Friday, June 22, 2012

How I Create a Portrait

I've often been asked how I go about creating one of my portraits. I've been painting portraits of people for close to fifty years and over that span I have experimented with different methods and approaches until I came up with the procedure I currently use. Basically, I work on a sheet of 30 x 40 inch Strathmore 500 paper. It's a heavy weight, 4-ply paper that takes a lot of abuse and though it is excellent for pencil drawing, it will also hold up well with ink, watercolor and acrylic paints. Since I work in a mixed-media, these are all mediums I use when creating a painting.
The first step (facing a large, blank sheet of paper) is always the most daunting.  Even after fifty years of doing this I still find that blank page of paper intimidating. But once I start to draw out the basic form, things start to flow. In this posting, I will detail the most recent painting I completed of Cayuga/Tuscarora raised beadwork artist Mary Annette Clause.

I prefer to work from photographs that I've take of my subjects as I work at odd hours and can't expect folks to be available to me when I'm in the mood to work. So working from photographs is the best approach for me. I generally start with the eyes and move out to the face and then to the surrounding areas until the basic drawing is done. Then I usually wait a few days before proceeding to consider the design and make changes. 

Once I start adding color it is almost impossible to make changes, so the design has to be carefully considered before moving ahead. Once I'm satisfied with the design I slowly begin to add color.

This is a deliberate process as I work in glazes or transparent layers of color that I painstakingly apply, over and over again to slowly build up the color. The beauty of working in transparent glazes is that you never fully cover up the white of the paper so this gives the color a luminescence that would be impossible to achieve with opaque paint. I think of it as sneaking up on the final effect. I don't work with traditional watercolors but rather use water color pencils that I lightly apply to an area - then I go over all the pencil strokes with a wet brush which dissolves the pencil strokes leaving a transparent watercolor wash. By working with the watercolor pencils, it also gives me a degree of control that traditional watercolor lacks. Of course, that's why some artists like working in watercolor, because the final effect is not always apparent and sometimes you end up with a happy accident. But I don't like accidents so  prefer to control the process from beginning to end.

I always work the background and the person's clothing first, saving the face and hands for the end. This makes for an eerie work progression as I am always staring at a blank face throughout the process. But there are technical reasons why I do this.

The backgrounds and clothing are usually painted but I do the faces in graphite pencil because this affords me a level of detail that I can't get any other way. Often a person's hair hangs over their clothing or something in the background. It would be almost impossible to draw the face and hair first then try to paint the background around it. So doing it in this order makes things a little easier and I can draw directly over the applied color in the background. You can even draw over a surface of acrylic paint but erasing a mistake is tricky so you need a sure hand when doing this. 

This is about forty or fifty hours into the process and I still have quite a way to go.

The background is not done yet but it's coming along. Here I've started on the beadwork fringe along Annette's collar.

Here the beadwork is developing to the final stage. When I do beadwork on a black surface, I've found that I first have to do it all in white, then go over it all again several times in color. It's the only way I've found to give the beadwork some luminescence. Painting the colored dots I use to create the beadwork lose this luminescent quality if they are painted directly onto a dark surface.

Here the background color is developed a bit further and I've started doing some of the shading in the face. This part of the design doesn't begin until I am about a hundred hours into the project.

The face and hair are further developed to give it form and texture. The next image is a detail of the hair and you can get an idea of the dot technique I use on the flat areas of color in the background.

The dots in the background are to give texture to that particular surface element. I use a similar treatment on the clothing for the same reason.

The piece is nearing completion now. Below I've done more subtle detailing in the face, hands and clothing and I've added a few more layers of color in the background.

The next step is to paint a complimentary border on the piece (this saves on having to mat it). Then I draw the black border between the image and the mat with India ink. This is a slow and deliberate process as a mistake here could ruin the piece.

Once the border in applied I do some final detailing and that's basically it in a nutshell. The whole process involves somewhere between 150 and 200 hours of work, spread out over a six to eight week period. You can see the finished portrait on my website along with Annette's biography.