I’m presently painting a portrait. I don’t have a complete photo because I’m making various parts up from various images. At the moment the hands are too big.
I’ve noticed that for me the farther apart the items are on the painting the harder it is to gauge their size. The best idea I’ve read so far is to use a known distance; in this case it’s going to be the distance between the eyes, and use it to compare other distances on the painting. The initial know distance is completely arbitrary and everything else is compared to it. Sometimes I get it so wrong that I need to start over but more often its close enough.
This is what is on my easel at the moment. I’ve just changed the ear location. I often get quite far into a composition before I notice serious errors and I have three seriously good critiquers that help immensely. With a landscape it doesn’t matter, I usually just incorporate any errors into the composition and it doesn’t make much difference. With a portrait these errors can make or break the likeness.
I continuously compare the image to photos I have, to find inconsistencies. On occasion if I’m having real problems I will print a photo at the appropriate size and mark appropriate points with a pin. Typically these are the left and right points of the eyes and the location of the mouth and nose. It takes very few points to get the layout. This is rare but sometimes the relative points just don’t come together and I’ve never been able to use a Camera Obscura or a Camera Lucida effectively. Artists have used a similar techniques in the past but I do think of this as a bit of a cheat. It’s similar to transferring a design onto wood before carving. I haven’t had to use this method for this portrait. It can help to turn the painting upside-down. My daughter’s advice is to turn the painting in 90 degree increments until the problems start to appear.
I also have a small mirror in my studio that will make some problems stand out. The mirror is at the back of my studio so I just have to step back and look at the painting in the mirror. It’s amazing how often a horrible mistake, that I’ve become immune to and no longer see, will stand out using this trick.
I use every trick that I can because sometimes I need it. I’m quite sure the great masters used them too but I don’t make the mistake of thinking that equates me in any way with the great masters.
For me a painting stands alone and the room it’s in doesn’t matter. The room has an effect on our perception of the painting and that’s what the frame is for, it separates the painting from the room and can even connect the painting with other art or things in the room. I think the world would exist regardless of whether we had paintings however if the paintings were not art then they might look something like this:
Not that these paintings are bad; some of them are actively good. At least I like some of them. But they are cheap and likely produced in China through an assembly line. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on China, it’s just where most of these paintings come from at the moment. There have always been forgers and artists who need to eat so this type of work has always been available.
So what is the difference? In some ways there is no difference. With my own paintings I know it takes me an inordinate amount of time to paint them. I agonise over very small details. Ultimately I like very few of them although I work on them until I am reasonably satisfied with how they look. Does this make them different from paintings produced by assembly line? I don’t know! For some people there is no difference but paintings produced by an artist are all different in some way. This may simply be the result of mistakes that were made during painting that have been incorporated into the work or conscious changes made to the composition. For my money I will take the mistakes made by the artist.
The painting I’m working on presently is a portrait. People are often surprised when I tell them that the better I know the person the more difficult a portrait is. I think of this as cognitive bias even though it doesn’t match some of the definitions. Heuristics may be closer to the process I’m trying to describe. There are a number of clues in a portrait that make it look like the individual it’s supposed to represent. A good artist may be one who creates the illusion with the fewest number of clues. Regardless some portraits are strikingly good but others not so much. A portrait may seem good to me because it appears to closely match my concept of the individual’s character. To others it may not match their idea of the individual’s character so they would rate the portrait poorly.
My mental concept of the individual contains information that cannot be interpreted with paint. If I don’t know them well then I’m simply painting a likeness, like a photograph. If I know them well I can’t put my idea of their character into the painted image, so it’s difficult. When I realised this I stopped painting portraits. This was a mistake because I never found a way to reconcile the discontinuity. Some artists don’t seem to have a problem with portraits or perhaps they just continued to paint likenesses and modified them in ways that brought them closer to the artist’s idea of their subject’s character. To those of you out there that find it easy to get a likeness, does it help you to know that I am insanely jealous?
I think photographs help a lot. A photograph rarely matches my mental idea of the subject, however some photographs are definitely closer. If I pick the photograph that I like then use it to paint a likeness I’m probably close. Assuming I have a lot of photographs to choose from. Using this technique to paint a commission I would take as many photographs as possible then let whoever was paying choose. Now if my painting resembles the picture everything should be fine. I have a portrait of myself when I was quite young, painted by one of my teachers. I think it’s terrible but my mother liked it. I have a photo of myself playing a video game that I like. Many people think it’s terrible. Cognitive Bias.