Out of My Comfort Zone: Three Portraits from Winter 2009
Painting is such a personal thing. I think each of us, over time, evolves a process, an approach to painting and drawing that works for us to a greater or lesser extent. For most of us, that process is most likely a mish-mash of our own discoveries, stuff we've learned from books, elements we've picked up from other people or online and personal foibles that may help or hinder without our being consciously aware of either happening as we paint.
For myself, I've done all my practice over the last few years at home, in comparative isolation. I needed to. I get confused by too much incoming information and have to close off to make sense of things. I think that's a necessary part of what we do.
But sometimes I think it can be a healthy thing to be taken out of our comfort zones and to be forced to deal with situations that might require a different perspective, a change to the process, and with that can come an opportunity for learning. It was with this thought in mind that I signed up for an evening portrait painting class at the back end of last year. Also, I wanted access to live models since I was getting tired of looking at myself in a mirror.
I'd just done a bunch of practice work around conceptualising form and the structure of heads, and I was looking forward to trying some of this stuff out on live heads. The class I signed up for ran for 12 weeks, two and a half hours on a Thursday night after work. We had four poses in total in that time, each one lasting for three weeks. I liked the idea of being able to work for multiple sessions on a single pose, not many courses I found allowed for that. I'm not a fast worker.
The first three-week pose was a nude. Feeling a little unsure of myself in the new environment, I just did a sight-size schematic in charcoal followed by a rough sketch in paint in the third session.
The teacher, a portrait painter himself, seemed to be curious about my method and we had a brief chat about sight size during which it became obvious that we had somewhat different ideas of what the phrase meant. I think perhaps it was the first time he'd heard of it to be frank and although he was a fan of Sargent he didn't appear to know much about his method. Perhaps coming across the sight size method for the first time and hearing about it from a student put him out of sorts, but his definition of sight size didn't make any sense to me at all and was vague at best.
He was a good teacher though, and most of what he said was very sensible and helpful to the students I thought, most of whom were beginners. His mantra was "painting is the act of comparison" which I still repeat to myself sometimes. That's particularly true when working sight size, where the comparison becomes one to one.
Portrait of Rhea
For the second three-week pose we had a beautiful model called Rhea, a singer. She had wonderfully well defined bone structure and sat naturally, but almost completely stationary. A fantastic model and a painter's dream.
This was when I hit the first real challenge of working outside my usual set up.
I generally spend a lot of time setting up lighting, and try where possible to work by natural day light. The studio we were working in had just been decked out with new lighting and they couldn't have got it more wrong if they'd tried. They had a lighting rig which ran around the whole ceiling in a square, two or three feet in from the walls, to which they'd fixed alternating fluorescent and warm (very warm) pink incandescent spots. It made it almost impossible to see colour clearly and the multiple light sources created a complicated pattern of shadow shapes which made form hard to judge. I was well outside of my comfort zone with this set up.
Nonetheless, I was determined to make the best of it and soldiered on. The initial laying out went fairly well. I was about half way through, using a kind of stripped down, rough and ready sight size method, well back from the easel and using a brush handle instead of thread to line things up. Having to work quickly was forcing me to concentrate on the main, large forms and this was a good thing. After an hour or so I was getting the main forms of Rhea's head well established. Things were going pretty well when a late arrival turned up wanting to slot in beside me in the ring of easels around the model.
Now, anyone who works sight size knows that the easel and the model have to stay completely stationary right throughout the piece for the method to work. If either move, all measurements and relationships are thrown out and you have to start again. So there I was, well into the zone, what Betty Edwards calls R-Mode - the non-verbal, visual, spatial mode of mental processing that drawing demands, when Teach saunters over to my easel and moves it a foot to one side so the new arrival can fit in beside me. Gagh! There was a moment that seemed like an age when I realised what he was about to do. I can still remember trying to force my brain into verbal mode to protest before disaster struck, but I just couldn't do it in time. He shunted my easel aside, looking round in surprise at the desperate, incoherent, strangled exclamation of frustration that I somehow managed to force out.
It's fair to say that I was a long, long way out of my comfort zone by this time. A bit too far. It took a little more explaining before the teacher understood what a disaster it is to have your easel moved when working sight size. I think he understands what sight size is now, and how it works. At least, he didn't try moving my easel again after that. But there was nothing for it but to start again from scratch, now with even less time with this wonderful model.
Portrait of Danielle
The next three-week pose turned out to be three poses, a different pose each week and with two different models. I didn't get anything usable out of those poses and ended up just doing some drawing practice. Not quite what I signed up for but good practice nonetheless.
For the final three-week pose, we had a new model, a different teacher for the first week and thus a different set-up.
One side of the studio had large fluorescents attached to the wall, and this teacher turned off all the lights except those. Although the room was darker (and the original teacher was somewhat disapproving when he came back the following week) I thought it was actually a much better set up.
Lighting was of one colour only, and from the side, allowing for clearer reading of forms. We also had a black paper background, which made this model's pale skin and resplendent auburn hair sing out. What a wonderful subject.
Unfortunately she turned out to have ants in her pants and couldn't sit still for more than five minutes at a stretch. Bizarrely, she kept smiling broadly to herself at some internal thoughts known only to herself. That made her a real challenge to paint. In fact, the majority of this painting was done in the final hour of the third week. I had to completely re-paint her at every sitting, and sometimes after each break.
One of the problems of mixed classes is that everyone has a different idea of where the model was sitting. Now, I don't want to be unkind, but if you're a complete beginner at painting your work is probably not the best guide of where the model was sitting before her break. This class had a 'majority vote' approach to placing the model, resulting in some quite wide variances of pose. I'm all for democracy of course, but why couldn't they just LISTEN TO THE BLOKE WHO'S WORKING SIGHT SIZE!? I knew exactly what position she was in. Sigh. So to me, this is a painting that almost was. I'm still quite happy with the result and it was certainly a challenge. It goes to show too how much difference a good set up can make I think. The values were so striking in this one, it was a gift. But it could have been so much more.
Out of my comfort zone indeed. Although there were many difficulties to overcome on this course, I was honestly surprised to find that I didn't need to work with quite the same fastidious approach to measuring that I'd been using in my studies at home. I found that I could be more rough and ready and trust my eyes much more, and still achieve a reasonably accurate result. All that eye training might just be paying off. I also found that having to work within a limited time frame forced me to focus on what was important, to simplify, strengthen and to go with the flow a little more.
But I did want to return to more controlled conditions once the class was finished. Encouraged, I persuaded Michelle to sit for a portrait at home, over a number of short sittings at weekends.
Portrait of Michelle
Firmly back in the comfort zone.
With this portrait, I immediately fell back into old habits. I spent a long time laying things out with my thread, Bargue style. I carefully judged the local colours of Michelle's skin and mixed up strings of value and chroma variations according to the Munsell colour charts. I worked slowly. Now I had all the time I wanted and didn't need to rush.
So what was the result? Well, firstly, this portrait obviously isn't finished. In fact I abandoned it due to what I saw as severe inaccuracies of form that the painting was too far through to fix without scrubbing most of it out.
The problem is one of alignment. Her mouth and jaw area are pushed over to the right, throwing out the structure of her head. The individual forms don't fit together properly. I'm quite happy with how each discrete area is painted - her eyes, her nose, her mouth - but they just don't fit together.
It's much more obvious when you look at the painting in reverse. This is the value of looking at your paintings in a mirror as you do them. It seems to accentuate inaccuracies although I'm not sure why. I think it's much clearer here and her mouth seems positively pulled over to the left.
I think it was by checking the painting in a mirror that I first noticed the problem. Something just felt wrong, but I couldn't decide what it was. If only I'd checked sooner. By the time I did check and saw the problem, I was so heartbroken at the sheer number of hours that had gone into this painting so far that I didn't have the heart to continue. It stands now as a valuable lesson to me, something to be remembered in future work. What did it teach me?
Well, firstly it taught me that I shouldn't rely on fastidious sight size measuring to get forms right. The parts still need always to be related to the whole. Somehow I lost that in this painting. I must have missed some checks that paradoxically I did much better when I had less time to work and was forced to concentrate on the large forms and not the details. Perhaps this is a personal leaning that I need to be consciously careful of in future. Perhaps it's a common thing, something that most people would benefit from building into their process. I certainly don't think it's a problem inherent in the sight size approach itself, in fact the opposite is the case. Sight size is all about seeing the large forms. I just applied it badly. My carefully worked out process got in the way a little, and what could have been quite a nice piece of work went south.
When I look at these three paintings together, I can see in each one the evidence of the things I did wrong, and what I was struggling with. But I can also see quite clearly how working under conditions that I would normally consider less than ideal has helped me make a better job of some aspects of the painting than I might do when I have everything set up to my satisfaction. I'm definitely one of those people who likes to have everything set up perfectly, everything arranged in its proper place before I begin something. I'm a compulsive planner. Looking at these paintings, and coming to the end of writing this post, I'm realising that perhaps I need to plan a little less. Perhaps one of the personal foibles I mentioned at the start of this post is my compulsion to control the process too much.
I don't mean to suggest that I'd be better off rushing at the easel in gay abandon, allowing my emotions to guide my brush and surrendering to my creative urge without a thought for process. All right, I'm being just a touch sarcastic there. But I do believe that, although drawing and painting may well be primarily a 'right brained' activity, the best results come when the left and right sides of our brains are working in harmony towards a common goal. Perhaps, though, in my eagerness to learn and progress, I've allowed my left, sequentially planning hemisphere to become a little too dominant and to obscure my right hemisphere's gestalt-based view of the whole. Perhaps it took some frustrating experiences working in conditions I couldn't completely control to make me realise that.
I think that perhaps if there's a lesson to take from this it's not that planning is bad, but that we might all profit from looking at how we approach our work and at the methods and processes we use, from trying to see where our weak points might be and what we can do to correct them. Perhaps a particular method isn't necessarily wrong or right in and of itself, but might be better suited to a particular individual and not to another. Perhaps any given method needs to be evaluated not in isolation, but in connection with our own individual personality traits. Perhaps the very characteristics that attract us to a given method are the very ones we need to be wary of, if there's a chance that we might become over-enamoured of them to the detriment of our work.
What do you think?