Research Point: Portraits Conveying Mood and Atmosphere

Research Point: Portraits Conveying Mood and Atmosphere

Go onto the internet and find some portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere rather than simply a physical likeness.

(NB All images are reproduced for editorial purposes only and not for commercial gain)

Rembrandt’s Mother by Rembrandt

portrait of rembrandt mother - Google Search:

Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother

Rembrandt’s portraits are always more than just paintings of people’s faces. He seemed to look deep within their souls and put what he found down on the canvas. This portrait of his mother shows a certain weariness but also a life lived. The illumination of her face is mesmerising with the warmth in the shadow that gives a translucency. It makes you wonder what she was thinking at the time.

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap by Vincent van Gogh

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap - Vincent van Gogh:

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap – Vincent van Gogh

 

This portrait by van Gogh tells the viewer so much just by the way it has been painted. The brush-strokes are thick, angular and convey the pressures and worries of this woman’s every day existence. To me, he hasn’t made her old in years but has etched every struggle to feed her family with meagre means. I like the way it appears van Gogh has painted all the canvas dark and put in the mid tones and lights over the top, sometimes allowing the dark to show through. This gives an overall depth and mood to the painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother and Child by Picasso

paintings of picassos blue period - Google Search:

Mother and Child by Picasso (painting from his blue period)

Picasso’s blue period, by its definition, is one of melancholy and sadness following the suicide of his close friend. He has taken this tragedy and sought out subjects in which to pour his grief. This painting is so simple yet heartbreakingly moving. The mother is turned away and the baby is clutched to her with a gentle fierceness.  There is nothing around them apart from what looks like a basket of clothes or maybe it’s where the baby sleeps.  Apparently, during this time, Picasso used to visit a women’s prison to draw some of the inmates, many of which had young children incarcerated with them. Could this be one of these women?

 

 

Party in Paris by Max Beckmann

Party in Paris - Max Beckmann:

Party in Paris – Max Beckmann

What a mixture of assumed moods and characters in this picture! Overall, I don’t really pick up much of a party atmosphere in this snap shot of a social gathering. There only seems to be three or four people enjoying themselves and one of those is the singer lost in his own world. Having said that, Beckmann has picked up on common characteristics of party goers. There are those actually enjoying themselves on the left. However, the boredom of the woman rear right having to listen to her assumed partner and his friend’s lengthy conversation – about politics probably, has noticed she has caught the eye of the single man on the left. The way Beckmann has put these two figures at the same eye level connects them. The couple in the middle are ignoring each other’s existence as they ran out of things to say to each other 10 years ago! The eagle-eyed social climber is keeping watch for potential useful contacts and the gentleman who really doesn’t want to be there in the bottom right (or maybe it’s the volume over melody of the awful singing?). What triumph in observing and then depicting the scene so cleverly, and, in a way that colours, positioning of the figures etc are balanced so perfectly. The more I look at this the more I see and like it.

Summary

There are so many portraits out there that are more than just paintings of faces – it makes me realise how much more has to go into the work.  It is also apparent that, although the observational and drawing skills that allow you to produce an image of a person are very important, it is not just these things and sometimes not even, that renders a likeness of the character or occasion. It is a conversation between painter and sitter that occurs, and, some remnants of that conversation should be visible in the painting that is produced as a result.

Life Class – 26 September 2015

26/09/15

Life Class – Kathy 09.30-12.30

First class back after summer was surprisingly full. Even our tutor was taken aback as he had prepared the room for the students to be around the model so that viewing was 360 degrees. However, we squeezed in, and as ever, I decided to stand at my easel so found a slot. As it was the first session I’d attended for a while, I chose to use drawing media and not paint this time.

We had a new model, Kathy, who was tall and voluptuous and very still – a gentle re-introduction. We had a fairly traditional session with some shorter poses, followed by a long one.

4-5 minute poses with spear Pencil on A2 paper

4-5 minute poses with spear
Pencil on A2 paper

The first few were around 4-5 minutes and had the prop of a spear, these are always a little tricky as I need to warm up and adjust to scale of the model etc. I failed to contain the entire figure within the paper, however, I concentrated on the stance and showing weight and solidity.

 

 

 

 

Three views of same pose 10 minutes each Charcoal on A2 paper

Three views of same pose
10 minutes each
Charcoal on A2 paper

Next, utilising the fact that we were encircling the model, we had a set of three 10 minute poses. This time the model repeated her seated pose, turning for each, so that everyone could have three drawings from different view points. This was enjoyable, however, my third view was front on and this was the most difficult, as there was little light and dark. This had the effect of flattening the subject and therefore, I subconsciously widened the figure which increased the scale so didn’t fit the paper. Standing back I realised this and then became less precious about the drawing and more scribbly which actually improved it a little.

 

Our final pose after tea break was around 40 minutes. It was a lying position and the model was again in the centre of the group. This meant that wherever we stood, we had pot luck of a “good” pose – we did have the option of moving, however, I decided to take the challenge of drawing whatever I was given. It turned out to be an interesting view with foreshortening and lots of lumps and bumps! While drawing the figure, it became obvious how important the surrounding fabric/background was for showing the form of the body. I tried to work quickly, moving around the paper and not become too fixated on one or other part of the drawing. I was happy with the solidity of the image and lost and found edges here and there, although still didn’t quite get the feet on the paper in their entirety.

40 minute pose Charcoal on A2 paper

40 minute pose
Charcoal on A2 paper

 

Exercise: Telling a Story

21-23/09/15

Exercise: Telling a Story

Create a simple narrative, involving one or several human figures, and produce a painting that gives the viewer the clearest possible idea of what’s happening… The story will lie in how these figures relate – or fail to relate – to one another… Feel free to use photographs to help you, but bear in mind that simply copying a photograph is unlikely to create a satisfactory painting unless you go on to provide further interpretation and make what is in a photograph part of your own story.

I have been mulling this exercise over for a while, having read ahead in the course, so that I may have models or reference material available. I came up with four different narratives that may work in a painting – these I tried out in my sketchbook.  As we were to tell a story, I felt it helpful to put my ideas in frames across the page, in a graphic novel style.  Somehow, this made me think in a narrative way, even though each did not relate to the other.

Ideas in A4 sketchbook

Telling a Story
Ideas in A4 sketchbook

This helped me visualise my stories on paper, although, I only managed to completely discount the first one for a while and struggled to select my final subject. Eventually, I ruled out number three as it was more complex an image and we were asked for a simple narrative.  I still think, however, that it would make an interesting painting and have only put it on hold. Between number 2 and 4, I finally settled on the fourth, mainly because it had two figures and I thought the additional relationship angle would be interesting.

 

 

As I had no models for this exercise, I referred to a book called Facial Expressions A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon (published 2005 by Watson-Guptill Publications ISBN 0-8230-1671-4). As I had already had an idea for the story around receiving bad news in a letter, I knew what kind of expressions I was looking for.  The story in my mind was inspired by the remembrance events of the Second World war and of course, modern-day instances of families receiving the dreaded Ministry of Defence letters regarding service men and woman who would not be coming home. I chose a couple of photographs of a man and woman in their sixties with appropriate looks of shock and sadness. Until writing this up, I hadn’t realised were actually related as they were pages apart in the book! A little spooky!

Telling a Story Reference photo 1

Telling a Story
Reference photo 1

Telling a Story Reference photo 2

Telling a Story
Reference photo 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling a Story Preliminary drawing Coloured pencil on paper 10x12"

Telling a Story
Preliminary drawing
Coloured pencil on paper
10×12″

 

Due to time, I decided to use a 10×12″ canvas board again, and, as there were two figures, I decided to map out the composition in coloured pencils in the same scale to ensure placement would be correct in the final painting. Hopefully, I have been successful in bringing these two figures together and creating the characters to tell the story. It certainly makes me sad when I look at the finished painting.

 

 

 

 

 

Again I remembered to take a few photographs during the work in progress stage:

 

As an experiment, I decided to work on the white of the canvas board and did not use a prepared coloured ground. This was a conscious decision as I had read that some artists prefer this for portraiture as it gives more luminosity to the faces. In retrospect, I think here, it has given less depth to the colour, however, it does also give an impression of the graphic novel appearance.

Telling a Story "Bad News" Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Telling a Story
“Bad News”
Oil on canvas board
10×12″

Although, it is not overly helpful not to have models queuing up to sit for these exercises, it has forced me into using my imagination. It has also made me draw on the many life and portrait classes I have attended in the past and has given me confidence to construct my own compositions. I have found it quite daunting over the recent years not to be able to draw or paint from life, and have felt that I need to see something/someone in order to draw it or them. Not having models has been quite a freeing experience.

 

Exercise: A Figure in an Interior

15-20/09/15

Exercise: A Figure in an Interior

…Another approach would be to work from a photograph which you can then locate in an interior that you’ve imagined or that you can paint from real life. You could paint a very interesting painting by depicting a stranger or a celebrity in your own living room… Skin tones reflect surrounding colour and shades… How will you locate your figure in the space? How can you suggest depth?

My initial thoughts as noted in my sketchbook were to portray the Queen doing the washing up in my kitchen, Marigolds and all, but decided against this. Another scenario sprang to mind, maybe she could be sat in our lounge in a fluffy dressing gown and slippers reading the papers, as if on a lazy Sunday morning? It then struck me, that she is never really off duty, so I thought I’d replace the papers with a lap top as if catching up on official correspondence in the modern age – after all, one is never away from the office with the internet nowadays, is one?

To achieve a rough composition for the painting, I found a pink fluffy dressing gown and tried out several poses that my husband photographed for me. I am a similar height to the Queen so this would also help with proportions whilst sitting. From these photos I chose a couple to sketch out as trial compositions, altering them slightly to make more sense for my imagined image.

 

A Figure in an Interior Preliminary compositional sketches Pencil in A4 sketchbook

A Figure in an Interior
Preliminary compositional sketches
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

 

The first sketch, I thought, was less interesting and the background was not complete enough to give a coherent image.  I preferred the second drawing as it seemed right in its situation. The head position was changed from the photograph to look to the figure’s left and at the lap top screen.

 

 

 

 

Next I had to find suitable images of the Queen in order to make the pose believable and in proportion. This proved harder than I thought, because of the thousands of photographs and images out there, they all seemed to be looking left of centre or were straight profiles. I wanted one of the Queen wearing her glasses as she uses them for reading, and of her wearing a tiara. I had to settle with a compromise, of the two sketches I made of her head, one was looking the wrong way but had glasses and the tiara and the other was looking the right way without the accessories.

A Figure in an Interior Preliminary sketches of the Queen Pencil in A4 sketchbook

A Figure in an Interior
Preliminary sketches of the Queen
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

 

I found the almost full face image more difficult to obtain a likeness, although it was useful for the glasses. The 3/4 to almost profile was easier, however, it was more severe an expression than I wanted. Many of the photographs I studied, and there were a lot, showed the Queen to have quite a mischievous smile and that would have been nice to use. However, in reality, if someone is reading, they will usually have an expression of concentration, which is what I went for in the end.

 

A Figure in an Interior Tonal sketch Pencil in A4 sketchbook

A Figure in an Interior
Tonal sketch
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

 

I then made a tonal sketch from the photograph, as parts of it were over exposed and therefore, lacking in information to paint from directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I actually remembered to take photographs of work in progress (see gallery).

The final painting when photographed, is a little harsher in colour than in life.  Some aspects I added are: enhancing lights and darks; adding red, white and blue pyjamas for more colour; a vase of flowers on the window sill – this added more interest on the right hand side of the canvas and lifted the whole painting; the tiara and reading glasses. There was a sense of the head being “stuck on”, this I rectified by lightening the neck and giving a cohesive look to the figure as a whole.  The lighting in this room is complex, with slightly off-set opposing windows, however, as it was morning, the window behind the figure let in the most light and the other, a more subdued light. I did find myself giggling whilst doing this and at the same time, hoping that they don’t still throw people in the tower for treason! On the plus side, I think I achieved my aim and although much more complicated that I had envisaged, was very enjoyable.  This is the first time I can remember, where I have used such a multitude of reference material plus imaginary aspects – great fun.

A Figure in an Interior Never Off-Duty Oil on canvas board 16x20"

A Figure in an Interior
Never Off-Duty
Oil on canvas board
16×20″

 

Exercise: Tonal Figure Study

18-20/08/15

Exercise: Tonal Figure Study

…concentrate on conveying form by exploring tonal values… Make an initial drawing in which you simplify the main volumes of the figure as a series of cylindrical forms. Locating and describing the central axis around which these volumes move can help you to understand the position of the figure and how it occupies space.

Again I am without a model other than myself.  Reluctantly, I have to resort to photographs as the initial source material.  The photographs were black and white to deepen the tones, although, as they tend to do, they were flattened somewhat. This does not make things easier or quicker as one may think, after several attempts I finally took a couple of shots where I managed to have dark against light and vice versa. From these, drawings were made as per the brief, mapping out shapes, positions and tones.

Tonal Figure Studies Charcoal on brown paper

Tonal Figure Studies
Charcoal on brown paper

 

Using brown paper as a neutral ground with charcoal, I made four drawings, each progressively using more tone to draw out a three-dimensional image. The final drawing was made by covering the space with an even layer of charcoal and lifting out the lights with a putty rubber and then reaffirming the darkest darks.

 

 

 

 

 

The support used was a Daler board specifically for oil painting, however, I was using acrylic. The board was pre-primed so I stained it with two layers of a burnt umber wash. This support was interesting as it seemed to prolong the drying time of the paint and made a nice compromise between oil and acrylic.

Colours used were:
Burnt Umber
Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Sienna
Yellow Ochre
White

Tonal studies with the almost finished painting in its surrounding space.

Tonal studies with the almost finished painting in its surrounding space.

To concentrate on tones I decided to used mainly earth colours with the blue and burnt umber making a solid dark. I avoided the white until near the end and used the yellow ochre as the light. Instead of a linear drawing I blocked in the darkest darks and the lightest lights of the figure and immediate surroundings, then mid tones in shapes. I was determined to use my tonal drawings more than the photographs for the bulk of the painting, however, a few anomalies with the drawing were corrected by referring to the photographs. As I became more confident of the figure placement, I introduced a little more colour and white, although still keeping it fairly muted. Keen to place the figure into its environment, I cross referenced tones across the figure and beyond, reducing the chroma the further away from it by using tones of the burnt umber and ochre. All blinds were closed, with the only light coming from the double doors opposite the sofa, this concentrated the light source onto the front of the figure and the viewpoint was to the left, looking slightly up.

Self Assessment of the “Final” Painting

The painted figure is solid and well seated in its environment, although I find a few things will need revisiting. In retrospect, the foot curled under the body may be a little out of proportion – this may be due to it being closer to the camera lens, therefore distorting and enlarging it. I should have compensated for this when drawing in paint.  The charcoal drawing does not seem to be out of proportion so had thought of this potential pitfall at that time. I also feel that the right leg needs more tonal variation in the flesh, which was there at one point but has been lost under subsequent layers. The right hand is not clearly distinguishable from the right foot, particularly in the photograph below, this also needs more work. I will put this to one side for a day or two and have another look at it with fresh eyes.

Almost complete acrylic tonal study of a figure. 14x18"

Almost complete acrylic tonal study of a figure.
14×18″

 

Exercise: Linear Figure Study

11/08/15

Exercise: Linear Figure Study

…Mix up a loose fluid mix of a neutral mid-tone to sketch in the outlines of the figure and other key lines that help to frame the figure and locate it in space… Don’t get too involved in close detailed drawing of hands, feet and features.  …Draw with your brush as accurately as you can…

I had been thinking about this painting whilst having breakfast and looking through social media, the news etc.  I am finding it extremely useful reading through the exercises and getting them settled in my head beforehand, I know what I have to do and sub-consciously am gathering ideas in readiness. I jotted these down in my sketchbook before I forgot them (see notations in photograph below).

Linear Figure Study & Preliminary Notes 4B pencil in A3 sketchbook

Linear Figure Study & Preliminary Notes
4B pencil in A3 sketchbook

So, although I had to be my model again, I wanted more movement and dynamism in the pose.  Initially, I thought the only way I could do this was with photographs, something I try to avoid ordinarily due the flattening effect the camera has.  However, as this was to be a linear study, I was hoping it would help not hinder.  My great idea (!) was to put the mirror on the floor and me lean against the wall looking down into it – think Jenny Saville – this was OK but not overly exciting. Next I brought my foot up, and thought to make it look like I was stamping on something with the foot being the focus. It was getting more like I wanted – instead of using a mirror, I used my iPad in selfie mode, so acted the same. I had my sketchpad balanced on the laundry basket to my right, with a pencil in my right hand and tried to sketch what I saw on the screen. I just about managed it although I couldn’t see my right forearm and hand nor was the raised foot easy to keep still. I then discovered that I could use a time delay for the camera, so could photograph the hand and the foot separately. I also took lots of other photos in this way. Funnily enough, I didn’t use any of those as the sketch was what I wanted. I know this wasn’t drawing from life with the paint brush, but was the next best thing. With the photographs of right arm and left foot, I had to be careful, as they photographed the opposite way round to the sketch – this is not an easy way out.

As in my preliminary notes, I mentioned having a dynamic ground to the dynamic pose, I pondered using wet in wet acrylic inks etc, however, I decided, as the brief suggested, to draw in paint and then use colour for positive and negative shapes that appeared.

Below is the resulting painting. Process:

  • Using the pencil sketch as source material, drew with medium round brush in mid tone, dilute, acrylic paint to place the figure in the space.
  • Adjusted drawing as necessary.
  • Using opaque acrylic, filled in the negative shapes around the figure which also disguised the discarded, inaccurate drawing.
  • Used muted colours for the clothing, keeping the colour flat to avoid tonal representation
  • Used more opaque, subdued mix of burnt sienna and white for the flesh except the foot.
  • As the underneath of the feet has strong blood flow, used dilute but strong cadmium red to exaggerate its focus.
  • I allowed it to run and over flow its outline, I then began to feel an emotive pull to emphasise the implied violence of the stance, stamping, squashing – was the red paint blood?
  • Following on, I returned to the drawing by using a rigger brush dipped in sepia acrylic ink and loosely traced the outline, varying the strength of the line.
  • Also using the rigger and ink, I added the hair that was falling over the face in a wild way – no features were added to the face – faceless violence!
  • I added some extra orange ink around the head, an attempt to illustrate the frenzy of the action.
Linear Figure Study Acrylic paint and ink Approx A3

Linear Figure Study
Acrylic paint and ink
Approx A3

This is the first time ever, I have felt a strong impulse to try to put a message into something I’ve painted. The accuracy may have suffered a little, particularly on the left arm, however, I feel it has been therapeutic.  From knowing what I had to do prior to doing it, and allowing thoughts to form ahead of the exercise, it has infiltrated into what I produced. I had read a post on social media that morning from someone pleading that violent videos not be shown all the time on the Newsfeed, even if it was for the best of reasons, plus all the violence and abuse that features daily in the news itself.

This has been quite a revelation – what next I wonder?

 

Exercise: Observing the Human Figure

10/08/15

Exercise: Observing the Human Figure

Set model in comfortable and relaxed pose, sitting or lying down.  Make sure there is sufficient light on both the subject and your working surface. As you’re concerned more with line than tone in this exercise the shadow cast by directional light is not a major concern.

As the only other living being in the house at the time was a spaniel (a stretch too far), I had to use myself as the model. This will be a common theme so have read through this section and made some notes on how I may accomplish the brief regardless:

  • Material: conte stick
  • Warm up 2-3 minute poses
  • Longer pose 10 minutes maximum
Drawing the Human Figure 2-5 minute warm up sketches, 2 x black conte stick, 1 x 8B pencil. A3 Sketchbook

Drawing the Human Figure
2-5 minute warm up sketches, 2 x black conte stick, 1 x 8B pencil.
A3 Sketchbook

 

As I seem to relate to scale and proportion better whilst standing, my warm up sketches are stood at the easel.  As noted next to the drawings, I found the conte stick a little too thick for this size of sketch. Also, we are advised that the model should wear close-fitting  clothes so that the form of the figure is discernible – the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing proved to be too baggy and impeded my view.

 

 

 

Drawing the Human Figure 10-15 minute sketch, 8B pencil in A3 Sketchbook

Drawing the Human Figure
10-15 minute sketch, 8B pencil in A3 Sketchbook

 

After a swift change into closer fitting clothes, it was much easier to see what I was drawing.  I also decided to draw larger scale, although not quite at the scale that finally emerged, hence no feet!  This was not a conscious decision, I just found to reproduce what I saw as faithfully as I could, I had to increase the size of the drawing. I am more used to A2 size, so although I didn’t quite manage it, it is good practice to try.

 

 

 

 

 

As the brief did specify that the model should be comfortable and either seated or lying, I cast around to see how this could be achieved. As the mirror was in the bedroom and it was “change bed sheets” day, there were pillows, a duvet and a throw piled up on the floor.  I made a base out of the duvet, a couple of large pillows and fashioned a back drop from the throw tucked into semi open cupboards opposite the mirror. Then I had to work out how to actually draw whilst sitting down, I decided to cross one leg over the other and use this to support my A3 sketchbook, this worked fairly well except for covering part of my right arm and hand. It also made a more interesting pose, although comfort did not play a big part! To get around this, I had to put the sketchbook down and study the position of the arm and hand, and then draw from memory, this took a few attempts but just about worked.

Drawing the Human Figure 20 minute sketch, 8B pencil in A3 Sketchbook

Drawing the Human Figure
20 minute sketch, 8B pencil in A3 Sketchbook

NB: All notations at the time are next to the sketches.