Thursday, July 23, 2009

Portrait of Scarlett: Step-by-Step

I thought I'd give everyone a break from my philosophical rants and show a demo of a recent study I completed. Paintings such as these are only for my personal development and not for sale. My original paintings will be done from live models or my own photos, if necessary.

My reference picture is something I found on the internet of actress Scarlett Johansson. Mainly, I'm working on my drawing skills with brush and paint (instead of painting over a charcoal drawing). You can click on any of the images to see a larger version. For you painters out there, I've noted the color mixtures used in each step.

Step 1: Value Block-in

I'm just putting some color down to place and size the head on the canvas. I also want to see the value relationships between the areas in light vs. the areas in shadow. Flesh color mixed with Cad. Orange, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium White. Shadow color is a mix of Burnt Sienna with a little Viridian.

Step 2: Painting the Eyes and Nose

Starting to get the main features of the face and putting some of the hair color in so I can evaluate the flesh color against something other than the white of the canvas. Hair color mixed with Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Titanium White, and a touch of Viridian. I add Ultramarine or Alizarin Crimson to the flesh color to warm or cool it for various areas of the face. I take the eyes and nose to a fairly high level of finish before moving on to make sure my value relationships are reading correctly.

Step 3: Painting the Mouth and Neck

I mark in the lips and shadow under the chin. At this point I'm unhappy with the placement of the features and start looking for my propane torch to use the panel as kindling. Damn, no torch. I step back and take a good long look to see what isn't working for me. After 3 cups of coffee and a lot of cussing, I realize the eyes are too small, too far apart, and at the wrong angle. The hair on the right side of her head extends too far away from her face. Nose is too big, and lips are too full.

Step 4: Fixing the Drawing

That's better. I've corrected the things I saw in the previous step and continue refining shapes. In the past I would have wiped the painting off and started over, but I wanted to force myself to find the problems and fix them this time.

Step 5: Block in Sweater and Hand

I adjust the shape of the lips and start modeling them using mainly the flesh color warmed with Cad. Red and Alizarin. I block in the sweater with a mixture of Burnt Sienna with a touch of Viridian and mark the location of the hand.

Step 6: Finish

"Scarlett" Oil on Linen 11" x 14"

I model the hand very simply so as not to detract from my main focal point of the head. Paint in a background so I have some paint to work edges as I finish out the hair. Add a darker, cooler color over the sweater using Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue, keeping it loose to indicate the folds in the material.

Photographs don't record color well, so I've compressed the value range down so the darks don't go black and the lights are not pure white. Something you learn when you paint from life.

I could have easily worked on this for another week, but its just an exercise, so I'll put this one to bed and start on something else.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Talent is irrelevant

"You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through." ~ Rosalynn Carter

Its hard for me to go a week without someone telling me how talented I am. Quite honestly, I hate hearing that. The reason I hate it so much is because I don't believe in talent. However, I have learned over time that its usually best just to reply with a simple, "Thanks" and move on.

People seem to want to believe there is something magical about someone's ability to do any creative act whether it be music, painting, dancing, or anything else that requires a certain level of skill. I can tell you, there is no magic. Talent is one of those things that is always assigned after the fact. No one sees the hundreds, if not thousands of hours spent alone practicing, studying, and developing the skill required to do it. They only see the the end result of all that work.

I admit, people may be "wired" differently that give them an edge in doing a certain activity, but as far as I'm concerned that edge is razor thin, if it even exists. Furthermore, it seems preposterous to say that anyone is predisposed to perform activities that are a human creation such as painting. Human history extends back over 2 million years and yet its only been about 600 hundred years since human beings could paint a picture of other humans in any realistic sense (humans were able to accomplish this in sculpture over a thousand years earlier). If there was a thing such as "talent" I would think this would have happened much sooner. To say one has a talent for painting (or drawing) is like saying someone has a talent for playing video games. Did the talent for that activity exist before the existence of the activity? While your brain circles that question for a while lets consider that maybe what we call talent is simply a heightened sense of things.

We experience the world through our senses and some people may have senses more acute in one area than another. For instance a person with a heightened sense of taste may be a better chef or wine maker than others. A person with a heightened sense of smell may be better at developing perfumes. A person with better vision may be better at painting. Wait. Really? It seems ridiculous to say one can be a better painter because they have better vision. I'm near sighted and on top of that, I have monocular vision. Due to complications at birth, my right eye was damaged and I'm nearly blind in that eye, so I've learned to see mostly with my left eye. Clearly I do not have an advantage in the visual arena.

So what is talent? Well, I don't ask that question because its irrelevant to me. Whether talent exists or not, whether it can be defined or not, does not make a difference in what I choose to do. I've always been in awe of the beauty around me and I've always wanted a way to depict that beauty in some way. I chose to do it in paint. That interest in the visual world motivated me to learn and practice drawing from a very young age. As a boy I spent countless hours at the library or book stores studying books on drawing and painting. I filled countless notebooks with my sketches. I got into trouble countless times for doodling when I should have been paying attention to something else.

The reason I am trying to dispel the myth of talent is this - I think the idea of talent is one of the more prevalent self-limiting beliefs in our society. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard in my life, "wow, I would love to do that, but I just don't have any talent." Even when I explain to people that talent is unnecessary for them to learn how to draw or paint, they still don't do it because they can't let go of the notion that some magical innate ability is a prerequisite. Not once have I been asked by one of these people to teach them how to draw or paint. I can only chuckle and think to myself, "how much 'love' can they really have for doing it if they won't even try."

I think its damaging to society for people to believe that such a thing as talent exists. I'd rather they believe anything is possible with hard work and dedication. To understand that knowledge precedes execution. To strive for excellence and mastery. To be critical of oneself and not be satisfied with things being "good enough". Obviously its not healthy to be overly critical of oneself. That is why I am my biggest fan, as well as my worst critic. I think the combination is necessary to stay motivated in what I am doing while always looking for ways to improve. Attaining mastery in any activity is a life-long pursuit. Its chasing perfection, knowing that you can never catch it. But its a noble pursuit nonetheless. As Robert Henri says, "It's a wrong idea that a master is a finished person. Masters are very faulty, they haven't learned everything and they know it. Finished persons are very common - people who are closed up, quite satisfied that there is little or nothing more to learn."

As with any activity, the most difficult and important step is the first one. Finishing is not nearly as difficult as starting. That is true whether its painting a masterpiece or a running a marathon. So what are you waiting for? Get started.