It’s better To Paint Trees

     

“Everytime I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.” — John Singer Sargent

If the guy who is considered one of the best portrait painters of all time said this, what chance do I have when painting a portrait.  I’ve never painted a portrait before.  I’m also not very good at painting anything (grin).

These days I always find myself doing something I’ve never done before so why should this be any different?  Some call it getting “out of your comfort zone.”   Have you noticed, though, people who say that are always talking about what someone ELSE should do (grin).  Anyway, I got it into my head that I wanted to paint a portrait of my daughter.  Initially I was going to do it in oils but at the last minute decided to do a watercolor portrait.

There’s another piece of advice people give to wanna-be portrait painters.  Get a good photo, with high contrast and with lighting that creates a distinct light and shade division of the face.  Called Rembrandt lighting (named after the paints no doubt) this is supposed to make it easier to define the face on a two-dimensional surface.

So, what do I do?  Well, when I was having a conversation with my daughter, using Google DUO, I did a bunch of screen grabs of her.  Most were fuzzy because she was moving or blah because she just staring at her own phone.  But one screenshot caught her with a smile.  Unfortunately, most of the hair on the right side of her face was out of frame and my face, appearing in a little window, covered up the top left of her hair/forehead.  The DUO symbol rested squarely on top of her right eye.  So….as I did the underdrawing I had to reconstruct a bunch of my rather poor photo reference.

Undaunted by these facts and lack of artistic skill, I went to work, quickly learning that I still have a lot of problems mixing watercolors when the desired result is subtle value changes when working with light tones.  I also learned that I have no idea how to paint hair that actually looks like hair.  Oh well, here is the result.  My daughter is so nice.  In spite of it all, she’s still talking to me.

Can I Do Painterly?

I’ve been doing a bunch of “starts” in an attempt to get better at starting an oil painting.  I’ve tried all the basic approaches (eg – with & without a sketch, with/without underpainting) and I think this has been a positive exercise.  It doesn’t, however lead to things I can post as nothing ever gets finished.

Since I haven’t posted in a while, I took one of those starts and decided to complete it in a “painterly style,” whatever that is.  Though I’m not very successful at it, my tendency is to produce a more illustrative product.  It’s against my nature to purposely try to paint/draw something that’s less than a complete representation of the subject.  Never do I try to include brush strokes and such in the finished result.  But, against my nature I’ve tried to do so here.

It’s certainly less “real” than most of what I’ve done and it’s also true that brush strokes are part of the result.  So this is my attempt at “painterly.”  I don’t think this works well for a single fruit painting (6×6) but I can see myself doing a bowl of fruit this way.  To me, though, the result just looks out of focus (grin).

Doing The 100 People Challenge

This week many people are drawing, or trying to draw, 100 people in five days.  Run every year by Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steel, this is a popular annual event.  It’s no small coincidence that the two people leading this charge are two of the fastest sketchers I’ve seen and a pair that place a VERY high premium on sketching quickly.  I don’t say that as a negative, just a fact.

I still remember the first time someone suggested that I draw people on the move.  I was sketching with a couple people, both my betters, and they said, “Let’s go downtown and draw pedestrians waiting for the light to change.  I didn’t see my face at the time, but I’m sure my expression was “Are you nuts?”  The thought of drawing a person, a whole person, as 15-20 seconds was so far beyond my comprehension that I knew it was a joke.  And it was a joke… when I tried it that first time.

Sadly, the people who do this stuff regularly think it’s normal and so they don’t talk much about how people who don’t find it normal can do it.  I thought, rather than just another rally cry for the event, I’d mention a couple solutions that some use to do this.  I should preface this with the important fact.  All of these approaches are done by people who, if they have the time, can draw very detailed people.  There’s an old adage that if you can’t draw something slowly, you can’t draw it fast.  I think that’s true.

I’m going to describe “capturing” a character with the full knowledge that the results aren’t going to hang in the Louvre anytime soon (grin).  You’ve got to be ok with that before you launch into the 100 People Challenge.

Draw the bare minimum

The first thing you have to understand is that you’re not doing Sargent-level portraiture.  You don’t have time.  Many add two things together to accomplish the task.  They draw their people very small and do little more than draw lines for legs and arms with a round ball for a head.  I’d call this the stickman approach except that most grab for drawing something a bit more complete, where the arms and legs are positioned, bent appropriately, and so you can easily see what the character was doing.  This is a really good approach if you’re happy with these simple results.

Loosy Goosy approach

Artists throw around the term “loose” a lot.  With no solid defnition of the word it’s said that we should all be this, so we’re not “tight.”  My guess is that a lot of the great artists of our past would take issue with this but that’s how the modern world rolls.

Anyway, a lot of artists, realizing that there’s little time for drawing leg and arm musculature accurately in the few seconds they have simply abandon the idea entirely, drawing arms and legs heading off in the right direction but not necessarily with proper geometry.  They keep everything “loose” and are ok with that, no matter how “tight” they might do their next studio portrait.

Sweat the small stuff later approach

This takes on different forms depending upon the artist.  Some will draw an action line defining the subject’s orientation and then add only a few points defining joints, clothing boundaries, etc.  Some will go over these drawings with more ink later, correcting errors.  Others will do a complete contour of the subject while thinking about how color will help them complete the figure.

Still others will do a continuous, or nearly so, pencil sketch, all the time thinking of what they’re going to do with color to bring the character to life.  There is no one better at doing this approach than Marc Holmes.  He is so adept with both pencil and brush that it’s a joy to watch him draw characters.

All of these approaches require that you’re planning on working on your drawings later, probably at home.  The hard thing for many is drawing while thinking color, light and shade, etc. placing lines to indicate shadow borders, etc.

Make sure you’re drawing someone who will stay put for a couple minutes (grin)

The master of this approach is Alvin Mark.  His targets are people eating, people on buses, people on trains, anywhere that people stop.  His ability to draw precise contour drawings of people, reflecting not only their personality but their weight and its balance, is uncanny.  But he chooses his targets wisely.

So, these are some of the ways that people accomplish the task.  What I haven’t said is that it’s a LOT of fun and the more you do of it the easier it becomes.  I’m still not good at it and may never be.  I’m the slowest sketcher on the planet and so my “skills” aren’t amenable to quick sketching.  When sketching people I guess I’m closer to a “loosy goosy” sketcher than anything else.  I’ll let you decide.  These are the sketches I did yesterday, during the first day of the event.

Painting Shiny Objects

As someone learning to paint and struggling to use brushes correctly, I should be painting a stream of apples and oranges.  I know that but, it seems, I’m attracted to the challenge of painting fuzzy things, clear things, rough things, and shiny things.  This is sort of nuts when I can’t paint the proverbial straight line with a brush but, well, that’s me.

This time I tried to paint a shiny object in the form of a stainless steel stovetop coffee maker.  I didn’t realize it at the time but I complicated things by placing it in front of a window (that was reflected) and by putting a coffee cup in front of it (which was also reflected).

This was a struggle for me and at times I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.  The end result isn’t nearly as important as the experience gained in trying to do it, though, and I am happy with those results.

9×12 gesso board, Cobra water-mixable oils

Oil Paint Sketching

Long ago I saw Cesar Santos, well-known oil painter, doing what he called “studies” in a sketchbook.  He’d apply a couple coats of gesso to the page and then paint gorgeous portraits, that should have ended up on a wall, but Cesar was in training mode, working on his techniques and he needed to organize painting, notes, color swatches, etc. into a book.

That was before I considered oil paints but I didn’t forget the possibility.  Of course, when I decided to try oil paints I had to try it.  You can see my attempt and discussion here.  At the time my thought was that all the gesso stuff would just not transfer well to street sketching.

But, as they say, “I’ve seen things that can’t be unseen.”  Like artists sketching with oil paints on raw paper, Kraft paper no less.  It’s being done as a way to augment a pencil value study, providing color notes for a painting to be done in a studio.  BUT, the results would be perfect as a sketching medium for quick landscape/urbanscape sketches.  The problem, of course is what I reported in the post I just mentioned – you’ve got to wait a couple days to close the book, not exactly what you want as a street sketcher.

I continued to think about this and here’s where my mind went.

  1. When we need to do watercolors on thin paper we do “light washes,” using less paint and water to do our sketches.
  2. Water-mixable paints can be thinned with just water and the water dries much faster (too fast for normal painting) than with typical oil mediums.
  3. Paper is more absorbent than gesso’d board which would help wick the water away from the paint film

Hmm…says I.  What if… and an experiment was born.  I had some paint mixed on my palette, not the right colors perhaps but they would do for an experiment.  How to get a sketch done in “no” time so that I could time how long it would take to dry?  Solution is to keep it small and not worry about the quality of the sketch, all emphasis on getting the area covered as quickly as possible.

I used a cheap Kraft sketchbook.  I create these by taking a generic 9×12 spiral sketchbook and run it through my bandsaw, creating two 6×9 sketchbooks that cost me around $5, less if they’re on sale.  The paper is 120g.  I’ve filled several of them and they’re good for “light washes.”  A Stillman & Birn Nova book would be far superior.  Anyways, this is the result of this test.

Just toward the end of my “sketch” (total time less than two minutes) I decided to add a bunch of white in the foreground.  Titanium white oil paint is very slow to dry and I thought it a useful addition to the test.  Sorry this isn’t a better sketch.  I tried to keep the paint thin and used only water to thin it.

And then I waited, but I’m not a patient guy so at 15 minutes I was sticking my fingers in the paint.  Most of it was dry, or dry enough that I wouldn’t worry about closing the book.  The white areas were still tacky though (no book closing yet).

Then I remembered Cesar Santos.  He puts waxed paper over his sketchbook oil paintings.  I cut a sheet to fit the book and used a tiny piece of scotch tape to hold it in place, and throwing caution to the wind, I closed the book.  I even placed the book in my sketch bag to simulate me carrying it to the next sketching location.  Throughout the evening I checked it and no paint moved or was transferred to the waxed paper.  This morning, everything is quite dry except for the thicker dabs of white, which remain just a bit tacky.  I suspect even this can be improved upon as I put the white on without thinning and purposefully put it on thick.  My understanding is that zinc white dries more quickly but I don’t have any.

This is starting to look like fun.  I really like the opaque nature of oil paints for sketching and the fact that I can prep 3-4 colors in a tin and be able to see the colors of my mixes before I use them in a sketch.  I enjoy investigating my subject by mixing some the dominant colors as I decide how I’m going to approach the subject.

I know that the majority of the three people who follow this blog are watercolor and pencil types but I hope at least one of you finds this interesting.  I’ve spent most of my art journey without much experimentation and it’s refreshing to do some.