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Old 11-12-2004, 10:54 AM   #1
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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A Portrait From Life - Rob Sullivan's class at NHIA




This past semester, I've had the wonderful opportunity to teach Portrait Painting (as well as a Beginning Drawing class) at the New Hampshire Institute of art in Manchester, N.H.

There are only four students in the class, so I thought this was a good opportunity for me to paint alongside them, rather than take up a whole 3-hour class with just me doing a demo. That way, we could all progress together. Of course, I still have to teach them, so I end up spending perhaps 20 minutes to a half hour at the easel each class.

None of the students had painted a portrait from life before, so we "warmed up" on a plaster bust of a simplified "planar" head. I had them employ the same technique of underpainting in raw umber and the lay-in of the opaque (in this case, monochromatic) oil paint. [This will be expounded upon in following posts]

Here's my quickie rendition of "Ike" (he looks like Dwight Eisenhower when seen in profile).
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Old 11-12-2004, 11:03 AM   #2
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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And now, on to Kirstin

After the class finished up "Ike", we moved on to the live model, Kirstin.

I have her set up under an incandescent 300W mud lamp. Lord knows I'd love to use something other than this, but with what I make, I need to save the Sunwave 94 CRI bulbs for my studio.

Studio 13 (lucky me!) has very big north- and west-facing windows, so our fill light is naturally cooler than the yellow-orange incandescent. Kirsten is quite pale, so having some warm tones brought out by the incandescent light isn't a bad thing.

Here's what she looks like (approximately) from my angle. Bear in mind that this is not a reference photo - just a snapshot of the setup. A good thing, too! Boy, does her hair look orange ! In reality, it's dark brown with some warm highlights. Isn't that amazing! Can't trust photos entirely, can we?
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Old 11-12-2004, 11:23 AM   #3
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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Underpainting

Using Gamsol (a wonderful, truly odorless turp substitute) and raw umber, I showed the students how to complete the underpainting.

First, I blocked in a linear structure, sight-measuring the major proportions. Second, I massed in value in broad tones, lifting out darks with a lint-free cloth in transitional (midtone) areas - always working from dark to light. The underpainting is compete when the values are correct (or as correct as possible).

It's very similar to the "wipeout" technique in a sense. I've adapted it to my own predilections for drawing with the brush, and I teach it that way, unless someone asks me specifically to teach them the wipeout.

The question always comes up along the lines of, "what's the point of this when we're going to cover it up?" And I tell them that the underpainting acts as a value "map" for the opaque layers. Also, having already observed and recorded values based solely on value and not color, the addition of color on subsequent layers won't confuse the value issue (it invariably does, but this sounds encouraging!).
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Old 11-12-2004, 12:07 PM   #4
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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First pass with color

The "ugly stage".

...Made moreso, because there's so much teaching required in regard to color mixing, that I didn't quite get to where I wanted at this stage. So, we're talking like 15 minutes on this one. It's close, though.

I haven't fully realized the Paxson palette yet (at least, not well enought to teach it), so I teach the way I'm most familiar with, using (oh dear) cadmium colors.

Here's the palette:

Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red
Yellow Ochre
Burnt Umber
Raw Umber
Ultramarine Blue
Alizarin Crimson (for mixing the sweater color)
Ivory Black
Titanium White

Medium: Holbein cold pressed linseed oil

It's simple, I know - but I think it's fairly effective.

...And Bouguereau was known to have used Cadmium Yellow and Orange, according to Daniel Burliegh Parkhurst. Am I rationalizing? Perhaps

The first thing I show the students is the use of neutrals. I demonstrate the mixing of 3 types of neutrals in a 5th value: cool, warm, and a "true" neutral. Cool = black + white. Warm = raw umber + white. Neutral = black + white + raw umber.

"True" neutrals play a vital role in the shadow planes in flesh tones, for when they are juxtaposed with the light plane of the head, full of warm colors, the eye shifts them into a cooler mode automatically. Too cool in the shadow, and the head takes on an alien look. Too warm, and the shadow plane comes too far forward. It's true that there are places where you'll find definitive spots of warm and cool in the shadows, but they are just "spots", and not the basis of the entire shadow plane.

Next, we mix up our much more chromatic light plane colors. I asked the students to observe the model's "personal palette", and discern what's happening in her face color-wise. Most of the chroma occurs in the middle third of the face, and the jawline and forehead planes are more neutrally pigmented. Kirstin had a tendency (under this light) to go ochre-to-neutral in the jawline and around the mouth, and a rose-red color in the cheek and nostrils.

Using the cadmiums and yellow ochre, we mixed out 3 values (middle, light, very light) altering the hue from red to yellow as the value increased. I had them pay careful attention to the fact that mixing white to bump up the value deadens the chroma, and you end up with a cadaverous flesh tone (not pleasing!). So I told them to always mix back a touch of yellow or orange to re-invigorate the warmth in that value.

Once we had this basic palette down, we laid in our shadow values first (neutrals), while I stressed the necessity of working from dark to light. The came our middle value in the light plane. I showed how to tweak the chroma through mixing like-value neutrals into the chromatic middle value. I also talked about hue-shifting as well in this region, such as adding yellow ochre wet-on-wet to get the desired effect. From there, we built our lights, careful not to overmix on the canvas, noting that this causes unwanted neutrality as well as pushing everything in the light plane into a middle-value state.

While this is all happening, we are constantly "tweaking" the drawing - paying careful attention to plane placement and the big relationships.

I am using some Isabey #10 flats and filberts for this stage. The panel is from SourceTek: Claussens triple-primed portrait linen mounted on birch, 10 x 12.

*Note - This photo was taken under warm light conditions. Notice the color of the raw umber background. Unfortunately, everything is a little warmer than it should be here.
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Old 11-12-2004, 12:20 PM   #5
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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3rd stage

More refinement of color and drawing all at once. Almost 90% light plane work. Some touches of an ultramarine-shifted neutral in the darks near the side planes of her mouth and chin. Also an ochre-shifted neutral on her jawline in the shadow.

I forgot to mention the sweater: alizarin, ultramarine and black. White in the lights, with a cad red/ultra blend added back. It was painted very quickly.

I finally started laying in the hair! - Burnt Umber, raw umber, white, touch of cad orange. She's wearing a black headband, and you can see I didn't hit that yet for some odd reason. Next week, I promise!
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Old 11-12-2004, 12:24 PM   #6
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Classroom

Here's a shot of the students. The third is hidden in the middle. The other student is behind me to the right. Not a big class, but it's fun for me to work alongside them in this circumstance. And, hey - I'd get paid the same if there were 14 of them!
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Old 11-18-2004, 11:14 AM   #7
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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Stage 4

Not a whole lot of time for me during this class: one student missed last week and I had to catch her up a bit.

Though this isn't totally relevant to moving this demo along, I'd like to include this bracketed "aside," just to illustrate how specific students' problems can become:

[It's an interesting circumstance with this particular student, because I kept noticing her laying down paint and then wiping it off again - not because of a mistake; it looked like she was trying to blend layers or something. The whole head was becoming one middle value. Then it dawned on me. She had mentioned that she took a "Renaissance Painting" class last semester in which the instructor had her painting a grisaille and then laying in color in translucent glazes. (From what I understand, the Renaissance artists used a combination of glazing and opaque layers. The only artist I really know of to truly glaze everything was Maxfield Parrish - and he had to essentially develop a personal system in order to do this; it was truly unprecedented.) I finally had to demonstrate on her painting how much paint we needed on there to truly "build" the lights into the head. She is (fortunately) a pretty direct person, so I just came right out and said, "...and this class is not Renaissance Painting." At the end of class, she was over that hurdle.]

Now, back to the demo---

I began by altering the "drawing" of her features even more - pushing toward a better likeness. Coming back fresh to the subject, I always can see this aspect of the portrait better as opposed to an hour into it, where I'm focused more on color and value.

I built up value and warmth in the top planes even further in the lights. Notice the difference in contrast between this week and last. I dry-scumbled some more warm colors in the forehead plane. This is essentially brushing "dry" paint over the dry surface. Oftentimes, I use my fingers to "push" these highly chromatic colors into the surface after a bit of scumbling. It gives the surface a porcelain-like translucency. Please don't have a sandwich while doing this. This is one of the dangers inherent in using cadmiums. Don't worry about me - there's a sink right there, and I wash up immediately.

I noticed that I knocked out that little bit of light creeping into the shadow plane on her cheek. Too much, I feel. I'll add that back next week - though subtly. I painted in the headband loosely, hoping I could get away with leaving the underpainting to describe the hair underneath the mesh. I'm not sure that it's working yet. I hope to get into her eyes next week, and refine some specifics there. I'm going to hit the whole thing with some retouch varnish the day before class to push the darks into their proper values, so that I can refine contrast properly. [As many of you know, dark flesh tones/earth colors dry quite flat, and the value moves up almost a half-step. The retouch "refreshes" those darks.]

I'm posting a closeup, just so you might see some of the transitions more closely.
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Old 11-27-2004, 04:10 PM   #8
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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Stage 5

So, Monday night I sprayed the painting surface with Blair retouch varnish. There are other brands, but Blair is the best in the spray can. I used Grumbacher once and it shot out of the can in a stream and went SPLAT onto my painting! Real nice. No more Grumbacher. [I usually brush on Holbein retouch when I finish a painting, by the way.] Tuesday morning, I had a nice, even, grippy surface upon which to work.

As I had mentioned in the previous post, I remind the students to try and look for any major drawing issues in the first posing session of the class (Kirsten sits for 20 minute intervals with a 5 minute break in between). When seeing the model and the painting together after having been away from it for a week, things that one might have overlooked suddenly become (sometimes painfully) obvious.

This reminder in and of itself seems obvious - but, if you don't address this issue first thing, then it becomes more difficult to pinpoint problem drawing areas once you engage in color mixing and hue shifting and correcting values, etc. Perhaps it is less difficult for the consummate professionals to shift gears constantly - and it is something to which one should aspire - but for most students of the craft, attacking one problem at a time is enough.

That being said, I had an issue to tend to in regard to drawing. I noticed her left eye was not on the correct axis according to the perspective of her head. I had painted it as if her eyes were level with mine - but they are not. I'm looking slightly down on her (no model stand, just a stool), so the near (right) eye should be lower than the far (left) one. When comparing my painting with her, it became clear that the right eye was correct, therefore, the left eye was too low. Also, her forehead plane was a little too flat on that side, so I fixed that up, too. (Note the differences between the last post and this post. I posted a closeup, as well, so the changes are easily seen.)

After tending to these things, I went back into the top planes, separating them further by adding white mixed with just enough cad orange and yellow to keep it warm. I also did some detail work in the eyes, adding catchlights and some dark accents. Notice that the eyes' catchlights (specular highlights near the pupils are not blazingly light as one might see in a magazine photo. Here, they originate from the fill light coming through the window across the room. So, in coming from a secondary light source, they are not terribly strong, and should be recorded as such.

As usual, I am teaching throughout, so that's all I was able to complete. There is one woman in the class who has painted a good deal, but it's mostly self-taught from National Geographic photo portraits. I must say, she has shown great improvement from those pieces (which she had shown me) which I attribute mainly to just working from life. What better reference is there? I'm happy for her progress.

I should mention that I have the students working on a home project of a self-portrait. So far, there are great results. It's great fun, this class!


P.S. A fellow instructor commented that the background texture (which is just underpainting) competed too much with the subtle rendering in her head. I'm thinking about adding a smoother background tone, but part of me sort of likes the underpainting, too. This is like a cliffhanger episode: What will he decide?!?!
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Old 12-15-2004, 06:51 PM   #9
Rob Sullivan Rob Sullivan is offline
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Last class!

Well, I missed a week due to illness. Not only was I sick, but the model called me to cancel that day, too - so I guess it worked out okay.

We all worked hard toward a finish. I added the cool-neutral background, and added hair detail. Yes, the addition of a more unified background does make a difference! Just goes to show how important it is to seriously consider a good critique. Look how it made the front plane of the features come forward. It also allowed me to soften the outer edge of her hair, giving it a bit of atmosphere. I also cleaned up her neck a bit.

As with most of my work (and I'm sure a lot of you feel this way about your own work), I can see areas that need improvement. But, this session is done and I must let it stand. Any improvements will come on the next painting. That should be the goal with each consecutive painting, actually!

The most important things that I wanted to get across in this demo are really the basics: the importance of light plane vs. shadow plane values; color mixing in the light and dark planes (chromatics vs. neutrals, respectively); and, of course, maintaining the integrity of the drawing (structure).

Looking back at the teaching process, I found that these were the issues that I helped the students with the most. In a way, it runs concurrently with, say, simplifying one's palette: whittling away the unnecessary in order to avoid over-complication. If these basic things are brought to the fore (especially if one is having difficulty), then most painting issues can be resolved. It seems to me that 95% of the time, forgetting to adhere to one, two, or a combination of these three principles are responsible for problems in painting.

My responsibility is to teach these principles properly and have the student apply them practically (i.e. - by doing, not just watching me do it). Through correct repetition, the application becomes intuitive, and other esoteric issues can be addressed more completely - such as character, likeness and mood. At that point, you're well on your way to becoming a successful portrait painter!

If you are interested in any of my classes (I also teach still life, Illustration, and figurative drawing/painting), contact The New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester. You can download a Lifelong Learning catalog from the site as a PDF. You may also find me at Sanctuary Arts here in Maine. They, too, have a downloadable catalog. Additionally, feel free to private message me here, or e-mail me (just click the profile on the left!).

Thank you so much for checking out this demo! I sincerely hope it provided you with some insights into the portrait painting process.
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