The Iphone as a Painting Tool

A short post on using an Iphone as a black mirror. Like most of my tips, this is not my idea and I understand this has been common practice for a while at the ateliers like the FAA which teach sight-size. I mentioned it to other painters who hadn’t thought of the idea and it was well-received, so I decided to post it here.

I made the following video a few years ago demonstrating the use of a mirror in sight-size portraiture:

And in the next video of Ben Fenske painting a landscape you can see how often an artist will reach for the mirror while working:

The fact is, the mirror is one of the most efficacious devices for checking shapes and proportions in painting. It can be used without sight-size, but having everything visually locked-in makes the mirror especially powerful as an artist’s tool. For commissioned portraiture, where speed and accuracy are so important, it is really essential.

In landscape painting, artists will often use welding glass (sometimes called a black mirror) as it also greatly reduces the values. This allows the painter to see a value range closer to what they can actually capture in paint, and simplifies the number of values they need to compare.

Enter the Iphone, the $700 black mirror.

The Iphone has a flat, black glass screen and works perfectly for measuring shapes, proportions and values while landscape painting. Most of us also carry our phones around with us all the time. I recently inherited an older Iphone to replace my Nokia. While I’ll miss the maps and the privacy of my previous phone, I hated the rounded screen as I couldn’t use it to check shapes. Since I often forget, lose or break my painting mirrors when I travel, it will be a nice upgrade (that and the fact that iOS supports Instagram so I can stop borrowing the wife’s phone to post).

Update: I recently came across this quote from Leonardo da Vinci in his Treatise on Painting:

It is an acknowledged fact, that we perceive

errors in the works of others more readily than in

our own. A painter, therefore, ought to be well

instructed in perspective, and acquire a perfect

knowledge of the dimensions of the human body;

he should also be a good architect, at least as far

as concerns the outward shape of buildings, with

their different parts ; and where he is deficient,

he ought not to neglect taking drawings from


It will be well also to have a looking-glass by

him, when he paints, to look often at his work in

it, which being seen the contrary way, will appear

as the work of another hand, and will better shew

his faults. It will be useful also to quit his work

often, and take some relaxation, that his judgment

may be clearer at his return ; for too great apph-

cation and sitting still is sometimes the cause of

many gross errors.

The Tuscan Summer

Plein air painting of a woman reading under an olive tree in Chianti.

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 Chianti

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:

Plein air cloud studies from the Tuscan countryside.

Three Tuscan Cloud Studies. 20 x 14 cm ea.

Plein air sketch of laundry and lemon trees, Tuscany.

Laundry and Lemon Trees. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air sketch of hay bales along a road in Chianti

Hay Bales along the Road, Noce. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of Pistoletto's sculpture at Porta Romana

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.

Plein air painting of piazza Santo Spirito, Florence

Piazza Santo Spirito on a Sunday in July. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Portrait Painting from Video

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.

View post on

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.

Portrait in oils of my wife in a gold kimono.

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.

Portrait Time-lapse

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:

Self Portraits over the Years

Every year on my birthday I paint a self portrait. Many I’ve abandoned and destroyed, some years I skipped it, and I lost a hard disk a few years back with the only images of some of them. These are the ones that survived. It’s interesting for me to look back over the years to see the change in my understanding of drawing and painting.

My early attempts were pretty bad. The first two are from my three years at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The art department there wasn’t very didactic, and students were left to their own devices for the most part. All my technical knowledge at this stage was from books. Notice the poor compositions, the poor handling, the poor understanding of form…etc.

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

The second two are from my first years at Charles H. Cecil studios. Notice in the painting the over-modelling of the hair as well as the poor design and annoying fuzziness in the clothes,

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

The portrait on the left was from 2002 (I think), and it starts to show a more mature style. Better design overall, better handling of the paint, and a more successful rendering of atmosphere. On the right is a sketch of Saint Mark’s Church in Venice as I was there on a plein air trip for my birthday one year.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc's Church.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc's Church .

The next three portraits are recent and are more ambitious in scope, being 3/4 and full length with backgrounds. One thing about self portraits is that they can be a great way to experiment with new materials and techniques. The first one was one of the more complicated portraits I had ever set up, and the objects in the background were selected to describe aspects of my life. The second painting was painted on a much heavier weave of canvas than I am used to, and the last one was my first attempt at an outdoor portrait.

Self Potrait, 2007

Self Portrait, 2005.

Self Portrait, 2006

Self Portrait, 2007

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008.

Here is a quick video (2 minutes) showing a time-lapse of this year’s self portrait. My experiment this year was to do the reverse of a grisaille, so I did the underpainting with a high chroma and glazed and scumbled the grays, greens, and browns over it.

(Update: Here is the final image.)

Self Portrait, 2010.

Improvement in oil painting is not a linear progression in my opinion. The ability to see improves before technical skill, and we often have difficulty assessing honestly exactly how our work looks. Below is my attempt at graphing the progression.

(Being my first attempt at visually interpreting quantitative information, it probably looks similar to the self portraits at the top of the post.)