Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Weekend with the Portrait Society of America, Atlanta, GA

I just returned late Sunday night from the "Art of the Portrait" conference, held by the Portrait Society of America. This event is always one of the biggest highlights of my year, and I look forward to the next one almost immediately as soon as the previous one is over! The finest artists all gather together for a weekend of learning from and fellowshipping with one another, and I've found that even the most famous of portrait artists are kind, generous, and approachable. They're some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

For the sake of many of you who were unable to make it to the event this year (it was held in Atlanta from April 28-May 1), I've decided to type up my notes from some of the lectures and demos that took place over the course of the weekend. Hopefully they will make sense to you and perhaps even help you in some area of your work, as they have for me (though to be honest, I'm still just trying to process all the information...).

Thursday night was the "Face-Off" competition, in which 15 leading artists painted for three hours from several different models, and the rest of us milled around the room to watch their progress. It's an incredible thing to be able to see so many amazing artists working in their own particular style and have them all come out in the end with a unique masterpiece. After they were finished with their paintings, the conference attendees were given the chance to vote for their favorite, and the winner (Anthony Ryder) did a solo demo the next day. I have an entire album of pictures from the conference, including pictures of the finished demos, on Facebook. You can check them out here.

Here are some of my notes from the demos. Please note that these are the views as expressed by the artists giving the demonstrations, and not necessarily my own. There was a great variety of styles and methods represented by the artists in attendance, and it truly made for a wonderful educational experience.

Friday, April 29 - David Leffel’s demo:

Leffel did a self-portrait from a mirror.

There are two kinds of edges: (1) dynamic edges, and (2) structural edges. Dynamic edges are the “eye candy” , e.g. Zorn or Sargent. Incorporate lost and found via squinting, and exhibit a striking visual quality. For example, dark, hard edges against a light background. Structural edges go back to the Old Masters – edges become part of the form and structure of the painting. “Half tones don’t exist except as a painting problem…What is the value / temperature of a half-tone? It’s nothing you can extrapolate on. But edges do exist in nature.” Light hits a plane and travels as far as the place facing the light goes, and as the form turns away from the light, there will be a soft edge. So you’re not getting a half-tone – you’re getting a soft edge which eventually turns into a shadow. So nature has soft and hard edges. Edges naturally turn in sequence from hard to soft – it’s an abstract sequence. Color, like edges, alternate from warm to cool. So if you have a warm plane, next will be a cool plane. This is true regardless of subject matter.

There are painters and there are renderers. In painting – instead of seeing form in a circular fashion, you see the world flatter, in planes, like sculpting. Rendering – using the wrist and brush, and doing a lot of blending. Leffel considers his style “abstract realism,” and he is a painter as opposed to a renderer.

When starting, the most important thing to consider is size and placement. The more empty space you have, the more important the filled space becomes.Start with a gesture drawing so you immediately know the design of the whole thing. Endings are abrupt, and continuations are soft. So even if you’re some distance from the model, you should know what to do.

Edges also control color and value. As you soften an edge, that area loses its impact, so it becomes an aesthetic rather than technical problem. The more impact you want an area to have, the quicker the turn. The less impact, the softer the edge.

Put down what you consider pertinent to the final painting. Learn to put down as quickly as possible what is significant. Know already where your edges and planes are, “and then all you have to do is finish the painting” (grin)

Work from big to little.

Background is very important. When you’re painting it, it is an integral part – it’s part of the “air” of the painting. Consider the color and value of it. It’s the local color and the color of the air between the subject and the background – as though you’re doing a landscape.A finished painting is a relationship of all the elements in the proper order. If you want something to go back in space, you lighten it, like a landscape. Learn to understand the abstract nature of painting. Just add information to your original idea (the gesture drawing). Build on the idea. “Try to only put down good brush strokes. Don’t waste time putting down bad marks.” A good brush sroke is descriptive of either structure or form. Structure goes across and form goes along. Zorn and Sargent, for example, preferred painting along form because the long brush strokes were more virtuosic. Just the change of direction of brush srokes gives you a totally different emotional impact or feeling in a painting. Part of it is intuitive or psychological, but part of it is conscious decision-making.

Highlights are anchors in the sense that they’re in the extreme. You have to know exactly where they go, so the painting should be “finished” before you put them down. A corner is where a plane changes direction.

Cleaning the brush is an unnecessary interruption while you’re painting. The solvent changes the consistency of the paint. Just get to know your brushes, and wipe them as you work, but save the solvents for when you’re finished.

You know a painting is finished, very simply, when you run out of energy. As long as you can see something to do in a painting, you have energy. Monitor yourself and your energy level, or else your painting will go downhill. If your painting is losing energy, either stop or work on a new passage or new painting. This will refresh you enough to go back to your original spot and find things that need work.

Here's the finished demo:

More notes to come in my next blog post!


  1. Great info, thanks for sharing, Anna! It sounds like a terrific event to have attended.

  2. How incredibly kind you are to post your notes! I wasn't able to go for the past two years and I was so longing for news. This is absolutely wonderful and I'm looking forward to hearing more. Thank you!!

  3. You're very welcome! I hope it is of some benefit to you. :-)

  4. Thanks so much for generously giving those of us who couldn't make it this year a taste of what we missed! I hear it is Philadelphia next year?

  5. Anna thank you so much for sharing, I echo the sentiments as the previous bloggers, it is very kind of you to take the trouble to write these posts and it is very helpful to self taught artists such as me....


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