31 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP 14" x 10". 4 hours.

this painting was traced in charcoal from a photo reference. the pose was spontaneous and too extreme to hold for a life drawing.

the painting proceeded as a series of corrections or attempts to fix previous misjudgments or miscalculations. i had to scrub away many charcoal lines in the face, because they were too dark; the teeth were difficult to mix and outline; the modeling of the eyes was difficult to get right.

i like the overall simple, flat effect because it provides a background to the expression of the face, which is the focus anyway. but the labor involved makes the painting feel a bit dead or static.

i now have a week between models to catch up with work and plan some extended series of pieces.

i have also rearranged the display of paintings on my handprint.com domain, in part to provide browsing by genre, and in part to locate future figure nude paintings and drawings.

30 August 2007

margaret's hands

Arches CP 300 gsm, 10" x 14". 3 hours.

these are margaret's hands.

i began the painting as a technical stunt, as the background and the hands are mixed entirely from one red and one green paint. the colors of the two pairs of paints appear in the small ellipses, which in the original pose are dowels used to assemble the table. the background is perylene maroon and chromium oxide green, the hands are pyrrole orange and phthalo green YS. darkest shadows are sepia (hue).

margaret wears a muted ceramic bracelet, and i added colors here to broaden the illuminant and push the red/green flesh mixtures onto the skin as local color, rather than let them float as light (illuminant) color. bracelet colors are whatever was at hand.

in my mind models are like thunderclouds. the steady shafts of sunlight come through, and these are the prearranged poses and agreed upon procedures. but at some point, every relaxed and confident model will throw off a spark -- and the painter has to be ready to grab it in a sketch or photograph. because that is when models become a conduit to something new and outside the work expectations on both sides.

in this case, the spark is a small one, true, but i enjoyed it. the pose came because margaret had been out clubbing the night before, and had gotten her hand stamped at the door with a peculiar cartoon figure. she broke her portrait pose to point it out to me, and i took a photo of the gesture.

29 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP, 300 gsm. 3 hours.

i abandoned this painting because i did not know how to make any more headway with it. it is like a puzzle i cannot solve.

the magenta/turquoise contrast puts a weird weight on the illuminant, and i overdarkened the shadow tones as a result. the hair needs to be muted, but i didn't make the effort because, well, look at what would be left.

there are three reasons to abandon a painting: you don't know how to move ahead, you don't know how to fix what is wrong, or it is obviously bad and obviously irreparable.

i have been doing some great figure nude paintings from stefanie, and these will appear in later posts.

28 August 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10". 3 hours.

this is a photo tracing made to replace the failed life drawing of the same pose.

for me, images that fail hang around like haunting spirits or heavy debts, and unless they are redeemed by a second effort, or their errors are digested into the core of future painting effort, they poison the optimism to go forward.

this image suggests margaret's unusual ability to shape shift, in the literal sense. i have not encountered another model that has her range in front of the camera.

i seem to be pursuing a simplified image. have been thinking about the pop artists and the new york representationalists like alex katz and especially fairfield porter. as much as i can, i am removing "style" from the image, especially technical effects. a painting should look like an honest effort to describe what is there within an effective but unobtrusive method of simplification and emphasis. in katz's paintings, the simplification is obtrusive. in porter, the simplification is carried a little too far, but it has real music.

this one fell together quickly, probably because the previous two are similar. the hair is raw umber, the flesh is raw sienna tinted with venetian red. there is no blue. the background is ultramarine violet. as usual the digital image is off. the model chose this painting to keep for herself.

27 August 2007


Fabriano Artistico CP 300 gsm, 12" x 9". 4 hours.

this is the third in the life color studies of margaret, the one that i thought was headed to failure.

it is not so much a failure as a disappointment. she seems years too old (although i discovered my wife also thought she was much older than she is). the skin tones are overworked. i was lax with the hair because, well, this one had overstayed its welcome. i did get satisfaction that i salvaged it from the shredder.

this was the third color study i did that day, and i went too far separating the chromatic ingredients of the flesh mixtures. i pushed especially on the green and magenta.

margaret has a remarkably fetching natural eye shadow, and i remember i tried to get that color here (and in the previous two portraits).

this is the first posting i have made "real time", on the date shown, in almost two weeks. i have been behind because i was overextended, as described in previous postings. it feels good to "catch up".

26 August 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10". 3 hours.

this is the companion life sketch to the previous, prepared in the same way.

i made a particular effort to get her nose profile exactly right. it changes with the angle of view, and each angle casts the rest of her face in a different light.

margaret is a gentle and good natured woman, and i saw those attributes in this particular drawing.

i felt a kind of sadness or frustration that the picture is so far from the reality. but painting is an act of attention, patience and skill, and some paintings are only preparations for the next one.

there was a third life sketch, a full profile, but it made a failure. it was also on a smaller format and on a paper not suited to charcoal. i will probably redraw it from the pose photo in the same style as these.

25 August 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10". 3 hours.

one of the life sketches of margaret. the original was done in pencil; this was cut with charcoal using a photo reference of the pose, the charcoal was fixed by wetting with a faucet stream and setting to dry in the sun. then contrasting colors were dropped in.

i am still puzzling over her eyes. i tried for a color here that is not brown, not red, not orange, but something on the boundary of all of them. i tried painting the whites pale blue, but this didn't help.

the green/violet color base was suggested by her shirt. she likes to wear green i think.

the lips might be overdone. i wanted to simplify everything except the eyes, reducing the whole face to a pattern or icon.

24 August 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 12" x 9". 4 hours.

another in the life color studies. the third one is limping along and may make a failure.

how to portray the face? it seems to me that the life of a person is made of a handful of feelings they experience over and over -- love your country, life is a bore, i know something you don't, tomorrow is another day, i'm with stupid -- whatever. these few habitual feelings make up a life. at the same time, they experience change as they shift from one feeling to another.

a good portrait shows the expression that is experiencing the change: doubt turning into understanding, a scowl into a smile, recognition into conflict, joy into awe, awe into laughter. it's not a life feeling that makes up a life, but the way one feeling gives way to the others. the painter must identify the two characteristic life feelings.

what is to me most special about margaret is that she is in the transition from girl to woman; she can feel herself blossoming. her age seems to melt into the background, and a person on her way in life steps into view.

23 August 2007


Fabriano CP 300 gsm, 12" x 9". 4 hours.

i have been thinking about portrait painting in general while working on paintings.

the most precious thing is life itself, the feelfulness of existence; and life makes its way with a body, unique from any other, which is visible and can be painted. so the life really can be portrayed through the body, by the way the body is shown. in the best moments, we see a life for itself, as part of the world as it is, a piece of the miraculous.

we all have habitual or instinctual ways of looking at people and judging them, a kind of sign language of feeling. the portrait painter has to understand these signs, so he can control them as part of the portrayal.

this is life color study, the outline drawing prepared in advance from a photograph, but the colors and modeling done from life, and the rest (eyes, lips, neck, background, shirt) done after she had left. prussian blue and phthalo green YS, flesh mostly raw sienna, venetian red, quin magenta, prussian blue and phthalo green.

i still haven't found the best way to photograph the flesh tones. this is a sunlit photo with contrast enhanced to restore the original value (light/dark) structure. but the light was slightly warm, so all the yellows have gone to white. the photo taken in the shade grayed out the yellows with blue light.

22 August 2007

jonqui's hands

Strathmore drawing 200 gsm, 10" x 14". 15 minutes.

jonqui is a performance artist and events producer, living and working and occasionally modeling in petaluma, which is about a half hour south of me on country road. (about the same on roundabout freeway.) these are her hands.

jonqui is always "on" and came in her signature look -- flaming orange hair, black turtleneck pullover. she mentioned she would normally wear black pants too, but came in jeans instead.

these hands are "on" too, the fingers arranged like dancers.

Strathmore drawing 200 gsm, 10" x 14". 15 minutes.

i've posted the second hand drawing i did with her simply for the relaxed contrast. in the first my drawing was constrained by the precision of the pose; in the second i couldn't catch the essential details.

jonqui is a natural "hear me roar" style of woman, the kind that always makes me feel that everything is right with the world. but she was also insightful and plainspoken without being rude. i found this contrast between stage presence and humanity, the performer and the person, interesting and refreshing.

21 August 2007

iris sketch

Strathmore drawing 200 gsm 14" x 10". 10 minutes.

new paintings, drawings, and partially completed works are swarming around the studio like ants. i have overextended myself and that has been unproductive.

i discovered that i can work or two or more paintings at the same time, but they must be the same model in the same lighting and attire. i have been trying to work on two or more paintings at a time of different models, and this created chaos.

each painting requires its own color scheme, paints, paint mixtures, brushes; they are all done on different papers that require different technique to come out as i want. i clean my table and get everything organized, then each painting pulls out its needed resources and soon the table is so cluttered there is no room to work. i have to stop, organize, and then start over. i did this about three times and then realized it was a problem.

anyway, this is by way of mention that i have three paintings of jonquille in the queue, but haven't gotten to them yet. which is partly the context for this drawing, which i did while waiting for jonqui to arrive ... she'd missed a turn and gotten delayed finding her way.

there is a certain kind of attitude that a painting requires for it to move ahead ... a kind of patient enjoyment in the care, that comes through in this drawing. coping with too many paintings at once is too much like herding cats.

20 August 2007

margaret's hands

Strathmore drawing 200 gsm, 14" x10". 15 minutes.

margaret was over again yesterday and we had a good session. as always, we began with her hands, and i spent a little more time on the drawing than usual.

my preferred drawing method is to start very loose, with a continuous line drawing, and gradually tighten and refine the form to a kind of armature, and then cut the outline onto this foundation with a soft charcoal pencil. i don't erase any lines. the method captures both small changes in the model's pose, and also shows my process of looking at the model, in the incremental refinements.

i use hands as a warm up because the pose doesn't keep the model from otherwise moving, looking around, talking, etc., and it is difficult enough for me to get focus quickly. there is nothing that motivates me to get my shit together more than a drawing of ugly, cigar shaped fingers stuck into a potato of a palm on the end of a stick arm. a bad drawing of hands is a kind of crime.

19 August 2007


Canson Montval CP 300 gsm 14" x 10". 3 hours.

i am continually experimenting with different working procedures. this is a "color study" painting of stefanie made primarily to visually match her skin colors.

the drawing was prepared in advance from photo documents so it was ready to paint into immediately. the drawing was loosely done. the flesh sequence is raw umber, venetian red and pyrrole red with gold ochre as a bulking pigment and dioxazine violet for deep shadows. the blouse is cobalt turquoise. everything was applied wet in wet, or applied and then blotted away.

i was surprised how generally yellow or red her skin tones were and how there is no blue color in her shadows. (the blue background by contrast confirms this.)

stefanie has been the most surprising model to me, it is as if i see her out of the corner of my eye. she has done really nice figure work for me and i may start a series of her yoga poses. her features are strong but with a gentleness that is very graceful.

the flesh here burns away in the charles reid style. i have been puzzling over an effective way to show the life in a human form rather than just the movement or shape. color seems to be a key part of the answer.

18 August 2007

yellow iris, yellow couch

Winsor & Newton CP 300 gsm 14" x 10". 5 hours.

without much thought i threw a botanical into the mix of portrait paintings, partly as a relief from discouraging results and also just to work with green for a while.

a local florist delivers fresh flowers to our house each week. normally my wife jan arranges them in the main residence, but since she has been out of town i have them delivered to the studio. actually the couch behind the flowers is very dark brown, but i left it yellow, a mixture of pyrrole red and green gold, just because it was a nice color.

this painting deserves to be done larger and also with less stiffness. but i am feeling a bit stiff lately.

17 August 2007

siena drowsy

Arches CP 300 gsm 12" x 9". 3 hours.

around 3pm siena got very drowsy and almost fell asleep during a portrait pose. this is the life drawing i did at the time.

i have the same problem with afternoon drowsiness, though it is not as bad for me as it was a few years ago; i think eating lighter and having less stress in my life has helped. anyway, i empathized.

i left this painting unfinished because i made a technical failure. i became intrigued with the colors across the face and pursued that without bringing the hand along with it. i did that because the hand was an awkward modeling challenge. then when i built the hand i could not match its colors to the face.

working on so many paintings has produced more failures than usual, partly from the level of effort to do the work but also because i am trying so many different things at the same time.

this was an enjoyable painting even so.

16 August 2007


Lanaquarelle HP 300 gsm 14" x 10". 5 hours.

next up is siena, a mills college woman who climbs 200' high redwoods with her bare hands and is between jobs and between residences. stephanie referred her to me because she has "great hair", and in fact she used to be a runway hair model.

this is from photo references, not a life drawing ... another queue jumper. siena sat with her hair up for the life poses, and then took her hair down when i asked how long it was. it's an amazing matt and jumble of thick, almost rastifarian locks, and i loved painting it. i also drew (rather than painted) her face, which makes it more delicate and exact than my usual effort.

i very much like this pose, it is not serious but not comic either; an "in between" pose. she was absent mindedly pulling a lock as she was talking with me about one thing or another, with a thoughtful expression on her face. her upraised arms display her well knit figure.

15 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm 14" x 10". 5 hours.

this painting, which is the same as the first life pose i did with margaret, kind of jumped the queue ahead of all the other paintings i have working. i find the images of margaret peculiarly compelling and interesting to paint.

the eyes here are sepia, burnt umber and quinacridone gold. the overall color of the skin is less harsh than it appears in the digital image, but i find it hard to match delicate flesh tones at high luminance.

the gold background is a bit brighter than the previous portrait, but also darker, and the pose is much more static. cobalt blue and chromium oxide provide the cool tones.

14 August 2007


Lanaquarelle HP 14" x 10". 5 hours.

a minor train wreck happened a week ago. i had worked with kristina, from the figure drawing group, and made four life portrait drawings the day before i met margaret. then my sister arrived to stay overnight with her son, who is on his way to uc davis, and then i met with two more women, geneva and jonqui, and made four drawings of each ... i ended up working on 12 portraits at a time.

kristina is schooling to be a professional health advisor and works as a massage therapist. she has a big boned, natural beauty and is healthy, physically strong and cheerful. this is the first or second life sketch i did of her. the peculiar green is actually the color of one wall of my studio, a color she admired openly when she visited. all the other colors (magenta blouse, dull yellow hair) are in contrast to it. her eyes were painted with sap green annd burnt sienna.

13 August 2007

model clues

feet and hands
Fabriano artistico R 280gsm 14" x 9". 1 hour.

this is a freehand sketch from a series of shots i did of margaret's hands and feet. among other things, it showed me that the format is too large for the quirky image, and the rough texture is completely wrong for the intimacy.

i was posing her on the studio couch, sunlight streaming over her shoulders, when i noticed she was cracking her toes by flexing them against the carpet. when i pointed it out to her, she reached over with her hands to explain. that made the shot; and i asked her to do variations of hands and feet.

this gave both of us a break from the portrait shots, and created a new motif for me to pursue that was remote from my intentions or past model experience; it somehow came out of margaret's presence and my reaction to it. each model does dozens of quirky, minor things, or mentions something in their conversation, or falls into a pose when resting, that is more compelling that anything i could work out in advance.

my explanation to models is that they have lived in their bodies a long time, and their bodies have their own language, and that language isn't expressed as a pose but as the most comfortable position for them standing, sitting or lying down.

12 August 2007

more studies

Winsor & Newton HP 300 gsm 14" x 10". 20 min. +5 hours.

this is the third and last life portrait of margaret, in graphite, and again amplified from the photo reference.

the previous background seemed too intense, so i've subdued the mixture with a bit of blue and purple. the flesh tone is the same in all three paintings -- cadmium yellow deep, venetian red, cobalt violet, a touch of phthalo green -- so that i can see the effect of the background and hair color on the complexion.

i don't usualy spend five hours on a color study, but in her case the image asked for the investment. i put more effort into the hair, because the hot pressed paper holds the detail, and added the gemstone, which seemed to be amber on a textile cord.

her hair is intricate. plaits layer over plaits, strands loosen and hang free, the braid twists are sometimes tight and sometimes relaxed. there is a delightful spray of ends and tufts from the back ... "complexity is the basis of simplification." it flows, intertwines, jets and mists like water. my simplification is just summary. i've made planes of it in the image, but this reminded me of leonardo's drawings of water -- the ones that look like grass in the wind.

at this beginning stage i've met the model and worked with her briefly, i have photos and sketches, and i am working out the color studies. i don't know what impressions the model gets from the session, and i usually don't know how to do what i want to do. as in a psychotherapy session, trust is the gist on both sides.

the studies are a preliminary survey process. i make them workshop style, on watercolor blocks. i paint one until it is too wet to continue, then set it to the left and paint the next the same, and then the third; and by then the first is dry enough to continue with ... and so it goes, like a carousel assembly. as i go i make different choices in light of what i've done in the previous paintings, so each painting takes on its own variations and proceeds down its own path.

the work is continuous, and there is a feeling space that comes with it, when method, memories of the poses, rumination, a kind of dream cinema, all go on at the same time. this series of three, including the 50 minutes of poses, took about 15 hours.

i admire thomas eakins's exaltation of the model; his serene, reverent painting of william morris helping his model down from her pose. the academic rant about the model's planes and negative spaces is intolerable bullshit. to me every model is a swarm of opportunities and clues. the artist has to keep his balance both in relation to the work and in relation to the clues and forces of the model.

this double uncertainty is why a power dynamic often weeds up between artist and model, disguised behind the jabbering "artistic" intentions of both people. but it is still a human negotiation between two personalities.

11 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10. 15 min. + 4 hours.

continuing with the portrait work ... i met margaret during my retail errands and after leaving with my purchase and walking to my car i felt an oddly inevitable decision to ask her to model for me. she agreed to start with me the next day.

this drawing is the first life sketch i did of her, after an hour photography shoot to catch the last of the day's light. the first drawing of any session is always clumsy, but the first drawing with a new model is especially difficult; whatever is there is either distorted by misperception or a regurgitated stereotype of face or technique.

typically i either work these drawings into a more finished state, sometimes using a photo of the pose, or (as here) i just use them for color studies. margaret has a gracious and calm manner, and somehow a yellow atmosphere seemed to suit her.

the focus of the painting was deciding how to do her eyes, which are dark, large and penetrating -- like a beam of light -- and the problem is capturing that effect. i used floats of pyrrole orange and phthalo green into burnt umber (scarlet + green = brown).

Winsor & Newton CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10. 15 min. + 5 hours.

this is the second of the three poses i did with her, and now the drawing is pulling together better. i relied on the photo reference to draw her hair, which is a kind of old world braid that must have a name (i don't know it).

this second background is shifted toward a hot gold (cadmium yellow deep with some venetian red), as the background in the first study seemed too cool. the lips are perylene maroon with a touch of quinacridone (for blue), the hair is raw umber and burnt sienna, lifted with an acrylic bright and cooled with a light wash of chromium oxide green. margaret's complexion is basically a creamy tint of the background hue, and unfortunately the image does not reproduce it correctly (the image is too yellow). there is no blue paint anywhere in the image; her pupils are a deep purple.

at first i was negligent of her braid, but as i painted i found it fun to do and a fitting ornament to her face, the shape of her head and the curve of her neck.

it's interesting that facial features modeled faintly, as hers are here, can still convey a feeling for the whole form. chiaroscuro and strong value contrasts are not necessary to give a portrait presence.

10 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm 14" x 10". 3 hours.

another freehand portrait from my biweekly or so sessions with stefanie, this one drawn in charcoal and "tinted" in watercolor, after the 18th century style of drawing/painting. in this profile you get a better sense of her strong features, which i wanted to emphasize by simplifying the hair.

i mentioned in a previous post that complexity is always the opportunity for artistic simplification, and here i have reduced her hair to ribbons of color. really only three values -- highlights or "shine through", body color and shadow color -- are necessary to model hair adequately, but by adding more value steps many beautiful patterns can be created.

every person has a unique "hair print" or hair profile, and it is for me important to describe that with the same detail as the features of the face. in particular the stray tendrils or "flags", and the curl at the end of the locks, are usually very individual.

the background in cobalt blue was stamped on with a flat brush, slowly, so that the brush strokes partially dried before they fused. the hair is raw sienna with shadows of sepia hue, and the face is gold ochre. i used backruns to shape the lights and darks, again trying to use the minimum transitions necessary to show the form.

09 August 2007

dandelion seeds

dandelion seeds
Arches CP 300gsm 9" x 12". 1 hour.

as i continue to explore other painters' blogs, including the "painting a day" horde, it strikes me how much of the painting experience is left out.

my sister came and went for the weekend, and, as we use my studio as a guest house, all my supplies were folded up and packed into the sideboard for a few days. and they will stay there this week, because my sister and her two sons are coming through town again this weekend: my nephew is a freshman at uc davis and they will stop overnight on their way there. i have been painting out of a pan set, like philip pearlstein, and it is working out quite well.

during the same few days i completely rewrote the wikipedia article on watercolor painting, and it is now perhaps the best single page reference on the topic available on the web. perhaps next week i will get around to uploading illustrations.

william moore (linked at right) was kind enough to share his experience in managing a blog, and with his guidance i have streamlined the work a little more. i generally run with about a week's worth of paintings in the queue, so if a day or two goes by without painting i still have material to post. i tried uploading a week's worth of work at once, but found it tedious.

weather has been foggy lately. ironically, as my wife and i are choosing a contractor to put in solar panels, which should zero out our power bill and reduce our carbon footprint.

i have also been trying to recruit new models for portrait work, but so far my success has been limited. i expect it is a matter of making the right pitch in the right context, but i haven't found the formula that works.

oh, the painting. i was working on a portrait of my wife when these seeds blew into my studio from the open door. i chose a group that was resting on my dark wood table and, with a magnifying glass, painted them where they sat. the background is prussian blue, which gives a beautiful texture in the darker values; i painted the seeds as cutouts to give them the look of small umbrellas. i think this painting would work well in a larger format; i may do that.

08 August 2007

two feet

stefanie's feet
Strathmore drawing 180gsm 18" x 12". 15 minutes.

focusing on a single part of a model's frame reduces the demand of the pose and allows for a more relaxed address by the artist.

the amount of time the artist has to spend on different parts of the body is necessarily unequal: the face, hands and feet are the most difficult human symbols to draw, then comes the head, legs and arms, and finally the easiest of all is the torso. if the artist distributes the time equally across the whole body, then the face, hands and feet get less than they require; if the artist spends too much time on the extremities, the overall figure suffers.

the easiest poses are those in which the model has hidden her hands (behind her back, or under her folded legs); the feet and even the head can often be omitted from a pose if the hands are done well.

whenever i examine a figure drawing, i always look first at the hands, feet and face. these are both the most acute test of the artist's drawing skill, and also reveal his strategy for dividing up the time available and allocating it to the different figure drawing problems. the ideal is that the finished piece is balanced and complete, with all parts conforming to the same standard or style.

every figure artist develops shortcuts and tricks for handling these difficult parts. i will be exploring the portrait face as i blog along, but the hand conforms to a few simple principles, shown in the photo at right.

the hand is essentially a long paddle, articulated at the wrist and knuckles. the first three fingers, the end of the paddle (A), are exactly the same width as the wrist. the fourth finger (B) and thumb (C) are basically extensions off the side of the paddle from a narrow and a wide right triangle, both with the hypoteneuse along the sides of the palm. the fourth finger extends as a straight line off its narrow triangle, which extends along the entire side of the palm and defines the width of the palm across the four knuckles. the thumb extends from a shorter, fatter triangle that does not reach the base of the first finger. the thumb has one less joint and is usually flexed into the palm: its tip extends to between the second and third joint (knuckle) of the first finger. the palm is about twice as long as the wrist is wide (two squares), and the fingers are shorter than the palm. the middle finger is longest, and the finger segments grow shorter toward the tips.

the foot is a bit harder, as the toes all extend off the end and the curves of the foot, including the arch and the ankle bones (base of the tibia) and the tendon from the heel are complex and change depending on the weight on the foot and how much it is turned at the angle. but here again some simplifying tricks are possible.

a basic rule of art is that simplification develops from complexity. egon schiele had a very powerful way of schematicizing the hands, and the hands by the painter ingres always have a bourgeois plumpness and complacency. hands and feet reveal the strengths of an artist, because they show his tricks for simplification most clearly.

07 August 2007


Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm 14" x 10". 4 hours.

continuing work with stefanie, i sketch about 4 to 6 portraits of her in charcoal or graphite, usually 10-15 minute poses. these are colored later in watercolor.

this is an attempt to reduce the notation to a minimum without making it appear completely schematic.

stefanie has a nice head and a very interesting nose, which is really the keystone of her face. she normally wears her hair back, as here, which shows the shape of her head very well but also always leaves a few strands hanging in front.

the early sessions with a model are constrained with formalisms and rituals and customs and so forth, even if these are very subtle. but later a certain form of trust develops that allows the work to go better and creates a look that is unique to the model.

for some reason i have been postponing the figure nude work with stefanie, but have several photo series for torso portraits.

06 August 2007

material failure

elizabeth (abandoned)
Strathmore bristol, 200gsm, 22" x 15". 20+ hours.

after my sister and her boys left town, i decided to try to finish this portrait, started almost two years ago and languishing half finished ever since.

once i got back into it i rediscovered the reason why i had stopped: the paper was failing. bristol is a wonderful charcoal and graphite surface, and for very limited watercolor use there are many interesting things you can do with it. but i put too much weight on this one, too many washes, and the paper layers began to cockle and separate. finally, when applying a shadow tone to the base of the left elbow, the pigment mottled irreparably. and so this painting, like so many, went into the recycling bin.

painters have the misfortune of giving life to everything, even their failures. we only learn by doing, and in this case i learned several important lessons:

* never try a new combination of materials in a big work (this was leonardo's frequent mistake, it seems).

* understand the difference between a material failure and an artistic failure. dump a material failure as soon as possible, but give an artistic failure every effort you can. (this is the difference between a faithless wife, and a difficult wife.)

* redeem the failures. start on them again. find the remedy and make it right.

i have all the photo references and sketches, and i can do better next time on drawing the hair. failures are annoying, they can even wound or bitterly disappoint. but they also teach.

05 August 2007

portrait distortion

red and green (self portrait)
Arches HP 300 gsm 14" x 10". 1 hour.

this is another painting that i did in the red/green palette scheme. it yields a kind of old man's skin pallor, which i found useful here.

i tried to explain the mixture to my mother, who needed an example to understand it. but when she saw this, she said, "you don't do yourself justice!" what did that mean? "you're so much better looking!" (who can explain a mother's love?)

i like this portrait. but it brings me back to another portrait puzzle:

5. how does a portrait define (or signal) the expectations or perspective that we should use to look at it?

this struck a spark with me. in jenny davis's portraits (linked at right), the craftsmanship is what stands out immediately. even if you know nothing about watercolor painting, you know you are looking at something painstaking, skillful, and achieved. even though you know nothing about the person in the portrait, you know she is reliably and accurately rendered. the representational standard is immediately satisfied, but with an almost porcelain purity. like a lladro figurine, the detail and work transform the image into an almost victorian irrealism.

really the same kind of thing happens in a richard schmid portrait, though it is apparently lossy and modernist; there is a lot of experience and skill necessary to look so casual and impromptu. but that style makes us think we have an unbuttoned and personal view. the style shapes our expectation of what it is we can or should see in the person. rembrandt was perhaps as ragged as he painted himself, and people as opaque as lucien freud paints them.

somehow the portrait can, through its craft making, imitate a perceived human attribute. how does that happen?

does this "look like me"? something in the technique says, certainly not. but does it do justice or misrepresent? what can it mean, to say a fabricated image does justice?

04 August 2007

jesty's geometry

copy of a jesty painting
Arches CP 300gsm 10" x 14". 4 hours.

in shirley trevena's second book on painting i found a few paintings by ronald jesty. i copied this one to understand its composition primarily, but also the illusion of light through the clouds.

i made a careful inquiry of how one makes a good composition within a rectangle, which i call the format proportions. i found jesty's composition was very careful to reflect the left to right spacing of landscape features to echo the vertical bands of clouds and landscape.

i also found that jesty worked with much thicker paint mixtures than i assumed just by looking at the painting; to approach his value structure i ended up using many more layers of paint than he did. and this is visible, because each of his wash edges show clearly in the reproduction.

despite the fact that he has been published in at least two watercolor tutorials that i know of, jesty is a bit of mystery. he has no web site, has authored no book, and seems to have no current gallery representation. i've written to one of his students to see if i can track him down.

03 August 2007


Strathmore drawing, 14" x 10". 20 minutes.

this is another life drawing group portrait. the model had strong features that i found more interesting than her sitting pose, and i had good vantage and lighting for the work.

in most learning and exploration, there are two kinds of questions. there are the questions that lead to specific answers (that can be answered), and there are questions that clarify assumptions (that lead to puzzles).

i have four puzzle questions about portraits:

1. how does a portrait look "wrong"? if you attend an art show of portraits, you will find yourself recognizing that some portraits are clumsy, or distorted, or mismanaged somehow -- as a representation of the person. how is that possible, if the person who is painted is unknown to you?

2. if a reasonably accurate, carefully drawn portrait can look "wrong", why does a caricature (a political cartoon, or a puppet) look hilariously "right"? if we see them under different expectations or frames of reference, how do we know which one to use? how many portrait frames of reference are there? can a painting create its own frame of reference, its own expectations?

3. why does a photo, which is always optically correct, look sometimes "wrong"? (we say, "oh, that's a bad picture of her" or "oh, her nose looks too big". the camera just recorded what came through the lens. so what went amiss?)

4. how does a portrait convey "inner state"? how do we infer the character or attitude or feelings of the model when the portrait was painted? what would a portrait that conveyed no emotion look like? like a life mask?

i looked into the literature on facial recognition software. some of that stuff is top secret now, but the stuff i found was not helpful. the face divides into characteristic distances: the distance between the two eyes; between the eyes and the mouth; between the nose and mouth; the width of the mouth; the height of the forehead, and so on.

02 August 2007

self portrait (august)

self portrait
Arches HP 300gsm 14" x 10". 1/2 hour.

i am continually doing self portraits in the background but will limit posting them to one or two a month.

this was was a dash off ... holding the watercolor block at eye level against the bathroom mirror, and simply copying the reflection life size with the other hand. venetian red for the background, gold ochre and burnt sienna for the skin, cobalt turquoise for the eyes, ultramarine mixed with burnt sienna for the hair.

i'm dedicating the next few months to portrait work primarily. i am a bit stuck about how to move forward with model acquisition. i am a little reluctant to paint acquaintances, as they can be either offended by what they see or offended if they don't get a freebie.

what is the portrait for? what does it represent? this is the first question of portrait painting.

01 August 2007

the figure group

Strathmore drawing, 10" x 14". 20 minutes.

this is a model i met at the weekly figure group, who came back on the circuit after a long break.

each model brings out some drawing tendencies or habits of hand more emphatically than others. this one had a radiant good cheer and a robust, healthy frame, graceful yet sturdy. working with her i focused especially on the contours, the ins and outs of musculature.

it is delightful to me how much mass and volume can be communicated through outline alone.

Strathmore drawing, 14" x 10". 15 minutes.

there is usually one pose or two each week that works as a portrait opportunity. what to say about portraits. once you get away from a photo reference, the portrait is a crisis of craftsmanship.

the common expectation is that the portrait should reveal something about the person, capture some essence. when i examined it, it seemed to me that prejudice is strongly influenced by the expression and the pose.

but expression and pose are not the face. i want a portrait as an alien would do it, looking at this life form and finding it inexplicable, unfathomable, uncanny. i don't want something classically anonymous, but something inward and unformed. smiles are a kind of narcotic that numb us to the mystery of individuality.

i've recently gotten very interested in the portrait problem. my idea is that each face is like a musical chord: the parts are all related by certain intervals (visual angles). i haven't worked out the solution. this week i sat with tivo and an episode of "Big Love" and did stop frame portrait sketches -- tĂȘtes d'expression in the academy tradition -- especially when the expression was emphatic or the head at an odd angle. i had to do several drawings two or three times to get it roughly right.

i don't like drawing hair, exactly; i'm more obsessed with it. it's fascinating to me how every person has dozens of little hair quirks -- flags, tendrils, knots, wads, lumps, balding tufts or flowing rivers of hair -- and i look for these as much as for traits of physiognomy. but, as you see, i haven't solved the problem of shading and modeling the hair.