26 July 2014

Slow Painting Alla Prima

Alla prima portrait painting is challenging because of the time constraint...usually less than 3 hours.  It's high energy...no time to waste.  I learned this approach in art school, watching instructors slap down the paint during demonstrations.  As I develop my own skills, I realize that fast is okay if you're already a skilled painter, but for students, slow makes for more sense for effective learning.

Tammy, 9x12", oil on linen

Recently, I came across a blog post by Paul Foxton of Learning-To-See that mentioned a book called "The Practicing Mind".  It's a simple little book on learning to love the practice required to master any skill. One point especially resonated with me, that by slowing down we can accomplish more.  This excerpt makes the point...
Incorporating slowness into your process is a paradox. What I mean by slow is that you work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing. This pace will differ according to your personality and the task in which you are involved. If you are washing the car, you move the sponge in your hand at a pace slow enough to allow you to observe your actions in detail. This will differ from, say, the slow pace at which you learn a new computer program. If you are aware of what you are doing, then you are probably working at the appropriate pace. The paradox of slowness is that you will find you accomplish the task more quickly and with less effort because you are not wasting energy. Try it and you will see.
Following this advice, I slowed way down in a recent alla prima session.  I didn't focus on the finish, as I usually do.  I didn't dart around the painting trying to figure out what to do next.  I didn't get amp'ed up when I realized the mouth was in the wrong place.  Using the process  I described in an earlier post as guidance, I simply focused on each task until I felt it was completed, then moved on.  Slow and deliberate.

I painted "Tammy" (above) during this slow session.  To my eye, the results are better brushwork and a more complete painting.  I learned more during the session because I was more present and aware. I spent less time correcting errors.  And I was more relaxed at the end of the 3-hour session.  All good. 

Adam 9x12", oil on linen

A few weeks earlier, I painted "Adam" using my usual fast alla prima method.  A decent portrait, but a simpler handling of the paint and not as complete as "Tammy".  I was too rushed.

Slowing down is a simple idea, but it is a breakthrough for me.  The kind of simple idea that may get me to the next level in my art more efficiently.  It might help you, too.

20 July 2014

Drawings of Hands

Hands are so critical to a good portrait...almost as expressive as the face.  These are from photos I collect while photographing Matt, the subject of the my last post.  I like his hands. 

When I drew them, I was looking for a finger hierarchy, picking a focal finger to push the "pose" a bit.  That's usually the pointer, thumb or pinky.  The 2 mid fingers tend to act together as supporting players.

Proof that practice helps: I drew the hands on the second sheet first.  You may notice they look simpler, not as well drawn.  By the time I got to the top sheet above, I was warmed up.

Drawn with willow charcoal and Wolff's 4B carbon pencil on smooth newsprint (18x24").

26 June 2014

Portrait of a Young Man...and What Martha Graham Said About It

A new portrait commission fresh off the easel..."Young Man with Cat and Coffee".  The subject is a young man of 21...the cat and coffee are his favorite things.

Young Man with Cat and Coffee 18x24" oil on linen

I don't track how long a piece takes to complete anymore, but this one took a while...at least 60 hours.  As with every painting I undertake, I learned a huge amount in the process, which makes the time spent worth it.

I like parts of this painting, but, the overall reality does not live up to my original vision.  Slight disappointment there.  That is often my response immediately after finishing a painting, when I'm still drained from the experience.  Once I recharge and get away from the painting for a while, I usually feel kinder towards it.  I'm okay with those feelings of disappointment, though.  They strengthen my resolve on the next piece. 

I had dinner with an artist friend last night.  During the conversation she mentioned a quote by Martha Graham which frames this state of frustration we artists often feel about our work...
"No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
 So true.

...I like the kitty...

And here is the final portrait...unified and improved by a nice frame. 

30 May 2014

Portrait Sketches in Charcoal

Today I'm posting a few charcoal sketches, drawn from life in 2-3 hours.  Drawing is nice...forget color...just focus on shape, edge and value.  

For these sketches, I used both vine charcoal and Wolffs carbon pencil.  Vine charcoal produces a delicate mark, easily erased with a chamois or finger.  It's nice for the lay-in of a drawing or painting where correction is often required.  With a vine charcoal lay-in you can make major changes without leaving dark lines behind.

Once the lay-in is working, I finish my drawings with Wolffs carbon pencils.  This was the drawing medium of choice when I studied at Watts Atelier.  Carbon pencils produce a finer, more permanent mark, in contrast to the coarser, fragile mark of vine charcoal...an effective combination of drawing materials.

Rachel 18x12" Wolffs carbon pencil on newsprint

Sabrina 18x12" Wolffs carbon pencil on newsprint

This final drawing was executed entirely in vine charcoal.  A very different result from carbon pencil.  If you like this more expressive medium, carry fixative.  Use it occasionally during drawing to stabilize the layers and restore tooth.

Rosa 14x14", Vine charcoal on Strathmore 400 paper

30 April 2014

Developing a Procedure for Alla Prima Portrait Painting

Sabrina, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

Painting from life is the ultimate artistic learning experience.  Interpreting all the subtle colors and values on a live model is very different from copying a photo, and the time constraint keeps things fresh.  The anxiety I feel at some point during an alla prima session is motivating, too.  Forces me calm down and focus on what's important.  And I always have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the session...I like that.

Tory, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

It's important to have a strategy for alla prima portrait painting.  If you don't, you'll end up with a raging mess for all that effort.  Below is my procedure...borrowed from many sources. It's a work in progress.  Each bullet represents about 20 minutes of effort.  If I'm half-way through a 3-hour session and haven't gotten to the features yet, I know I need to speed things up.
  • Compose the image; block in the big shapes
  • Premix paint piles for average skin tones in light and shadow.  Add the darkest dark and lightest light for reference.
  • Loosely paint the big shapes, including background, hair and clothes
  • Second pass on big shapes; adjust colors and correct drawing errors
  • First pass on features and details
  • Third pass on the overall painting; refine shapes, temperatures, brushwork
  • Second pass on features
  • Highlights and dark accent...all done.

Yoni, 12x9" oil on linen, painted in 3 hours from life

Here are a few solid references on alla prima (portrait) painting:

Lee, 8x6" oil on linen, painted in 1 hour from life