Tuesday, February 6, 2018

All About Models

On April 20, I will be painting a main stage portrait demo alongside Quang Ho at the Portrait Society of America's 20th annual "Art of the Portrait" conference in Reston, VA. I recently posted about this event on my Instagram account, asking my followers if they had any questions they would like me to answer during our demonstration. While the official theme for the demo will be, "Approaching the Blank Canvas with Confidence," there are infinite things we could talk about, and we only have two and a half hours! So, in an attempt to address some of the questions I've already gotten from Instagram, from people who may or may not be in attendance at the conference, I've decided to answer some of them here on my blog in a series of posts leading up to the event.

The first question I got was from @daphnecoteartist. She asked: "What kind of process do you go through with the model?"

Big question, right? There's no way I can cover that in a short little demo. So here you go, Daphne! Let's talk about models!

There are many different kinds of models. We usually think of professional/fashion models when we hear the term, but for our purposes, anyone can be the subject of a work of art.

Art models: These are the models I work with the most often, as they are paid professionals (both men and women) who can find and hold an interesting pose for a long period of time and are comfortable working clothed or nude. When I am posing a model for an alla prima portrait or figure study, here are some things I try to keep in mind:

- Lighting. I prefer natural (north or shadow of the day) or cool (4500-5500 kelvin) light. This brings out the natural colors of the skin. If I'm posing a model for a class or demo, I usually light the model at a 45 degree angle from above to allow for the traditional "Rembrandt" lighting, which is great for seeing light and shadow on a head. However, if I'm just experimenting in my studio or painting a person for fun, I like to play around with the lighting and try different angles. Lately I've been a fan of frontal lighting, which makes it harder to see form (i.e. no deep eye socket shadows), but can be very flattering for younger models.

- Pose. I look for something with interesting diagonals, which might include a turn or tilt of the head, tilted shoulders, graceful hands, etc. The model is usually going to pose for anywhere from 2-4 hours, with short breaks every 25 minutes. Ideally they know their bodies well enough to work with me in choosing a pose they know they can hold without passing out or having all their limbs fall asleep. The most experienced models work through the pain and work out the pins and needles during breaks! :-) If you are unsure about how to pose a model, or are new to figure drawing in general, I highly recommend Andrew Loomis' book, "Figure Drawing for All Its Worth."

- Clothing/Background. Sometimes we are given choices in these things; sometimes we are not. Either way, I try to be flexible and work with whatever the model has. If the model walks in wearing sunglasses on top of her head and giant hoop earrings, I might find that inspiring and tell her not to change a thing. Or, if that's not working for me, I have a variety of accessories I can contribute to create different looks. Very often, the model will have multiple clothing and accessories of her own to choose from, so pick whatever excites you. You can design the background around the figure; the color doesn't matter as much as the value choices you make, and background shapes, if any.

- You have options! I try to remember that just about anything can be changed, including my lighting (I can move it), my vantage point (I can move myself), my palette (I can decide the scope of my color choices), or the model (the pose, clothing, and accessories can all be adjusted).

- Photography. Always ask the model's permission before snapping away, especially on a cell phone (for some reason it feels unprofessional to me, although I understand that it's usually the only camera we have on hand). If you plan to finish the painting from photo references, I think it's important to tip your models to compensate for some of the time you would otherwise be paying them for. Often, such as when working with professional ballerinas, I hire models with the sole purpose of using photography to make studio paintings. In those instances, I pay a generous photo rate which is higher than the hourly life session rate, because I usually end up doing more than one painting from the shoot.

Above: Jessica is one of my favorite Dallas-area professional art models. Here we are with a live three-hour demo I did of her in a workshop, and below is a large studio painting that I completed months later in my studio from reference photos, taken with the model's permission.

"Native Daughter, Modern Woman" - 42x24" - oil on linen panel - available. 
Studio painting with a professional art model, based on a study done from life

Above: "Crystal Seated," 14x11", oil on linen panel (Available through Saks Galleries). This is a good example of a painting done from life, with a professional nude model. With her permission, I took a reference photo of her face and feet to finish the photo in my studio, as three hours wasn't quite enough time to bring it to the level of polish I was hoping for.

"Elegant Lines" - 20x24" - oil on linen - private collection.
This painting was based on photo references of professional dancer and fashion model Kayla Giard. Dancers especially have busy schedules so if you can get them to pose for a life session with you, it's a special treat!

Family and friends: This is a big one. If your experience is anything like mine, there are some dear ones in your life who love and support your work enough to be your guinea pigs throughout your career. Others don't want anything to do with it! Getting family to pose can be like herding cats. Everyone is busy, scattered about, and doing their own thing. I've been successful a few times during visits back to Wisconsin in getting sisters or sisters-in-law to pose for me. But usually it requires some intentional effort and time. A couple of my dearest friends from college have modeled for me throughout the years, including Laura (below), who volunteered herself and her children as models for a breastfeeding themed commission I had a few years ago. No matter how difficult it is to round them up for paintings, I'm grateful when my loved ones pose, as the resulting portraits are very special to me.

"Nurturer" - 24x30" - oil on linen - Collection of the Museum of Motherhood, NYC

Color study for "Daddy's Girl" - 9x12" - oil on linen panel - collection of the artist

Above and below: You may recognize these two: my husband and daughter. I painted them first from life while they were watching Sesame Street, then took some reference photos to do the studio painting above. I wanted it to have the same feeling of immediacy that the sketch did.

"Daddy's Girl" - 20x12" - oil on linen - collection of the artist

"Victorian Window" - 18x12" - oil on linen - available through John C. Doyle Gallery
This painting is of my beautiful sister in law Lindsay, who posed for me at her home.

"Being Sixteen" - 42x30" - oil on linen
I painted my youngest brother, who posed in his room with his guiter (and dirty laundry :-)) when he was a teenager (he is now 22 and about to graduate college!). 

Self portraits: I've written about this here, here, and here (I'm sure there are more posts somewhere), but the fact remains: if you are short on models, money, energy, or time, you can always paint yourself. Sometimes I might have a concept in mind that I want to try out, and I'll use myself for it first. This doesn't always work... I mean, I could never pose with a sledgehammer like Jeremy did (keep reading below to see which painting I'm referring to), but self portraits are great for experimenting with lighting, color, design, and much more. Or, if you're a new mom and can't leave the house, paint yourself with your baby like I did back in 2014. :-)

"Proverbs 31:17 (Self Portrait at 29) - 24x18" - oil on linen - Collection of the artist

Children:  I often get asked how I work with children, especially for commissioned portraits. In a perfect world, the parents would let me paint their kids being completely themselves, as in "Innocence" (below). It was an artist friend who volunteered her two daughters to model in their dance attire, and I was able to make several wonderful paintings from photographing the girls dancing freely, un-posed and uninhibited. Most of the time though, parents have an idea in their head of what they want - usually a more formal portrait with the child in their finest little dress or suit coat, looking sweetly out at the viewer. This is always possible but requires a level of earned trust between the artist and the sitter. I try to get to know the children I paint by spending some time with them, asking them about themselves, and showing interest in them as people. Children light up when you give them your undivided attention! And surprisingly, children as young as 5 can sit very well for a color study from life, as long as you are talking with them the whole time. Once I've gotten a good little life sketch of my subject, I take several hundred reference photos. The children usually start out rather stiff and forced, and by the end they are tired... but there is a sweet spot in the middle of the shoot when they loosen up and start enjoying themselves. That's where the money shot is!

"Innocence" - 24x12" - oil on linen - private collection

Artists: Artists often make great models, because they already understand what it takes to pose for a painting, and the patience needed to design a strong piece of work. The downside: they would probably rather be painting!

"Portrait of Artist Michael Mentler" - 12x9" - oil on linen panel - private collection

"Judy in Blue" - 18x14" - oil on linen panel 
One of the best artist portraits I've ever painted. Isn't she fabulous??

People who have never posed before: This is, hands down, one of my favorite model "categories," because I love working with people who are brand new to the experience of collaborating with an artist! It's always a really fun and interesting experience, plus I get the privilege of having truly original work, in the sense that no one has ever seen this model in a painting before. Because figurative work is relational at its core, I find that people who come into my life, take the time to get to know me (and vice versa), and eventually become my friends, make for some of the best models I've ever had.

The tricky part is overcoming a person's [understandable] aversion to looking like a narcissist. Some people think the concept of posing for a painting is kind of weird, until they warm up to the idea. If they happen to be mutual friends with someone I'm close to, such as my twin sister, I will sometimes ask her to ask them on my behalf... that way, they have time to think about it and don't feel put on the spot when I approach them myself at a later time.  Or, I might be lucky enough to discover that someone is genuinely interested in the process and will volunteer to participate!  Either way, if they are going to be a part of my life, they have to know that I'm an artist who loves to paint people, and they might get asked to model at some point. :-)

"Autumn Song" (12"x12", oil on linen panel, available through John C. Doyle Gallery)

Above: The model for this painting is Corinne, an extremely talented singer and musician at my church. Because she is such a creative type, she jumped at the chance to model and made for one of my favorite collaborations ever! She has also become a very dear friend.

"One More Rep" - 12x20" - oil on panel - available

Above and below: Since I spend a lot of time at the gym, I started asking coaches to model for me. Andie (above) and Jeremy (below) had never even thought about modeling before but they were both really fun to work with.

"Strength and Stormclouds" - 24x36" - oil on panel - available

Commissions: I would consider this a subcategory of people who have never modeled (you can get some insight into my process here). Sometimes the client has a long family history of portraiture, and they are quite used to having paintings done of themselves or their loved ones. But in my experience, clients are usually brand new to working with an artist and find it helpful for me to explain the entire process in detail, so that they know what they are getting themselves into. Of course, my approach to commission work is different depending on the client and their particular needs/wants. I do commissioned alla prima head studies, if they are willing and able to pose for 3-4 hours. But usually, they don't have that kind of time. In that case, I ask them to sit for a very brief color study (20-30 minutes) and to pose for photos, which I take myself. Always, we are chatting and getting to know each other, and I am observing their unique facial expressions, gestures, and personality, with the eventual goal of bringing those characteristics into the final portrait.

"Taylor" - 50x36" - oil on linen - Commissioned Portrait

"Joan" - 16x12" - oil on linen panel - Commissioned Portrait (alla prima)

More Q&A coming in the next blog post. If you have any more questions about working with models, please leave them in the comments here!


  1. Brava, Anna! You have covered most of the aspects of modeling that I have encountered.

    I had the privilege to sit for you a couple of years ago (at OPA with Suzie Baker and Amie Erikson) and have to say that I enjoyed the experience and seeing the results from three very talented artists. Speaking as a model, let me just say that most of the artists' models that I know do not "make a living" as such, but usually have another career or job. The efforts we go through may seem like an easy task to the casual observer, but I assure you it isn't the case. It goes beyond just sitting (or otherwise) still. Returning to the original pose after a break can be challenging to many, and frustrating to the artist trying to recreate the pose. Something as simple as trying to put a hat back on in just the right way can take a bit of experimentation to get the look just right. And a good artist will certainly be concerned for the comfort of the model. The studio being too hot or too cold, the light being directed into the eyes, awkward props to hold or carry, are just as difficult for a model as an uncomfortable pose. Yes, we can shake off the pins and needles of a sleeping appendage, but it makes for a really long 20 minutes or so.

    So, thanks for this article! I have had some really enjoyable times as an artists' model, and I am looking forward to many more. I certainly meet the most interesting folks.


    1. Those are fantastic insights, Dave -- thank you so much for taking the time to comment from a model's perspective! You are certainly one of the best professional models I've ever worked with and I hope I have the privilege of painting you again some time.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I want to paint more figuratively and don't know how others do it. Thus helped. I took many pictures of you painting Dave in Dallas and had the privilege to paint Dave when he posed for us in Richmond about a year ago.

  3. Wonderful post, as always. A great read and very thorough! I always learn something new and helpful when I read your blog. 🙂


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