As a life painter, one of the things I struggle with most is getting a likeness of the model. I’m getting better at finding the form of the body and limbs and at getting the proportions closer to right, but a likeness, as with getting the hands and feet right, is a bit hit and miss with me. I’ve been thinking about some ways to improve on both aspects of my work.
Firstly, I think the important thing to realise is that the scale of a face (or the hands and feet) is different to that of the rest of the figure. In other words, you sort of have to mentally “zoom in” and notice things on a smaller scale. That also means you need to use smaller brushes, I think. You just can’t get the same level of detail on the hands, feet and face, with the same brushes you use to delineate the body and limbs.
Secondly, there may be some merit in placing the eyes, nose and mouth first, before you shape the face, chin, neck, hair and ears. I think this might work because these are the things we gaze upon first, when we recognise a person (in general). The way we tell one person from another has a lot to do with recognising their eyes, the line of their mouth and how the mouth and eyes relate to the shape and location of their nose. I’ve always painted the head shape first, then the ears and hair. That gives reasonable results, but it can leave you with unwanted compromises, when placing the eyes and mouth into that already defined framework, in particular. Sometimes, the way you have defined the face shape means you just cannot get the eyes, nose and mouth to fit convincingly. It might be better to work the other way around, placing the features first, then framing them with the rest of the face. Again, you need to be working in a zoomed in way of looking, with finer line work.
Thirdly, even with smaller brushes, you have to learn how to make fine lines by pushing one colour of paint against another, on the canvas, until the transition between them is a fine roll of paint. In other words, your brush is much larger than the line you want to arrive at, but by painting a first stroke, then another of a different shade, you can work the paint, while wet on the canvas, pushing it against the first brush stroke, until what remains is a fine line between them. You’ll need this technique for lip lines and for eyelids, in particular and it’s hard to master. Go too far and you simply mix the first paint with the other. That’s not the desired result at all.
Fourthly, lip lines have to be almost exactly right, or you lose the likeness rapidly. More than anything else, I think, the lip line (that line made where the upper and lower lips meet) can make or break a portrait. Eye shape and placement also make a big difference. The shape of the nose, particularly around the nostrils, also needs to be just right. If you can get those elements right, then you need to concentrate on the delicate gradations of shade to sculpt the cheek bones and smile lines, around the mouth. I find the transition from eye socket to cheek to side of the nose is particularly hard to get just right.
Another thing that seems to be critical in getting the face to look right, in a portrait, is facial symmetry. Many faces are asymmetrical, in fact. However, if you exaggerate the asymmetry or if you correct it, to make the face more symmetrical, you’ll lose the likeness. It’s a very delicate balance to achieve.
Finally, it’s amazing how if you paint the neck too long or too short, too thick or too thin, offset wrongly or too symmetrical, you can destroy a likeness. A badly rendered neck can ruin a portrait.
Here are some useful pictures I found on the Internet. They point out the main features of the face, which most people (self included) don’t even know the names of:
With hands and feet, what seems to work best is to imagine the skeletal bones beneath and place those. You have to imagine, because you cannot observe them (they’re covered in flesh), but it’s the schematic layout of the digits or toes that makes all the difference. Also, imagining block geometric shapes, instead of the individual appendages, helps you place the overall shape of the hands and feet correctly, in relation to the arms or legs. It’s almost worth painting them as blocks first, then picking out the individual fingers or toes, as appropriate. This also applies to the bones of the wrist. You need to get those lumps right and in correct relation to the hand and fingers. Knowing where the fingers end, relative to each other, is critical, as is getting the details of the shadows on a folded palm, if the hand is held that way. Rendering the shadows made by fingers curled toward the palm or of the concave palm itself, accurately, can really help make the hand look convincing. Deliberate placement of the knuckles and joints also helps paint a realistic hand.
I always find hands and feet a challenge, because they require detailed observation and fine line rendition. When painting wet on wet, in a hurry, because of limited time in front of the model, this is a hard thing to do, especially when you also have to finish the rest of the canvas as well. What you need, to get a very good likeness and to render the hands and feet convincingly, is time. You also sometimes need to let the paint you’ve already applied dry, so that it doesn’t mix or move with paint applied over it. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to get a muddy sludge, on the canvas, instead of crisp transitions from tone to tone.
My life class is on a break, over Easter, so it will be a few weeks before I can try out some of the improvements I want to make to my faces, hands and feet. To earn the time to really get those right, I have to find a way to paint faster before the mid-lesson coffee break, so that I have the bulk of the background and the figure substantially placed and the hands, feet, eyes and mouth in the right place, allowing ten or fifteen minutes of drying time during the break, before I get down to the fine details after coffee. With acrylics, using a medium that speeds up the drying might be the way to go. The acrylics I use have controllable open time (within some limits, but you can vary it). There isn’t a lot of time available, before the break, so that’s going to be the real challenge.
My approach will be to still keep the flow and freshness of the brush strokes that my work usually has, but to use them in the service of maintaining the likeness. In other words, it still won’t be a photo-realistic, precise, camera-like rendition of the face, but the suggestion of the facial features, due to where the strokes are placed and how the tones transition, will be the things to capture and preserve, even when using wild, false colours, or extravagant brush gestures.
Placing wild, flamboyant brush strokes is, in fact, a very precise art. You only get to make the stroke once, but it has to sit on the canvas in exactly the right place to keep the viewer convinced of the likeness. It resembles target practice, more than painting. More than anything, you have to place each stroke with confidence, so that you are not tempted to play with it, overwork it and merge your colours into a uniform, muddy sludge, thereby losing all facial definition. It is far better to place the stroke and walk away, than to fiddle about with it, even if it is wrong. If the paint dries in time, you can have another stab at correcting the stroke, but if time does not permit, you’re stuck with it.
You can, with care, push the already applied wet paint around on the canvas, especially using those silicone colour shapers or with the wooden end of your brush or even with a small palette knife, but I find these destroy the freshness and texture of the original brush stroke. In correcting the position of the mark, you change its character and that impinges on the overall finish and style of your work, so it’s a compromise. Sometimes, it’s better to scrape the paint back off the canvas with a palette knife, give the surface a minute or two to dry a bit and start again.
Anyway, there you have it. A catalogue of everything I have ever done wrong, when painting faces, hands and feet, so far. I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes, even as I work to develop my technique to correct the mistakes I’ve already made. In every case, painting against the clock places extra demands on your technique and your overall schedule or work plan, when creating a painting. I like to finish a painting in a single session, so that constrains a lot of what I can actually get done in the time, while the paint is still wet. The trade-off I make, for getting a fresh, vibrant work in a single sitting, is a lack of detail and definition.
The trick, for me, is to place the right strokes in the right places, very quickly, so that I still capture the essence of the model and produce a convincing likeness. More importantly, once placed, I have to be careful not to wreck the effect by overworking the features. I do this a lot. The key to solving this is in placing the brush stroke in just the right place, initially, instead of trying to fix it on the canvas. That way, I won’t be tempted to mess it up.
I’m still learning.