Tag Archives: painting portraits

Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #16


As I am anxious to start the new year with it’s hopes, dreams and new beginnings,  I am reminded of how on a smaller scale to the artist, a fresh white canvas offers hopes and dreams all on its own.  Just as in life we see the importance of looking back in review to more effectively move ahead, I am reminded of the necessity to treat each new canvas with the same degree of serious reflection so as to learn from the last attempt.
Each painting must begin with a resolution of sorts, to improve upon a deficiency in edges, value, drawing, or color to greater achieve the mood you are aiming for. I am continually striving to get to the next level and have found that it clearly helps to have a plan formed before the brush hits the canvas.  Be specific. Resist thinking, “I hope this one turns out better”, but rather meditate on, “What specifically do I need to work on to gain greater sensitivity or strength in my work”.  If you have trouble identifying what that might be on your own, ask someone you trust to tell you the truth.  I am extremely dependent on “outside” help.  My wife Jennifer has an amazing eye and often sees what I miss.

I remember specifically the resolution I made prior to this painting, “Tricia”, page 33, that being to severely limit my color palette.

My work had become too colorful, meaning I was using color for color’s sake, throwing it in haphazardly and not being truthful with what I was seeing. The “circus” look was not working!!!    Having recently viewed an Anders Zorn exhibition helped me to identify this color problem and I recognized that something had to change.  As an exercise, this work was completed using his choice of colors as well, that of, white, black, raw sienna, and Rembrandt’s Permanent Red Medium, (which closely resembles the vermillion Zorn used.  I have since broadened my palette again, but the lesson was invaluable to teach me what effects could be achieved with very little shift in color.

I wish you great paintings as you break out into the New Year!

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Thank you for your enthusiastic support of Not Far from Home!

Carl’s Mother and Father

The following post continues to share the amazing work of Carl Von Marr.

This portrait of the artist’s mother has always been a mesmerizing work to me. The draftsmanship impeccable, her glance loving , yet still the look of a parent keeping watch and the palette colorful, but still reserved.

One aspect of this work that I noticed early on is the dark, rich value of the shadow pattern that starts in her left eye socket and is connected down along the nose to the mouth and chin.  This value is nearly as dark as the darkest dark. So often in teaching, I find that a students reticence to go that dark in the shadow on the face often kills the work before it gets off the ground.  It is so important to get the initial values accurate right from the start.  Squint and ask yourself, what is this value, and most importantly, how does  it compare to the extreme darks.

Another exquisite, tender work of Carl’s father.   Notice how the darkest darks of any given value range always end warmer than the adjacent tone. The photos above are details of the full paintings which I hope to show on a subsequent post.  These two works, perhaps more than any others, have been enormously inspiring to me over the years… I hope they resonate with you as well.   Thank you Carl.  Enjoy!

Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #3

This is the third  installment from the series of posts that will describe my thoughts and  technical insights from selected works included in our newly released book, “Not Far from Home”….Enjoy!

Squinting…….bring on the Botox, or not.

Through the 25 years I have been painting, there is one recurrent problem that will hinder my efforts to produce an effective representation of what I am seeing.  That problem is not properly squinting at the subject to simplify the information enough to solidify the masses and amplify the essentials.  I have “Squint” signs up all around my studio, because even after years of doing this, I still want to open wide to see every little thing.  The whole idea seems counter intuitive.  You ask, “We are trying to see the subject aren’t we, wouldn’t that work best with our eyes wide open?!?!?”  It seems like the answer should be yes, but, most of what we need to lock into is best observed with the non-essentials obscured or simplified.  As I have described squinting in previous posts, I would like to address the technique here.

As I tried to figure out the squint in the early days, I had an approach that looked something like this, minus the gray hair.

Not only did I have a splitting head ache in about 10 minutes, but Botox wouldn’t touch these wrinkles.

Another not so excellent approach is the “Cheat Squint”.

I see this a lot as I teach. As I am harping to “Squint Down”, I have seen some in a stealthy half squint, gathering all the info they can with the open eye.  I, too, have been guilty of this.  😦

The best approach is to gently close your eyes until the lights and darks become more separate or value patterns simplify and the sharpest edges emerge. The key is to keep this up through the process, only opening your eyes to more easily identify the color temperature shifts within the simple shapes.

What might a good squint accomplish?  As is seen in the detail of “Yellow Rose”, (page 83), with the squint I was able to more easily differentiate between the light and darks of the roses and organize the warm and cool lights on her head to accentuate the forms.  When I would look at the subject open-eyed, the simple forms were almost hidden beneath the complexity of light.  Simply put, I was able to wrap my head around the problem and break it down more easily.

Keep smiling and SQUINT DOWN!

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Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #1

This is the first installment from the series of posts that will describe my thoughts and  technical insights from selected works included in our newly released book, “Not Far from Home”….Enjoy!

“Mr. Johnson”  pages 58-59  “A Study in Edges”

Often as I survey the model before me…I look for the one key visual aspect that initially catches my eye and make this the focus of my study as I strive to convey the inspiration.  This can include a desire to capture an elusive harmony so subtle and beautiful that its only real tangibility is a vibration in the heart or a chasing after a fleeting quality of light that lasts only moments.  Perhaps it is the lyrical rhythm of line that weaves through the subject so as to express continuity and harmony that words could never express or any myriad of aesthetic qualities that capture your eye.  In essence, these characteristics are variations of line, harmony, tone, color or edge. In this particular work, a study in edges was the focus as I strove to convey the power of the form and drama of the subject.

(I must mention at this point, that as a beginner,  I was a bit overwhelmed when I approached the subject and faced  the overload of problems to solve with so much to sort out at once. For my own sanity during the early stages of development, it was important to focus only on one thing at a time.  For instance, if edges were my main focus, I would not worry as much if I had all the color temperatures accurate or the tonal ranges in perfect order.  Of course, as you progress you must bring all of these together, but as a beginner, it is fruitful to not let discouragement take hold and tackle only what you can handle in manageable pieces.)

As I proceed to describe the way I handle edge treatment, I will show you what to look for in the subject to best discern what the actual edges are and how they should to be delineated in order to convey the accurate form that we literally see . The key to painting edges accurately is to truthfully observe how they look in there proper relation to each other and paint  that relationship. I realize that there are many theories on edge treatment that deal with the arbitrary hardening or softening of an edge to diminish or strengthen the design or better convey the emotion or mood, but these attributes of what edges can achieve will not be my emphasis here.

Before I set my brush to the canvas, I find it very important to take an assessment of the subject in terms of the extremes of value, color and edges and organize my thinking from the outset.  In this case, as edges were my focus, I squinted down at Mr. Johnson, and made a mental note of the hardest visible edges. (These are circled in red). Why do I squint???  If I don’t, everything appears to have a sameness of edge.  By gently closing my eyes about half way, the forms are simplified and the variety between hard and soft becomes more visibly evident.  This contrast between the hard and soft is critical to capture and is a powerful tool we must utilize.

You will notice in the circled areas that the edge quality is razor sharp in some spots.   This is how they looked when I was squinting down!  It is so important to paint these RAZOR sharp.  I could not notice the contrast between these hard edges and the softer edges with my eyes wide open.  For instance, observe the difference between the sharp edge circled between his eyes and the edges of his brow line as the eye sockets rounded up into the forehead or the hard edge of the hat visor compared to the softer edges on the cast shadow on the forehead from the hat. Another area of great edge contrast is on the area of the neck beneath the chin.  Notice the extremely sharp edge between the neck and shirt compared to the softer edges of the cast shadow of the chin on the neck.  Also, an area that I often see painted too hard by students is the edge quality of the transition between the top plane and the bottom plane of the nose. Observe the very soft quality of this turning form.  It is tempting to block in the forms with much vigor and strength and then leave it. We must not fail to take note of the subtle transitions to accentuate the turning of form and record it accordingly.

Early in my development, I would admire many of the broad brush painters and be seduced by the bold sweeping strokes and remember only them when rendering a head or figure.  Those “beauty strokes” as my friend Scott Christensen so aptly calls them, should not destroy the form or take away from the sensitivity to the subject.  What I failed to notice was the painstaking attention to the accurate rendering of the form beneath the bold surface quality.

So the next time you have a subject before you, carefully assess the subject, squint down and let the sharpest edges emerge. When beginning a work, establish the sharpest edges as early as you can in the painting so that you can use them to compare against.  THIS IS CRITICAL!  As you progress, hold on the sharpest edges as reference points and notice the how all of the other edge transitions relate to them in descending order.  It is this great contrast that will give your work new dimension!  And as my great teacher Bill Parks would say, “Keep smiling at your work, yourself and the model!”

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