The Trouble with Heads

Have you ever been working on a painting, specifically the head part of a figure and it just won’t materialize the way you envisioned. I recently had this happen and thought I’d share my remedy to “the head that will not work“.

It’s good in the beginning to realize the reference head is a difficult one. What makes one head more of a challenge than another? I’ve brought out some of my older portrait studies to see.

face1

The example above is a easier head because it has strong lighting which defines the planes, but more important it is straight on vertically and horizontally. Not the most interesting pose, but definitely the easiest.

example2

This one is more difficult, although there are some good defining shadows the head is not only tilted to one side, but tilted upwards, Notice how the ears are going lower on the side of the face, this is always the tell tail sign of a head tilted up.

example3

In many ways this head is more difficult than the one above because it is so slightly tipped to one side and tilted up (notice the under side of the chin being visible). This being a rounder, softer face makes it more challenging than one with sharp angles.

example4

An extreme angle like this is hard because it’s a strain to come to terms with the fact that the nose can appear to touch the eye. This is when you have to trust what you see and not what you think you know.

After I’ve made a few attempts at a face from photo reference and it just isn’t working this is what I do:

Making sure the photo head is the same size as the painting head, I draw a square box around the head, placing the head at one side. Label the size of the box, than divide it into eighths if need be. In this photo the right side of the box was mostly her hair, a shape I could easily grasp so I only divided the left side of the box.

example5

On the painting, draw the same size box where the head is. Using the divisions as guide lines, draw in the main elements in the correct locations. Sometimes I’ll do a dry run on a piece of scrap canvas.

IMG_2597

Here is the box and pencil drawing on the canvas. Now I see it! The hair line was off, but I know have a good guide to move forward.

 

 

 

Order From Chaos

girlingardenlrHave you ever held onto an image in hopes of painting it one day, you pass over it periodically but always end up choosing something else.

This is one of those images. Why did I want to paint it? I liked the mood of stems and leaves going in all directions while the girl, among the chaos pumped water from an old iron pump. What kept holding me back was my perception of its complexity.

I decided it was time to paint it or discard it, so the struggle began, but with a happy ending.

Here are some of the “tricks”, methods I used in order to make this scene paintable to me.

Before starting I searched for the patterns that would make the best eye path through the scene.girlingarden1Studying the foliage I could see how using some of the longest stems to lead upward around and down would make a good composition.

Omitting a bright area of sky in the upper left helped to direct the interest into the central part of the scene instead of up and out the corner.

After the face was established I used stripes of paper to mask off areas so I could concentrate on others, it felt less overwhelming and helped me to actually see what was going on.

When I felt painters’ fatigue creeping in I even set my phone on a 15 minute timer. Every time the alarm went off I turned the painting and photo a quarter turn. Working on it upside down and sideways offered a new perspective and freed my mind up to just think shapes instead of objects.

The more I finished the easier it was to continue with the remainder, until it seemed I said all I wanted to say about this scene.

Taking it Further

Many times when painting a subject from life there just isn’t enough time to finish, or quality control starts to diminish when “artist fatigue” sets in.

The next day, back in the studio, armed with some photos, one taken a little overexposed to see what’s happening in the shadows and one underexposed to see what’s happening in the lightest areas, it’s time to take a hard look. This is one of the greatest ways to develop a keener eye.

So, how do I take it further? Writing down what I like so far;

  • The strong sense of light on her face, an almost stark quality
  • The composition

Now, what could elevate this, if I saw a more advanced version of this painting at an art show, what is it that would make me stop and look?

  • Correct any drawing/value problems that would take away from the whole
  • Work the edges to lead the eye around the painting and not distract
  • Play up the textures1920rough-lrI began in the studio at this point-

1920-final-lr

After taking it further with the changes below-

Drawing problems;

  • her left hand and right hands- needed reshaping and softening
  • her left arm, take the value lighter and reshape
  • her knee, not in the right place
  • chin, a little more pointed

Opportunities for texture

  • highlight on her headband
  • shine on her dress
  • fur and sparkles on coat, right side
  • background needs a little more chroma
  • work items on table for more interest

In the beginning when trying to “taking it further” it may seem hard to spot what you need to do, but keep looking with a critical eye and you will soon develop a knack for seeing which direction to take.

 

What’s The Point?

When sitting (or standing) in front of a new subject my first consideration is what’s the point? Why am I painting this thing, because it’s there is the worst possible reason. I’ve got to have a point of view, a motive for lifting the brush to the canvas.

My subject; a young woman with ringlets, red hair and a period dress, sitting stoically upright in a chair. The obvious road to take; a somber earth tone palette with quiet softened edges. My motive, to not paint it this way.

How about a primary limited palette of Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium yellow. This choice could help to keep the color lively even in the flesh tones. wedge1-lr

The initial block in, pushing the color – maybe too far, but I can always take it back later if needed. Separating the dark from the light, which is important for holding on to the form.wedge2-lr

At this point I’m starting to discover the color world she will be living in. It’s now a mater of refining the drawing, deciding how much to include. Is every ruffle necessary or will it take away from the whole. For me, it’s more about what I can put in that makes my point the best, and what I can leave out, just fluff.wedge3-lr

Working with a palette knife was a good way to get the rough textures to play against the smooth. The finished painting ” Wedgwood and Lilac” reflects the way I felt and what I wanted to say about her.

Being your own Best Critic

Training your critical eye is one of the best tools to improve painting skills. After all who can you depend on to be available anytime, who knows and understands what you’re trying to do……you.

Here are three ways that have helped me to become my best art critic;

Attend open studio sessions, while there, walk around the room and really look at what others are doing. Find several people who are more experienced, see how they have handled areas that you are struggling with. Take pictures of their work (if they give you permission), and study it later. What things are they doing that could elevate your work, more varied edges, more subtle colors, using warm passages against cool etc.

Before you try the next suggestion you might say “what’s the point, just go on to something else”. I’ve found to take my work to the next level I need to dig deeper, take an unbiased look at my paintings, remove myself from it’s creation and ask these questions;

If I saw another version of this painting in a gallery and really liked it, how would it be different from my version? I did this with my painting below.pinkdressOriglr

The big things;

The shape of her skirt would be more interesting, as it is, one half is a mirror image of the other. It could also have more form, there must be a top plane, front planes and side planes, but where are they? More variety in color, even though it’s not totally a flat color, the surface suffers from sameness. More movement, the diagonal at the bottom of the skirt  has the potential for a more interesting edge.

The background could be cooler. The main character should call the shots on the painting temperature. She is built with very cool tones, I don’t believe her world would have that much orange in it.

The small things;

The girl’s posture is a little stiff, so is her expression. Before I rework her head I better make sure it’s in the right place, (which it wasn’t).

Can I make this more than a girl in a big skirt?PinkDresslr

Going through several days of revisions, I think it’s finally a better version of it’s former self! I definitely learned some things on this one!

Portrait to Pin

Sometimes I like to build a step by step of a painting and make a Pinterest Pin out of it. This was a recent open studio session, with an abbreviated breakdown of my process –

UkrainianDemo

To Sum it Up …

We are nearing the end of our 6 month stay in Scottsdale. To recap, John and I decided to celebrate our 20th anniversary by temporarily living in an “art friendly” city, our choice was Scottsdale Arizona.

Why Scottsdale? I have enjoyed attended workshops at the Scottsdale Artists School over the last 15 years. Other art destinations are within easy driving distance, like Sedona and Tucson. The outlying desert regions have a multitude of hiking trail, biking trails (for John) and interesting locations to paint.

What we didn’t expect to happen after 3 months was moving here. So an extended vacation has turned into a life changing event as we have listed our home in Las Vegas for sale and put in a contingency offer for a house in Phoenix.

To sum up the last 6 months I decided a slide show of the work I have completed while here would say it best. Most of the paintings were done from life at the open studio sessions at Scottsdale Artists School.

Some days I experimented with different techniques, some days the paint just seemed to flow while others were a struggle. I learned a lot by painting a lot, and watching some very talented artists. So here are the images in a slide show, in the order they were painted…if you have trouble with the embedded file, try this link