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Head Studies

May 26, 2011

I spent the day doing a series of head studies.  I’ve used sketchy, scrubby brushwork.  Part of the inspiration for this comes from my visit to Gadsden, Alabama a couple of weeks ago, and the last morning before I headed for home.  I had been there for the Southeastern Plein Air Invitational, and the area was hit pretty hard by some major storms.  Damage in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham sent people north looking for places to stay.  As a result, I moved out of my hotel room a day early, with an invitation to stay my last night in Gadsden at the home of Steve Temple, the Director of the Gadsden Museum of Art.  On Saturday morning, Steve and I sat on his front porch, talking and having coffee.  The subject of gouache came up, and before I knew it, Steve was leading me up the steps from his back porch up to his second floor studio.

I discovered that Steve Temple is a very talented and accomplished painter.  He showed me a number of portraits that were in various stages of completion.  What was most interesting to me, however, was the fact that he had several studies in gouache, and was even doing the preliminary underpaintings in gouache.  The intent was to then paint over the gouache with oils.

I have a CD that is a collection of Victorian portrait photographs from the early 1900’s.  Most of the images are women wearing some pretty outrageous hats, but it’s a great source of women’s faces, with no copyright issues.  Using those images, I managed to get several heads to sketch level.  Here are three of them, posted in the same order in which they were done.

All are 8×10, gouache on Crescent board.

I calculate that I spent about an hour on each of these.  While I certainly want to eventually capture a likeness when doing portraits, that wasn’t the primary focus with these.  I tried, of course, but fell short in every case.  The main purpose at the moment is just to work out the brushwork and determine what kind of paint consistency I need to use with these.

Looking back at that last morning in Alabama, since I needed to get on the road for home, we only stayed up in Steve Temple’s studio for a short time.  As a result, I’m working from memory here, but it seems like his studies were done in a very similar fashion to what I’ve done here:  thin washes and layers, with more opaque areas for emphasis or for making corrections.  If I take any of these beyond the sketch stage, they will require considerable time.  Because gouache dries so quickly, getting soft blends for skin tones is a very slow process.

It may be that I’ll continue to do portraits only as sketches like these, and as I get the technique figured out, I’ll just continue working on getting a reasonable likeness.  So far, I’ve worked strictly on strangers’ faces.  It eliminates the pressure of catching a likeness.  I’ll try people I know eventually, but I can tell it’s going to take some time to get them right.

This is a pleasant temporary diversion from landscapes.  I also want to work on figures a bit, so I can put people into some of the landscapes, and begin trying some street scenes again.

For now, it’s just good old fun.


Another study from Tadema

May 25, 2011

From Tadema's 'Vain Courtship', 8x10, Gouache

Another portrait practice piece, this time working from Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Vain Courtship.  Painting from classical masters is an excellent exercise, and working like this is giving me great examples to learn from.

As with the first one, the likeness falls short.  But I did a little experiment in Photoshop, overlaying my study over the original painting.  The face and its features were spot on in terms of size and placement, but the lady looks a bit older in my version, and doesn’t quite have that classic nose.  The shoulders on mine are slightly broader, but the vertical proportions were very, very close.  Not a bad eye for a second shot at this kind of thing.  Yes, the hands are a little funky.  The last time I did any serious figure drawing was the Life Drawing class in college, a very, very long time ago.  I’ve always avoided hands and feet in my artwork.

An interesting note about Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema:    According to the Art Renewal Center, “his painting Antony and Cleopatra recently sold for an astounding  $26,000,000 hammer.  With the premiums, the buyer will pay  $29,202,500.  This is the second highest price ever paid for a 19th century Academic painting, coming only second to Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses, which brought $35,922,500 just six months ago.”

Not a bad master to learn from.

Old Red Mill ~ Albertville, Alabama

May 24, 2011

Old Red Mill, Albertville, Alabama, 11x14, Gouache

My friend Estra Reynolds posted a photo of this old mill on Facebook a while back, and I loved it.  Having been to Alabama recently for the Southeastern Plein Air Invitational, I asked Estra if I could use the photo for a painting.  Estra is the wife of Craig Reynolds, my artist friend in Gadsden, Alabama, and she graciously allowed me to use the photo.

I haven’t found any historical information about this old mill.  I did find an interesting fact about Albertville, Alabama, however, and it seems fitting in light of recent events in that part of the country.  On April 24, 1908, a tornado ripped through Albertville, nearly wiping it off the map.  102 years later, on April 24, 2010, Albertville was again hit by an F3 tornado, damaging or destroying at least 200 homes and businesses.  I don’t know how old this old mill is, but it has definitely stood the ravages of time so far.

I enjoy painting these old places.  There have to be some stories surrounding this one.

From Tadema… a head study in gouache

May 20, 2011

I would not normally post twice in the same day, but we have company coming for the weekend.  Since this one went a little faster than I expected, I’ll go ahead and post it.  After several days of drawing faces from old masters’ paintings, I was eager to try painting one.

From Tadema, 10x8, Gouache

I’m an unapologetic fan of the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  Some people today consider his work too sweet… too “pretty”.  To each his own, I suppose, but I think his work is quite beautiful, especially his romanticized paintings of women.  I would love to be able to paint women with the sensitivity that he was able to bring to a canvas.  This little head study was taken from Alma-Tadema’s A Coign of Vantage (an advantageous position), painted in 1895.  It’s just now occurred to me that, since the original painting is only 25″ x 17.5″, the head in my study is probably pretty close to the same size as the original.

This was done in about three hours.  I’d be tempted to spend more time on it, to see if I can smooth out and refine the brushwork, but I probably will just leave it alone.  This is probably the best face I’ve painted in gouache so far, and I would really hate to ruin it.  It passes the five foot test.

I feel pretty good about this one.

More faces…

May 20, 2011

While forced to stay out of the studio yesterday, I did some more faces in pencil, borrowing from paintings by Masters.  With one exception, all of these were done on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper.  The drawing was done with graphite pencil, with a few touches of Prismacolor terra cotta and white pencils.  Only one of these scanned with the proper color of the paper, but it was the drawing practice that was important, anyway.  Here are some of yesterday’s work.  There were others, but I think these are the best of the lot…

More portrait sketches

May 18, 2011

The studio was painted over the weekend, and left empty for the carpet cleaners, who are scheduled to come tomorrow.  Since the studio has been unusable, I’ve spent the time sitting in my easy chair, continuing to rekindle my love affair with the pencil.  I spent part of the afternoon working on a portrait drawing, then after dinner did some quick sketches.  I’ll show the sketches first.  These are all small sketches, the largest around 5×7, and the smallest around 4×5.  I probably spent a total of 4 to 5 hours on all of them combined:

This little grouping was taken from several Rembrandt paintings.  His portraits are wonderful to study and work from because he was such a master of light and shadow.  These are on colored Canson Mi Tientes paper, using some very plain school pencils and Prismacolor white and terra cotta pencils.

I believe the sketch above was taken from a John Singer Sargent portrait.  It was done very quickly, which didn’t do the lady justice, I’m afraid.  This is such a classic face that it deserves to be done more deliberately with much more time and care taken.  But it was a good exercise for me.  Unfortunately, reference material is hard to come by for this type of portrait without having to worry about copyright issues.  I need to talk to my daughters…

The face above was taken from a William Adolph Bouguereau painting.  I missed it completely by doing it far too quickly, but again a good exercise, so I’ll post it anyway.

And then there was the major piece of the day… unfinished, but I’ll post it as a work in progress:

The Other Thinker, 8x10, Pencil (in progress)

I found this image at a copyright-free site online.  Along with the Rembrandts, it’s my kind of portrait.  I haven’t done a drawing like this in a very long time, and decided to take my time with it.  I may have 2-3 hours in it so far, but keep in mind that I do these sitting in front of the TV, so the time factor is kind of irrelevant.  What’s important is my love for this kind of work.  I’ve shied away from it in recent years because it takes a heavy toll on my eyes.  But some things just have to be done.  Besides, it’s time to get my eyes checked again, anyway.

I’ll continue to work on this guy tomorrow while the carpet cleaners are doing their thing upstairs.

Portrait explorations continued…

May 15, 2011

The studio got painted over the weekend, and isn’t back in operating mode yet.  So on Sunday, I spent a few hours doing pencil portrait sketches from photographs.  Here are a few attempts at sketching a nephew, my boys, a grandchild, and a son-in-law.  I stress that they are “attempts”, because the likenesses are pretty weak at this point.  Nonetheless, these are really fun to do.  I estimate that I spent less than an hour on each of them.

My nephew Kevin can grow hair faster than anyone I know. His family will probably not want me to encourage him, but I love this image of him. I'll keep working at it until I get the likeness closer. For now, it was just plain fun to do.


My two boys, Chuck (above) and Dale (below) are favorite subjects, even though I struggle to get strong likenesses. I have another pose of Dale, but I liked the one below for now, because it was a bit different.

I'll continue to work on getting a good likeness of Isabella. In this one, one of the eyes is out of whack pretty bad as well.

Son-in-law Scott bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Clean. I came close here, but it's still not quite right.


The interesting thing about portraits is that if one doesn’t know the subject, one has no idea if the likeness is anywhere close to the reality.  I could have done without the caption notes here, I suppose, but there will be some who will want to know who the subjects are, and family will be likely to say, “well, that doesn’t look like him/her at all”.  So I figured I’d go ahead and qualify things up front.  While I am trying to get a likeness, I am also trying to do good sketches.  The drawing part is working.  I’ll continue to strive for a better likeness in every case as I continue to experiment with portraits.