"I want the viewer to see what I have seen, to think about the person and their life rather
than let pure representational poses close down possibilities.
My representation of the figure has been informed by studio life drawing and by a knowledge of
anatomy and psychology gained through careers in surgical and psychological fields.
I want the viewer to see what I have seen, to think about the person and their situation
rather than let pure representational poses close down possibilities.
To this end, the majority of my portraits are not frontal. Gestures, body language....
a moment in time are meant to remind the viewer of some of the subtleties in life.
Placing the image in a space defined by color but void of background objects presses
the viewer to focus on the person or his/her situation." miller-havens
The Beginning, The Support
The Egyptians painted on wood panels, as did the Italians until the 14th Century. Later canvas was used partly because it could be easily rolled up and carried from town to town. Some artists still prefer the light weight of canvas, but with a slightly improved transportation system, there is no actual need to paint on canvas. When wood was used as the support, rabbit skin glue was employed to seal the piece thus preventing warping. The glue is a smelly but effective choice still used by some brave souls today. This painting is painted on Baltic birch that has been sized on both sides with a PVA glue acrylic wood sealer.
Primer, The Surface
The sized panel is covered with a ground, a white layer of gesso (in this case, a non-toxic acrylic substitute for white lead oil paint). The gesso is applied by brush in 6-10 right angled layers, sanding in between with a sander and by hand. The last layer is gesso with a gel medium tinted with grey to make the painting surface smoother and provide a neutral background.
The Pose, The Cartoon Stage
Traditional portrait painters paint from life with the sitter striking a pose. Some artists combine these sittings with photographs, others use only photographs. In the 16th century, Rubens was one of the few old masters who did not paint from life as he found it too distracting. In agreement with him, this artist prefers not to be distracted, but also to not set up an artificial situation. *
Time is spent with the subject, his or her closest friends, getting to know how the person views himself. Photos and videos are poured over.
A pose is determined from a set of photos that exist or that the artist has taken, then blown up on paper in black and white so that the idea can be viewed at the intended size. There are many ways to place the composition on the support: free hand, grids, tracings, lens projection. The mediums often used are pencil, charcoal, chalk, thin paint. The outline of this portrait was placed on the support by means of transfer paper, then free hand using black paint and brush. This artist calls this a "Cartoon Stage."
Paint Application Sequence
Two ways of applying paint are "indirectly" or "directly". Indirect painting requires building up paint layer by layer beginning with all the light and dark tones worked out in grey (griselle*) or another color under painting. Colored glazes are then applied, creating the effect of light showing through from beneath the color. Direct painting consists of laying on fully colored layers with the last being the lightest. This technique is seen in Impressionist work such as Monet and the Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko. In the picture above, the artist is painting "indirectly" as well as "directly" . For instance, the scarf is being painted indirectly and the hair is being worked on directly.
Hands and Skin
Hands present a particular challenge. Because they are almost as large as our faces, they can compete with other more important elements of the painting. From a color and form point of view, palms are relatively flat and without the rich colors and veins of the other side of the hands. Too much flesh tone yields what this artist calls the "Barbie doll" skin problem, too little renders the image anemic. It's all a balancing act painting layers and layers, blending blending.......
Harmony Between Form and Color
A portrait is intended to look like the person, but if there is no harmony between form and color, the painting will seem flat, without life. Some artists follow a method that entails painting the flesh, then the clothing and background. Others, such as this artist, find painting all over the picture a way to keep every aspect in harmony. Not unlike writing music, too much base and not enough treble throws the melody off.
Color and Three Dimensional Space
Some artists rely on lines to create three dimensionality and then use color as a refinement of that definition. In the 19th Century, Cezanne discovered that cool and warm colors could create the illusion of space. In this portrait, for instance, the jacket is black, but if pure black paint was used, unless it was contained in a very strong three dimensional drawing, it would look flat like a silhouette. This artist prefers to use color to define three dimensional space. This can be achieved by alternating layers with warm and cool blacks. In this case the jacket paint actually contains layers of blues, reds, purples, and black.
Painting a Portrait for a Particular Room
The choice of the colors in the clothing worn by a subject is important beyond representing them as they are. Walls other than white present another set of color decisions. In this case the Sullivan Chambers is wall papered in beige and red. Chairs are black and red. The wall to wall carpet is also red. Painting on an easel in studio with white walls makes it essential to have props near the work to remind the artist of what colors will survive in a room that is striking by itself.
Protecting the Completed Painting
Oil paintings need to be protected from the elements and in times gone by, worms. Varnish was the traditional solution for preservation and is still used today in both matte and high gloss finishes. Most of the portraits here in the Sullivan Chambers are protected with a high gloss varnish. Varnishing requires that the painting dry for six-twelve months. Beeswax is another protective sealer and was used in this case because the artist prefers a very soft matte finish and the waiving of the six month drying time.
How do we see ourselves?
Most of us do not see ourselves the way we look to others. Our perceptions come from looking in the mirror, at photographs, or from other media. The final decision as to whether the portrait is an accurate likeness and does justice to the spirit of the individual is difficult. After time learning how an individual sees themselves and would like to be seen or remember, this artist asks a few close family members and friends to contribute to the process. For example, they help the subject get used to looking at themselves in paint, and then, along with the artist, address his/her concerns and questions. A challenge for the artist is to create a likeness of an individual while at the same time saying something about their character. This artist's goal is to make a portrait vital, human, convincing and timeless. This means capturing the essence of the person at a moment in time, attempting to reveal some of what has gone before in their life, and finally combining the two in a painting.
* Note on Live Models and Photographs
I was taught traditional rendering of live models, but perhaps because as a psychotherapist I was also taught that starring at people is not the best route to learning about them, therefore I have never felt comfortable painting directly from live models unless it was just an academic exercise.
Portrait artists often point out that photographs do not give the same detail and dimensionally as a live model. This lack of detail and flatness is exactly why I like to take photographs of my models. This lack of preciseness in the recorded image that only reveals the pose gives me more freedom to paint subjectively, to invent. It is then up to me to make the piece appear 3-dimensional and alive.
Because of my clinical work in psychological and medical settings, I spent years studying faces, body language, thoughts and feelings, looking for wellness and illness. When I set out to portray what I think I know about a person in paint I want first to spend time getting to know them, what they care about, who they think they are. I do this by spending time with the individual in my studio, by reading about them or what they may have written, watching them in public, and talking to those who know them. I also collect photos others have taken of them, I take my own reference photos in the studio and where they work or live.
* Griselle Examples:
Engraving on clay board was used rather than drawing. Digging out the black to reveal the white lines.
Gold leaf was applied in small sheets
Oil paint used over the leaf.
Cheese Cloth applied with bol and soaked in gold paint
Stone chips applied to earrings.
Rubbing of Gold leaf to create a patina of sorts