colour mixing notes, palette and brushes ready to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had decided to use oil paint as, although I enjoyed switching to acrylics occasionally for previous exercises, returning to oil felt “right”. I like to work with dilute oil paint in raw umber and Naples yellow initially to map out my composition and rough tones before getting involved with colour, sometimes rubbing out shapes and lighter areas with a cloth, not something easily done with acrylics and thinned paint dries very quickly. It’s also a more tactile way of working and helps me feel like I’m moulding the structure of the face (in theory).

Below is a gallery of work in progress photos which maps out the highs and lows of the exercise. After day one of painting, I left the work feeling satisfied with progress, thinking, I just need to work on the eyes, clothes and background tomorrow and then I’m done. What a difference a night makes! Next day, work on the eyes I did, and work and work and work – in reality fiddled! Big mistake – I had strayed from the style used elsewhere in the painting and now the eyes were awful! I know I should work all of the painting at the same rate and level but ignored it. I scrubbed out the eyes and went to lunch. Coming back, I reassessed – the nose was too high the mouth too high and the left side of the face too wide. I scraped off all features and returned to sculpting shapes, I finally finished that day at the same stage as the previous one. Lesson 1: Work all of the painting not just one area to the same level, Lesson 2: Avoid detail until the structure is correct, Lesson 3: Light, light light! At this point I closed and locked the door – made dinner, had 3 glasses of wine and tried to forget the whole thing!

I was constantly stepping back to reassess my progress, nearing the end I reconsidered the background. I had chosen to wear a black fleece top, which contrasted well with the red, paint smeared apron and although my hair is fair, there was a good amount of darker tone through it. Therefore, I decided to keep the background lighter so that the figure came forward. As I wanted, as previously stated, to make the background more interesting, I needed to keep the texture visible. Using a mixture of brush and palette knife, colour was added, trying to keep the light tones to the left. I then scraped back so that the relief of the underlying texture showed through.  This seems to have worked quite nicely.

Evaluating the results, I was pleased with the painting close up – however, moving it to another position and standing back, the mouth lacked definition as the top lip should have been significantly darker than the lower. The painting did not reflect that so I adjusted the tones here. I also noticed that the right side of the face was a little flat, so worked a little more moulding with warm and dark tones – this is something I find I often do.  I think I will leave it at that, as I may detract rather than add at this stage.

Assignment 3 - Final Painting Self-portrait Oil on Canvas Board 38x46cm

Assignment 3 – Final Painting
Self-portrait
Oil on Canvas Board 38x46cm

This was to be the final painting, however, there were aspects I wasn’t happy with.

  • The mouth is too harsh and angular
  • The right eye (as viewed) is slightly askew giving a boss-eyed look
  • The general effect is too severe – this is something my husband always points out when I attempt a self-portrait. When asked if I had made the same effect this time, he replied “yes but you always do”.

I resolved to reassess and try to correct these points. This is not a matter of vanity as I try to paint what I see, but more of portraying the person behind the features. I do have my moments, yet generally I am good-natured and approachable – not a terrifying school mistress!

 

Having left a good day and a half to let the painting sit and dry out a little, it was easier to rework and paint on top of what was there. The adjustments didn’t take too long and a fresh eye always helps, if I hadn’t done this I would have regretted it.

Assignment 3 Self-portrait After final reassessment and rework Oil on canvas board 38x46cm

Assignment 3
Self-portrait
After final reassessment and rework
Oil on canvas board
38x46cm

Self Assessment:

Had I overcome my five initial challenges?

  1. keeping still as a model yet moving back to assess progress as a painter
  2. portraying my character rather than the grumpy painter that’s struggling
  3. ignoring my perception of what I look like and really looking at what I can see
  4. working the entire painting rather than fiddling with detail – I have less trouble with this when painting someone else
  5. chasing the light – can become so involved in the task, I don’t notice light changing until it’s too late!

Results:

  1. This still challenged me, although I did try to minimise the problem by placing the easel in most accessible position – I did sometimes, however, return to it and look in the mirror and I wasn’t there! Ongoing!
  2. This one nearly got the better of me, but the final re-evaluation and rework saved my bacon. I reduced the severity of expression and made some tonal value changes more subtle and am happy.
  3. This was one of the easiest ones to overcome because of the angle I chose – it may still be a factor in more traditional poses.
  4. Ah – this was tricky, individual eyelashes? Whatever was I thinking? This journey is well documented above and I won’t dwell on it – lesson learnt!
  5. Again, I did exactly this – trying to get on and finish regardless is not advisable – another lesson learnt.

Successes:

  • The perspective of the pose was a saviour and noted above – using the initial sketch was very helpful although I accept that I have increased the scale in the painting compared with the drawing.
  • The textured ground has made more interesting marks and enlivened the painting.
  • I am pleased with the colours compositionally, they relate well to each other and make a fairly dramatic image.
  • The painting of the clothes including my trusty paint encrusted apron has a realistic appearance.
  • My confidence had grown in what I wanted to achieve especially with my nemesis of self portraiture.
  • Probably the most important one – I think it actually does look like me.

 

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