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.

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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.

Myanmar – the Local Talent

Maung Thiha painting near the Sulamani temple.

Maung Thiha painting near the Sulamani temple.

While in Bagan I was fortunate enough to meet a group of Burmese landscape painters centered around a teacher, Maung Thiha. They work mostly in watercolor en plein air, and paint in acrylics from photos in their studios. Apparently, a century ago, a Burmese painter (whose name I forget) studied in London and then returned to Myanmar to teach at the art school in Mandalay. Today there are a number of working painters and teachers artistically descended from this one individual.

Lin perched on a pagoda, near the Sulamani temple.

Lin perched on a pagoda, near the Sulamani temple.

Having local painters to show me the best spots (and drive me around on their scooters) helped immensely. In exchange, I left them painting equipment and took some of Maung Thiha’s watercolors to try to sell for him in the off-season. Here are a couple of his watercolors, contact me if you are interested in purchasing one of these gems.

Burma Road by Maung Thiha. 30 x 40 cm, watercolor. (SOLD)

Dhammayangyi at Dawn by Maung Thiha. 35 x 25 cm, watercolor, 2009.

On the last day, the maestro asked me if I would paint his portrait. I only had time for a short sketch, but one of his students filmed the whole thing and I tried my best to explain sight-size portraiture while working.

Sight-size portraiture in New Bagan.

Sight-size portraiture in New Bagan.

The portrait sketch after an hour or so.

The portrait sketch after an hour or so.

We also had a small exhibition towards the end of the trip and invited the local artists. It was quite interesting to get their feedback on what subjects they liked from our oeuvre. One problem I had when they were trying to show me their favorite spots was that they wanted to paint the ruins which looked like European ruins, whereas I was interested in the more exotic (to me) subjects. I got the feeling they were a bit bored of painting temples and pagodas (there are almost 3000 in the 20 mile radius around them).

Our end-of-the-trip exhibition.

Our end-of-the-trip exhibition.

The interaction with this group of painters was probably a high point of the trip. If anyone else is planning a plein air excursion to Myanmar and will be passing through Bagan, I would highly recommend you stop by the Heritage gallery in New Bagan and ask them to show you the good spots.

Sunday morning time-lapse fun

Here is a short video from a quick portrait sketch yesterday morning. After a one-shot session like this I usually end up with a ton of paint on the canvas from pushing shapes around quickly. This is where scraping down with a palette knife is so useful. In fact, I would say scraping down between sessions at the beginning of a portrait is probably the second most useful thing I learned while studying portraiture (the first being the sight-size technique).

I have a short video of the scraping down process which I’ll add soon.


The front page of the Repubblica Firenze earlier this week.

The front page of the Repubblica Firenze earlier this week.

So I made the papers this week. A friend’s jewelry school was burgled a month or so ago the theives made off with 3 of my paintings. This week the police busted up the ring and in the appartment where they kept the stash there was a large collection of stolen art.

In the photos that made the papers they are holding up an old portrait of mine from ten years ago. Somewhat flattering I suppose.

I remember when I was studying painting in school there was a rash of thefts one week. The students who lost their work were upset for obvious reasons, but what was interesting was that the students whose work wasn’t stolen were also upset about the thief’s presumed offense to their skill.

Perhaps theft is really the sincerest form of flattery.

Lighting the model in portraits

This post is for my portrait student in our discussion about lighting the model for portraits. I quickly pasted together a few examples to explain myself better.

The classic 3/4 view in portrait lighting. Light on both sides of the face with a strong ‘Van Dyck Z’. Painter stands between the window and the model:

Portrait lighting with light on the far side of the face, half-tone or shadow on the nose:

The portrait model lit from both sides, much more difficult to pull off in my opinion (the Serov on the left has light bouncing from everywhere in the room):

The portrait model with half the face in full shadow, seems to very popular with self portraits:

I couldn’t find good historic examples of the high light-source, raccoon effect which is popular today in portrait painting. There are more lighting possibilities than just these four, but I figure this is a good start.

Someone sent me this link to a tutorial on lighting, one of the better ones I’ve seen.