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Exploring portraits…

May 12, 2011

I’ve always been impressed by two types of portraits:  the impressionist scenes of ladies in sunlit dresses set in the greenery and colors of the outdoors (see Robert Hagan); and the strong, formal women a la John Singer Sargent standing or sitting in grand rooms of stately manors.  I’ve always wanted to paint women, but have never been very good at it.  I won’t abandon my landscapes, but I would like to spend a bit of time focusing on painting people, including attempting some portraiture.

The Prayer, 8x10


My first attempts at painting people were back in 2007, as I was beginning to explore painting with gouache.  The Prayer (left) was taken from a photo found online of an immigrant couple.  I believe they were sitting in a train station.  I’ve kept this early painting stored, with no intention to sell it, because I don’t remember the source, and can’t identify the photographer.  It’s published here merely as an example of where I’ve been as a painter.

The painting above and the three below were either projected or traced very faintly from the photographs.  These early portrait explorations were focused on the actual use of the paint and the brushes, rather than on drawing.  Since I was still in “illustration” mode, I knew that the quickest way to get to the painting part was to bypass the time-consuming drawing phase.

I spent a great deal of time working on these, trying different color palettes for skin tones and experimenting with the right brushwork.  Of the three paintings below, the one on the left was taken from a photo in the image library, and the one on the right was found online and can’t be attributed.  The center image is from a photograph I took of a gunslinger, one of several actors at a mock western town that used to operate near where I live.

Eventually, I attempted a few paintings of people by sketching them directly onto the painting surface.  The following paintings were done in that manner:

Morning Paper, 8×10, Gouache

 Morning Paper (above) was based on a posed photo of me sitting at the kitchen table.  Painted in 2008.

Taking The Sun, 8x10, Gouache

Taking The Sun (above) was based on a photo from the image library in 2008.

Reading in the Garden, 8x10, Gouache

The lady in Reading in the Garden (above) was sitting on a park bench against a brick wall when I found her in a photo in the photo library.  She was perfect for my intentions.  In late 2008, I painted her into this garden setting, making her considerably older than the woman in the photograph.  In early 2009, this little painting sold at an art festival in Tyler, Texas.

There have been a few other attempts at painting figures and portraits, most of which haven’t gone very well.  When I look at what I was capable of back in 2007 and 2008, I have to believe that the thing that’s lacking in my portrait and figure work today is simply practice.  I just didn’t pursue it.  I was, and still am, primarily focused on painting the landscape.  But I do want to stretch myself and expand my capabilities, so I’ve started spending a little time on painting people.  The first recent attempt was the Newspaper Man which appears in a previous post.  Then, inspired by my friends Bill Guffey and Gina Brown, I took a shot at a self-portrait:

Self Portrait, 8x10, Gouache

 It’s possible that painting oneself at my age is a bit easier on the ego than it might have been a few years ago.  There’s no denying the age at this point, so one just tosses in a little quiet dignity and tries to get it right around the eyes.  One has to just admit that this is not “the most interesting man in the world”, but it is fun to pretend.

These first exercises have shown me that I need to establish a brushwork technique for portraiture that is much different from what I use in painting landscapes.  Or maybe it’s just the fact that, according to some, one has to paint around 200 paintings of a particular subject matter before one begins to find a groove.  It may take a very long time for me to reach that goal, but I’ll just start where I am and move forward.  Here is a small portrait I’m just beginning:

This is a 9×12 gouache painting, intended to ultimately be a portrait of Nell.  At the moment, it comes nowhere near resembling her.  I started with a pencil sketch, and was pretty close with that, but working at this size with paint and brushes is still a challenge for me (the head, from hairline to chin is approximately 1-1/2 inches).  Getting a likeness at that size is proving to be difficult.  This will probably be more about the fabric of the long skirt than it will be about the likeness itself.

This is actually a composite of two photographs.  The head is from a photo of Nell.  The body is from a library image.  Since I’m just getting started with this kind of work, I decided not to ask Nell to get all dressed and posed.  The body type is similar, and she has approved, so with all that behind me, this is where I am.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  Hopefully, I’ll eventually post it as a portrait of Nell, maybe as a study for a larger future portrait.

Or… it may just turn out to be a painting of some lady in a very colorful skirt…

One Comment leave one →
  1. Margaret Quin permalink
    May 14, 2011 10:21 am

    I love it! You did a great job on yourself! It’s okay to add a little “dignity”. (At our age we might need a little!) I can definitely recognize Nell there! Your efforts make me want to pick up a brush….on second thought… I think I’ll just stick with a camera!
    Thanks for sharing your artistic journey, Ralph!
    Margaret Quin

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