Pesky portraits, problem pastels! I thought it only fair to have a go at making a portrait of my Dad next. But he wasn’t very compliant when it came to having his photo done, and I didn’t have the time to do him from life when I last saw him. The light was very bright and squinty (for a change), and he wouldn’t behave! This theme has continued with this portrait…
Quite apart from having to re-draw the outlines several times as I’d just got them plain wrong, one of the biggest challenges here was the beard. The end result looks something like bits of Roger, but not entirely like him. I think I might have to have another go at a later date, but I can’t face it today! Why do we do these things?
Today has been my first venture into a pastel portrait of someone else (other than me). Against all advice in the books, I chose my lovely Mum. Partly this was because I had the opportunity to photograph her when others were coy, and partly because I really wanted the chance to make a very close study of her.
Of course, we think we know people’s faces, and on one level we do. But I hadn’t realised how much detail there is in a well-known face that we just take for granted – the curve of a smile, the shape of a nose. I know it’s been said before, but trying to put that down on paper totally changes the way I’m looking at faces. This was no exception.
The end result isn’t perfect, as anyone who knows my Mum will testify. But I think there’s enough of a likeness there for her to be recognised by this portrait, and I feel that’s a step forward for me.
It was Andrew Marr’s title A Short Book About Drawing which woke me up to the possibilities and immediacy of working on a tablet.
So far, I’ve been impressed by the Brushes app for iPad. It’s so intuitive, it is very easy to get started ‘painting’ and experimenting. Although I wouldn’t want to be confined to digital art, it does offer some true benefits. One of the great advantages of drawing on a tablet is that it allows you to work in very low light conditions which present tremendous difficulties for traditional media. Plus, it requires no effort to get materials out and clearing up is a press of a button. Marvellous.
Here’s two similar pictures I’ve produced – one is using Brushes, the other’s in Conte pastels. It was an interesting experiment – the experimental digital version came first, and was much quicker (albeit not as accurate)!
Following my previous day’s work, I was very hesitant to knuckle down to this one, fearing that I’d take a step back. I finally took myself by the scruff of the neck and settled down to it.
I’d been tending to spend an increasing amount of time on the portraits, which coincided with using the dark boards, and this one took about 2 hours in total. The day was very changeable, and the light kept varying, which didn’t help; work was interrupted by a vast thunderstorm in the middle of the afternoon. I did make an effort to try to look less severe in this one; that was a struggle in itself.
However, persistence was finally rewarded. After some re-drawing of the features in the initial sketch (using the trusty white pencil) I finally produced a self-portrait which I think does capture ‘me’. It’s by no means perfect, but I’m encouraged that the progress from 7 days ago has been significant. It’s enough to make me want to go on and extend my experience to other people – anyone want to sit for me?
Armed and dangerous with a white CarbOthello pencil, I thought it was time to try another 3/4 view. I kept all the other factors the same – dark board, mix of pastels. And away I went.
Using the pencil helped enormously – I could actually see my guidelines, and what’s more the eraser worked on them too where necessary. Great stuff.
To my surprise this portrait worked out quite well. The pastels gave a good skin tone, and technically I was learning to handle them much more adeptly, and to combine the very soft pastels with the harder Contes where finer detail was needed. Although the expression on the face is rather worried and intense, it did turn out to have a bit of me in it. I felt that with the new board and pastels, and a huge amount of focus, I’d made a great leap forward. What a relief.
I’m back, and armed with 3 new flesh-coloured pastels and some lovely dark blue/grey mountboard. Oh yes. Just looking at the board made me itch to get started.
What I didn’t consider was that I wouldn’t be able to see the pencil outline on the dark board. So I spent quite a long time adjusting my position to try to get the light to shine onto the graphite to give me a chance at getting features in the right place. It wasn’t really enough though, and I knew I was going to need a better solution.
Once I got going, the new Reeves skintone pastels worked a treat, and went on beautifully, blending where necessary with the Conte pastels. This time I’d scraped my hair right back so that I could actually see the shape of my face properly. It did help somewhat, and revealed the contrasts in light and shade that were produced by sitting alongside the kitchen window.
In summary, this was a better effort, but still looked like someone else, not me. I couldn’t stop now, maybe the next one would be the one?
Day four, and back for more punishment. I dug out another piece of spare mount board, and having re-read Betty Edwards last night, tried again, face-on. I truly did try to do the measurements…it just turned out that the picture looked nothing like me, but like some poor (much younger, still intense) soul with mumps.
It’s so hard to see the truth while drawing, and to identify where things aren’t going right. If this had been an object, I would have turned the picture upside down to try to discover what exactly was wrong. But it wasn’t until I’d finished and left the picture that I realised the multitude of dimensions which aren’t right in this one – nose too long, eyes too far apart, face too round… it’s a long list. Plus, no bright blue jumpers in future.
So, I vowed next time to observe more and worry less about what the guidelines in the book say. On the up-side, I also decided I really needed some better, flesh-coloured soft pastels and different board. So off to the art shop – hurray!
It was time to try a different view. I set up the mirror for a 3/4 view, and worked quite quickly, this time on a smooth board. Time spent was again under an hour. I was getting somewhat more accurate with proportion, partly just through repeated looking and intense focus – which you can definitely see in the expression. Peering out of the corner of your eyes at yourself can become very tiresome. It also turns out that getting your eyes to look as if they are pointing in the same direction can be really difficult.
From this one I took that the smooth board provides a really good surface for working the pastels, even those which are relatively hard like the Contes.
I just had to try the self portrait again, to see if I could improve. This time I took some advice and found a piece of leftover mount board to sketch on; I didn’t worry too much at the time that it was a sludgy green. That, it turned out, was a mistake.
Overnight I’d done some reading about portraits, mostly from Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’d been impressed by the way she managed, in just 5 days, to get her pupils from producing childish pictures to credible self-portraits. How hard could it be?
Betty gives a lot of useful advice about proportion and relationship between one area of the head and another. I used these techniques in my next picture. They did help, but the portrait I produced looked extremely cross and still didn’t look like me. In fact my son dubbed it Shrek princess, partly due to the green background which shows through the pastels (lesson learned).
I was encouraged that at least the board was a better surface than the heavily textured paper I had previously used, but decided that next time I would choose an even smoother card. And maybe not focus quite so much on the jowls…