Sunday, 19 February 2017

About Painting Portraits

Something new! A post about art.

Currently I am painting two pictures, both are of real people so I can't take liberties with dimensions. If I paint a building or a landscape, who cares if the dimensions are slightly wrong? When I started painting about 15 years ago I used to be very rigid about what I was drawing; making sure that I had the correct number of windows, their sizes etc. And then gradually it dawned on me that it didn't really matter..... unless I was illustrating a brochure to sell the place (which is what my cousin Richard used to do). 

And then I started painting all kinds of things, sometimes from my imagination. And so I was free in what I could represent on the paper or canvas.

But painting people - portraits - is very different and that is the subject of this post. Because the question I am asking is how much can one depend on optical aids to get the dimensions correct? If the eyes are slightly too far apart, then the picture will look nothing like the real person. People will make kind comments but the artist will know in their heart that they have not hit the target.
I am asking a question but I am also providing an answer... or my opinion at least. The answer is that one should use every possible aid that is available. In the most basic situation, the artist will hold a pencil up against the subject to measure the distances between nose and mouth and eyes, for example. But much art is completed in the studio. And the artist will depend on some kind of photographic record.

David Hockney wrote a superb book on the subject of optical aids, Secret Knowledge, and proposed that even from the 15th Century artists were using such devices as the camera obscura and various forms of optical projection. In the 19th Century, the camera lucida was used to create a virtual image on the paper with a very small prism.

Of course the artist needs aids to measure the dimensions! Even if it is just a ruler. Is there some kind of pure idea that one should make the process as difficult as possible? As though the artist gains extra points for doing a double inverted somersault with pike. Nooo! The result is what the people want to know about. Does it look like the subject?

Now I will really shock the purists! This is my studio and that is a video projector on the tripod. But that is no different from what the Old Masters were doing centuries ago. Admittedly they didn't have Windows 7. But it is basically the same idea.

The picture you can see (a half-finished picture with photo projected onto it) is one I took of my ladyboy friend Nomel in the Philippines when I was there in November 2015. And the girl in the red dress is another painting for a friend. She wanted a girl in the rain, getting wet!

But, even using projection, I still have to paint the picture! And when Nomel receives his painting in a few weeks time, I want him to say, "Wow!". Not to say...." er well, it could be me I suppose... good effort." And I need to capture the person, that is so important!


  1. I did the same thing back in the late 1960s. I would take photographs of my subjects in Tri-X, develop the negatives, and mount them in slide frames. Put the slides in the Carousel, project the negative onto paper, then simply fill in the light areas with pencil. When the projected image became essentially gray, I'd turn off the projector and my "positive" image would be magically revealed.

    Thanks for a pleasant reminder!

  2. I get there in the end! Ah, Frisky, an Old Master in the US! Haha, I just had a closer look at the photo! Note the incriminating evidence of an empty wine glass and bottle. Another aid to creatiffiity.