Here, quickly, are a few small paintings from last week in Tuscany. I was there doing some organizational stuff, and didn’t have a lot of time to paint. I was also enjoying a bit of a break after all my work for the South Carolinian show in May.
Portrait of a Young Girl. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.
Ben Painting at the Torricella. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Outdoor Self Portrait. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.
I painted only portraits and still-lifes. As I’ve wrtten before, the Chianti region of Italy is one of the most beautiful places in the world to visit, but the ‘big views’ aren’t great for plein air painting. The small olive trees make for poor compositional elements, the hills are too close together, and the ubiquitous vineyards consist of parallel lines, which landscape painters do best to avoid.
Here, quickly, is a turban portrait I did last month during the overcast and rainy days we had on Korčula. It’s for a turban/hat-themed group show this fall at Ann Long Fine Art in Charleston, SC.
Below are a few of the sketches we tried with various styles of turban. The one we settled on was bought on Ebay, and shipped from Turkey. I had actually wanted a more Venetian-style turban, as it fit with our setting, but getting these things right is more complicated than one would think. These paintings were all done in one sitting with very unsuitable light. We were on a terrace with only reflected light off of the garden around us. It’s always interesting trying new lighting set-ups, though having one strong light source makes for a much simpler painting experience.
I was trying it out recently on this large plein air figurative piece, and in my sketches from Copenhagen. The Blue Ridge version dries faster than what I’m used to using. I know that’s a plus for a lot of artists and it certainly is for me when I travel. During longer projects though, like the one posted above, I sometimes like to scrape down a fresh painting at the start of the next session, and this medium dries too quickly for that -just a heads up.
The recipe is a variation of the medium developed by Charles Cecil and is originally based, in part, on the writings of Theodore de Mayerne. De Mayerne was a Swiss doctor who was friends with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. He wrote one of the rare documents discussing painting materials of the 17th-century, and he appears to have consulted with both Rubens and Van Dyck regularly on their opinions. His writings discuss straw-colored Strasbourg turpentine and thickening oil with lead in the sun, as well as many other art material related topics. You can buy an English translation online.
While I much prefer the smell of Strasbourg turpentine to Canada balsam, the Strasbourg turpentine sometimes beads a lot when beginning again on a dry painting. (Looking closely at Isaac Levitan’s paintings you can see the same beading, which makes me wonder what he was using).
At any rate, it’s a great medium for laying-in (add some turpentine), as well as glazing at the end of a project. I’ve been using it for over twenty years now and my early pieces are all in fine condition.
Tina Reading under an Olive Tree. 110 cm x 90 cm, oil on linen.
Here are a few paintings from the last week in Tuscany. I did this large portrait of my wife reading under an olive tree. Being able to get far back is really great for painting portraits, even outside (I’ve discussed this before).
Here was the set-up:
Plein air portraiture in the Tuscan countryside.
As idyllic as it looks, it was ridiculously hot. After the last four hour midday session I got sick from the heat and had cold sweats, nausea and a headache. An occupational hazard.
These were some of the smaller sketches:
Three Tuscan Cloud Studies. 20 x 14 cm ea.
Laundry and Lemon Trees. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Hay Bales along the Road, Noce. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Pistoletto’s “Headache” at Porta Romana, 20 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
The above painting went face-down into the dirt when the dog pulled the easel over, hence the debris. Another occupational hazard. The trick to getting much of the dirt or sand out is to let the painting dry completely, then clean it.
Piazza Santo Spirito on a Sunday in July. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Wedding Sketch #1 (The Ceremony). 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.
This is an idea I’ve wanted to try for a while. Everyone knows that 150 years ago, painters had all the image-making gigs. Today those have all gone to photographers, but one thought I’ve often had at outdoor weddings is that it would be a great occasion for a plein air painter. They can be very picturesque events. Also, since often a great deal of effort goes into making memories of the event for the couple, what better way than non-fugitive paints on oil-primed linen which will last a thousand years while decorating their decedents’ walls?
Wedding Sketch #2 (Afternoon Coffee). 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.
I’m sure this has been done before, but at a couple of friends’ wedding this weekend I tried batting out some small sketches. It was interesting trying to set up and predict where everything would happen. Also, many of the situations are fleeting and the artist has to work fast (or tell people to pose).
I only got a couple of sketches done, but it was a fun experiment nonetheless. Plus it was the first time I’ve painted in a suit and tie.
I dislike working from photographs. I was trained over many years working exclusively from life and my work from photos is often weak. I find there is too little information in a photograph compared to life, and I can’t trust a photo for values, shapes or colors. While I have pulled out a decent painting or two from photos, it was mostly a case of luck.
Occasionally for commissioned portraits the clients wont give me enough sittings and I’m forced to use a photograph. A problem specific to painting portraits from photographs is that you only get one expression from the sitter. The beauty of working from life, for me, is that you can change the subject’s expression as you work. A portrait painted from life ends up as a composite of many aspects of the sitter’s personality. One painted eye can say one thing about their personality, the other eye can say something else.
An idea I’ve had over the years as a means of resolving this problem is to paint from a looped video of the sitter, rather than a static photograph. That way I would be able to study the changes in expression and pick the best moments to use for the features of the sitter, thus creating a more complete portrait of the subject’s personality.
An advantage of a looped video over even a live model is that portrait models often get bored while sitting. I find it difficult to keep them entertained with conversation and concentrated on the portrait at the same time. Below is a short looped gif of my wife posing for a portrait I’ve been working on, showing the moment she lights up and laughs. By playing the loop on a television next to the canvas I could, in theory, choose various frames to study for a more animated expression.
Tina sat the whole time for this particular portrait. I did play around with the shapes and studied the muscle movements from a looped video on the tv (since neither of us watches tv, I’ve moved it to the studio to experiment with). Below is the result.
Tina in a Kimono. 70 x 60 cm, oil on linen
The best DSLRs on the market for video at the moment are the GH series from Panasonic. I have two old GH1s I got for next to nothing when the GH2s came out. Both the GH1 and GH2 can be hacked to greatly improve the amount of information that the camera records. This, for anyone attempting to paint from video, is a big advantage.
I think video could be a good addition to the arsenal of any professional portrait painter who works from photographs.
This is a portrait I did of a friend a few years ago. As a last-minute idea I set my old cellphone on a chair and had it take a photo every few minutes over the course of the week. The battery kept dying and people kept bumping into the chair so the already-poor-quality image jumps around a lot. My apologies. I found the pictures recently and threw them together:
Emma. Portrait of the Artist's Dog. Oil on linen, 40 x 35 in, 2010.
For Valentines day (and our anniversary), my wife wanted a portrait of our dog, Emma. I’ve tried to paint her from life a couple of times but she tends to curl up into a little black ball and generally resists any attempt of mine to keep her looking even slightly picturesque. The other day I was photographing paintings in the studio though, and she hopped on a little stool next to me and struck different poses for about 5 minutes.
The dog was painted from the photo, and the background was painted from life. The sketches behind her are mostly from our neighborhood where she goes walking everyday.
Luckily my wife was pleased. In my experience, people are often much harsher critics of a likeness when it comes to portraits of dogs than of people.