Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I SEE YOU: The Art of Capturing a Likeness

I've been thinking a lot over the past month about a comment I received more than once while painting my Face Off demo at the Portrait Society of America conference. Several observers said, "You nailed the likeness. You really captured her soul." I know it was meant as a compliment, but I wonder if these kind folks realized the gravity behind what they were saying. To go from "nailing the likeness" to "capturing the soul..." well, that's rather profound. And I've been thinking about what it really means to see someone, and translate that image to marks on canvas in a way that is meaningful.



So what is behind the art of capturing a likeness and what does it require? Is it more than simply copying a person's proportions and tones? Is it a natural ability or intuition that some are just better at than others? Who are some artists who do this really well?

I'll attempt to answer these questions as best I can, but before I get into the technical aspects of painting a good likeness, I think it's important that I offer some brief insight into my worldview.  My pastor gave a sermon a couple of months ago about Hagar, from a series on the life of Abraham. The title of the sermon was "The God Who Sees."  In the account from Genesis 16, Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham and gets banished by Abraham's wife Sarah to suffer in the wilderness. In spite of every party involved wronging the other (Sarah abuses Hagar, Abraham is complacent, Hagar despises Sarah), God still blesses each of them in the end. We know from Scripture that He gives Sarah a son in her old age, and that Abraham goes on to father the nation of Israel. But the part of the story that really moves me is when God sees the lowly servant woman Hagar, in her oppression and despair, and calls her by name. He blesses her and promises that her son will grow up to be a mighty warrior, with descendants too numerous to count. She responds to Him in verse 13, "You are the God who sees me."

As my pastor says, "God's seeing is a form of compassion." He sees into us - sees our souls, the essence of who we are, and He cares for us. And He doesn't just see us in our lowly state; He does something about it. He overcomes sin with grace, and He blesses the oppressed.  Do we see people the way God sees them? To have compassion in their suffering, and in spite of their flaws? I certainly hope I do, and painting is the channel I use to see and bless others.

One of the common threads that ties us all together - and gives me reason for believing in a Divine Creator - is RELATIONSHIP. God chose to create us for the purpose of being in relationship with Him. And our earthly lives, for better or worse, are shaped by relationships more than anything else. That is why I love painting people. Although I am introverted by nature, I think it's unnatural to completely avoid fellow humans. I relish the time alone in my studio, but I find it even more important to spend time with people, whether they be my family and friends, other artists, or my models.

Whatever your worldview, I think it's pretty obvious that if you are going to do your human subjects justice, you need to actually care about them. The common thread is that people MATTER, and their intrinsic value is far beyond quantifiable worth.

So... from a technical standpoint, how does one capture a likeness? Obviously, strong drawing skills are a must. An artist must be able to identify the unique relationships between shapes and values within a face.  Overall structure and carriage are more important than detail. We recognize friends and family from a long way off because we know the shape of their head and hair, and the way they carry themselves. Eye color, wrinkles, and even skin tones, are relatively unimportant when it comes to likeness.

It helps to talk to the model and become familiar with their mannerisms. It is possible to paint a child from life and capture their likeness, even though they can't sit still. If you take the time to observe them carefully, you will notice positions, head tilts, or expressions that they keep returning to, if just for a split second. Choose one of those familiar gestures, and you'll be on the right track. Impose your own ideas about a pose on someone... and the spirit will be lost.

I used to try to make the model fit my idea or concept by posing them exactly how I imagined they should look in my head. Once in a rare while, the painting would turn out, but most of the time, the resulting image looked stiff and unnatural. I've discovered that it works best if artist and model can collaborate together on the pose, so that both are bringing something of themselves into the final work.  Below are some examples of artists who truly excel at capturing a person's spirit and soul.

Rose Frantzen

Max Ginsburg

Jeffrey Hein

Nancy Guzik

Jeremy Lipking
And while it's hard to follow such amazing examples of painting who SEE people, I offer here a few of my own works:


"Colquitt" (14x11", class demo painted from life in about 4 hours)


Detail from studio painting, "Native Daughter, Modern Woman"


"Judy in Blue," 18x14", a portrait of one of my dear Texas artist friends


Detail from studio painting of my daughter Cecelia, "Looking Through"

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The "Art of the Portrait" 2017


I returned home from Atlanta late Sunday night, April 23... and I'm still recovering. Actually, I just haven't had much time to write, since I got thrown head-first into potty training Cecelia... but I'm sure you don't want to hear about that. :-)

This year's annual Portrait Society of America conference was particularly exciting for me, albeit exhausting. I came back with a very full heart and have spent the last week or so sifting through photos, following up with artists I met at the event, and catching up on time with my family.

Before I left for the conference, I made sure to get a photo of Cece with her portrait. I borrowed the painting back from a collector in Scottsdale, and had it re-framed by Masterworks Frames just for the conference. They did an amazing job and I would highly recommend them! Somehow, my little 8x6" painting was able to hold its own in the room of finalist artworks, all of which were substantially larger and more commanding.



The opening event of the conference is a popular demonstration called the "Face Off," in which 15 artists gather in the ballroom to paint from live models simultaneously, for a total of 3 hours with breaks. It usually ends up being three artists to a model, and this year, our models were also artists. We don't get to find out where we'll be set up or who we are painting until the last minute, when numbers are drawn. This year, I drew a spot painting Lea Colie Wight, and was set up between Alicia Ponzio and Tony Pro. Even though this was my second year participating in the Face-Off, I felt incredibly humbled to be in the company of these amazing artists. There's no pressure like painting with your peers. Thankfully, my painting turned out okay. :-)

Photo by Matthew Innis

Photo by Maria Bennett Hock


My finished demo with Lea Wight. I painted my demo on an Artefex panel and absolutely loved the surface!

The next morning, PSOA's executive chairman, Ed Jonas, gave the opening welcome speech, and a video was played highlighting this year's faculty, finalists, and certificate of excellence winners. I teared up when I saw my sweet girl on the big screen. This means so very much to me!!



Photo by Judy Takacs Pendergast

Friday morning was pretty fun for me; I had been asked to serve as the main stage moderator, meaning that I would introduce the morning's speakers, and make announcements before the breaks. After getting over the initial shock of the blinding lights and ear-splitting microphone, I really enjoyed the honor of welcoming the first demo artist to the stage, Jeffrey Hein. Jeff was supposed to be a faculty member last year, but cancelled last minute due to illness. It was pretty cool that this year, not only was he back and an active participant, but he got to do a solo portrait demo on the main stage. His demonstration was phenomenal!


Later on Friday I participated in a break-out session called "Doing Your Visual Homework," alongside Ed Jonas, Dawn Whitelaw, and Jeff Hein. Each of us discussed our unique approach to problem solving and planning out a painting.  Unfortunately I don't have any pictures from this discussion, so I'll just share here the opening picture of my slideshow, which demonstrated that painting and drawing from life can happen anywhere. :-)

Above: a photo from my "Visual Homework" presentation. I did this little study of Cece while stuck in a hotel room during a blizzard.

One of the best parts about going to a painting conference like this is socializing after the day's events. This year I volunteered to mentor a fellow artist through the Cecilia Beaux Forum's mentorship programs, and she and I enjoyed a delightful one-on-one dinner (rare to get at these kinds of events!). Sometimes I think I'm learning more from her than she is from me. :-)

Friday evening featured "meet the finalists," where we stood in front of our artworks in the gallery and talked about our work to anyone who was interested. This was followed immediately by the popular 6x9" Mystery Sale, . Below: my contribution this year. I was thrilled when the person who bought it introduced herself to me later!

Study for "Blue Maiden," 9x6", oil on panel - donated to the Portrait Society for their annual mystery sale


Friday night I went to bed early, saving my energy for the next day. I had to be up early to kick off the day with a panel discussion for the Cecilia Beaux Forum at 7:30 a.m. I really thought no one one would show up, since most people were up late conversing, but there was great interest and it ended up being standing room only! The panel consisted of myself, Judith Carducci, Dawn Whitelaw, and Katherine Stone, and our conversation attempted to broadly cover the topic of navigating a successful career. I talked about "painting what you're passionate about," and then nodded in emphatic agreement as Kate Stone discussed what it's like to be a professional artist and a mother (She and I later decided we should make a push for having a separate round table discussion on this topic next year). Dawn explained how she keeps her studio organized and manages her time carefully so as to maximize time at the easel. And Judy talked with fondness about her career from the standpoint of someone in their 80s, looking back. As I sat next to her and listened, I had to hold back some emotions. It was a huge honor to be on a panel with someone I've looked up to for so many years. I'm convinced Judy is part of the reason I've made it this far. :-)

After that I helped do portfolio critiques, and I signed a few books. I grabbed a quick hug from Nancy Guzik, who was there with her beloved Richard Schmid. Richard was signing copies of "Alla Prima II" (in my opinion, the best book on oil painting that has ever been written), and the line of people eager to meet him went out the door. Richard would be honored that evening for his contribution to art education.

Meanwhile, I was grieving the fact that I didn't have any more scheduled demos... so I crashed Tim Rees's party and set up to paint with him in the exhibitors' hall. The Raymar folks "adopted" us and let us paint there, even giving me one of their fantastic L64C lead-primed linen panels to work on for my demo. We roped Jeff Hein into modeling for us, and he was great. I think my painting would have turned out better though, if I hadn't been so intimidated to be painting such an amazing artist. Still, he ended up taking my demo home with him, which is the biggest compliment ever. Thanks, Jeff! :-)

Photo by Shana Levenson

Tim and I didn't want to stop painting, so we set up in the hallway and painted the amazing Gregory Mortenson. I wish I'd had more than an hour to do his portrait - what a great head! I had to rush off though and get ready for the banquet. It sure was fun to paint with the boys though.

Jeff let me try one of his ABS plastic panels for my portrait of Greg. I liked it. Now I need to find a local plastics manufacturer where I can buy this stuff by the sheet. :-)

I sat with my longtime friend and mentor, Michael Mentler, at the awards banquet. Some of the things he's told me over the years will probably stick with me forever... tips on design, form, anatomy, painting materials... the list goes on and on. I'm so honored to call him my friend!


When the awards were announced, I was privileged to receive an award of exceptional merit for my painting of Cece. All I can say is that I'm grateful. Thank you, PSOA!

Photo by Adrienne Stein

The top awards went to Ming Lu (first place painting), Sookyi Lee (first place drawing), Susan Wakeen (first place sculpture), Johanna Harmon (2nd place), Casey Childs (third place), Paul Newton (4th place), and Mary Sauer (5th plcae). The Draper Grand Prize and People's Choice went to David Kassan for "Love and Resilience, Portrait of Louise and Lazar Farkas, Survivors of the Shoah." 

Several years ago when Leslie Adams became only the second woman in PSOA history to take home the Draper prize, I remember feeling like her victory was also my own. Life is so much about overcoming: fear, pain, doubt, guilt, ignorance, bias, etc. But I rejoice that David won this year because that is what his monumental work is about: two survivors who have overcome. You can see all the finalist works and awards on the Portrait Society's Facebook page here.

Meanwhile, I am going to shoot for becoming the 3rd woman to win the top prize... next year. ;-)

With the Draper Grand Prize winner, David Kassan. His work is so important and so necessary!

Richard Schmid was honored with a lifetime achievement award for Excellence in Fine Art Education. I lost it when he came up to receive his award, and there was a standing ovation for him. I've written a great deal on this blog about what his contributions mean to me personally, and it's overwhelming to think of how many hundreds of thousands of people he has impacted directly or indirectly. Either way, every one of us in that room were part of his legacy, and it was very moving.



 Photo of all the finalists, by Matthew Innis


After the banquet, the party began! I stayed up till 3 a.m. for the first time in years. :-) I loved hanging with so many friends, both old and new! Here I am with two fabulous ladies I'm privileged to know, Lacey Lewis and my conference roomie, Tina Garrett (who is one of the fastest rising stars I've ever met! Check her out!).


Sunday morning: breakfast with some of my favorite people (above:-)), and Michelle Dunaway (below) gave an absolutely fantastic talk and slideshow during "Inspirational Hour." I spent the rest of Sunday morning visiting vendors, chatting with fellow artists, and decompressing.



I'm still processing everything from the conference but I have to say that I'm so thankful for the Portrait Society and what it offers to artists: an extended family.

Share/Bookmark
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...