When I show people one of my self-portraits, the reaction is usually one of the following:
- You look so serious.
- Do you really see yourself like that? How low is your self-esteem?
- Is this an abstract piece?
- Hmmm… So, did you see that YouTube video about the kitten with the Hitler moustache…?
Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to people not seeing the faintest resemblance between me and my attempts at a likeness. But I’ve never had this happen before:
After a recent portrait session at the studio, I brought home my work to show Tony. Proudly, I thrust it under his nose, awaiting the words of praise and admiration that were just on the tip of his tongue. They came out like this:
“Is this you?”
It was hard to be offended because the model had been rather handsome. Not just any kind of handsome, but handsome in that generally-accepted, movie-star sort of way. Still, it was disappointing that I was not able to clearly differentiate this fellow’s face from my own, especially when we share so little in common, besides our good looks.
See for yourself.
This picture came together fairly quickly. It took only about half of the two-hour-session to complete. The first half hour was spent sketching out a couple of options for the composition, eventually settling on this one. Using a pencil, I quickly indicated the main shapes of the face, and made sure the spacial relationships between those shapes were accurate.
Next, I started to block in the areas of medium shadows with some diluted black watercolor, then quickly layered on some darker shades. The focus for this painting was going to be a full, descriptive range of shading, rather than color. Black watercolor was used instead of ink because they always put more of it in the little kits than a person can ever really use. (Yes, I use the same Prang sets that supportive grandparents give their grandchildren for Christmas or Hannukah.)
Some areas of the portrait got special attention. The eye came together almost by magic, and I just made sure not to get in the way or over-work it. On the other hand, I was very careful about the shape of the mouth and the nose.
With all of these gray washes in place, the picture was starting to feel appropriately life-like. Still, it just wasn’t that interesting. With only 15 minutes left in the session, I stumbled across the solution by accident.
The model’s shirt needed more definition, on the collar. I used a strong black line to jot that in, reflecting a slightly crumpled feel.
The quality of the line was magical.
I applied a similar line to the lower part of the model’s face, outlining some of the features for extra definition, but skipping others, so as not to make things too predictable. The eyes and ear were left alone, but the hair got the treatment.
There was a real danger of this artificial line flattening the image or making it look like a cartoon, but I think that was mostly avoided. Instead it gave some real character to what had been a so-so study in value.
But before I take my victory lap, there’s one final detail to point out. If you think you’re seeing some color in this painting, you are right. Early on, I had considered using a little bit of color mixed into the black. Some warm violet made its way into the upper left quarter of the wall and hair, while some blue showed up by the model’s shoulder before I abandoned approach altogether.
You’re not going crazy. At least not yet.
(Remember to click on the image for a closer look, and also: please share this blog with your friends…)
Tell me where have you been
Oh, black-eyed mannequin
– from “You Ain’t Me” by Frank Black