Monday, October 31, 2011

The Religious Sister - The Habit

Despite saying, in my last post, that I was finished with the face, I spent a whole session reworking it. And, I'm not sure that it's actually much different to what it was!

Anyway, now to the background. At the moment, I am applying the first layer of brown to the nun's habit. Even if the shade of brown is a good match, I will apply layers of different colours so that the fabric doesn't look flat. I will apply some red to warm the tones and, also, some pinks and oranges in the lighter areas. Because the nun is in shadow, there are no distinct highlights in her clothing. I find this to be a problem. A lack of contrast will make it harder for me to achieve a realistic effect, so I will supplement my reference photo with other photos of similar clothing.

This nun belongs to the order of the Brigidines. In the 1960s, when this photo was taken, the nuns of this order wore a full habit but, these days, they wear civilian dress and they no longer live in a convent. The photo shows the sister in her early 20s. She is, now, aged 80 and soon to celebrate her 60th anniversary as a nun.

Because they no longer wear a habit, I was unable to find another suitable photo of a Brigidine nun to use as a reference. The following photo does, however, show a similar habit on nuns of a different order, and, as such, it will be very helpful in determining my colours. For example, I can see from this picture that the brown cloth has pink, rather than yellow, highlights. This reference will, also, help me to achieve a more realistic look to the folds than would be possible by guesswork.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Religious Sister - The Face

The photo's very grainy but it, more or less, shows where I'm up to with this portrait.

The original photo was a bit of a challenge - there was some guesswork needed to get something close to a reasonable likeness. Here's the original photo - what do you think? Is it her, yet?
Seeing the picture on the screen allows me to pick up details that are hard to distinguish up close. Her right eye, for example, looks good on my drawing board, but I can see that it needs repositioning slightly, when I look at it on the screen. It only needs a slight adjustment but it will make a big difference to the look of the eye and it will improve the likeness. Further flaws will become apparent as the clothes and background are completed, but, for now, the face is done and it's time to move on. Except for that eye which is irritating me, though! As always, there will be constant touch-ups and corrections, as I go.

Here is the original drawing - the one that I felt was much too rough. I think the new portrait is smoother and has a better glow to it. Do you agree?
For the new version, I used Prismacolor pencils for the initial washes and Derwent Artist Pencils for the modelling. I, then, used a combination of Derwent Coloursoft and Prismacolor pencils for the deepest tones and soft blending. I will post the exact colours that I use if anyone would find it useful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Luncheon of the Boating Party

"To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them."

--Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir has been a favourite artist of mine, since I was very young, and his portrait paintings have influenced my approach to my own art and the technique that I use. I wrote the following post for our family's homeschooling blog, after studying one of Renoir's most famous paintings, and I thought I would share my thoughts and discoveries here, on my art blog.


Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party has a special place, in our home. For a number of years, a framed print of this picture sat over our dining table and, now, it hangs on a wall, in our rumpus room, which is a centre for family activity.

Our particular version is quite faded. Like the Old Masters' originals, the colours have become quite dulled, over time. However, unlike the originals, this has not added a mellowed kind of charm to the artwork. Rather, it has left the picture looking very blue and insipid, as the vibrant reds and greens have been bleached by the sun. Looking at images of the original, while I researched for our study, made me realise just how unobservant we have become of our surroundings and how beautiful the original picture is, with its clever use of colour and its depiction of dappled sunlight.

Renoir was about 40 years old when he painted Luncheon of the Boating Party, in 1880-81. At the time, he was anxious to gain acceptance by The Salon, in Paris. This institution held the annual state art exhibition and was the recognised arbitrator of quality art, at the time. It was because of his desire for official acceptance that Renoir began to distance himself somewhat from the more radical Impressionist movement, which was decidedly anti-establishment. He had, already, achieved notable success through painting family portraits of the Parisian aristocracy, and this picture was intended to be his masterpiece. It was painted on a grand, almost life-size scale and proved to be a costly venture, both in time and money. During the six months that he worked on it, Renoir was uncertain whether he would see the project to completion. However, he persevered through financial struggles and frustrating artistic challenges to finish the painting, in early 1881.

The setting for this painting is La Maison Fournaise, a restaurant on an island near the riverside town of Chatou, in the suburbs of Paris. This town had become a popular recreation spot for tourists, who used to hold weekend boating parties here, after the shortening of the working week had freed up their leisure time. Renoir had already painted several other scenes in this location, before he started on this more ambitious project.

Part of the appeal of Renoir's painting is, I think, the cheerful and sociable atmosphere, which is apparent in the picture, and had been enjoyed by Renoir and his friends since the 1870s. The group portrayed is classless, carefree and leisurely. It is represented by artists, writers, journalists, actors, sportsmen and other professionals, and it reflects the eclectic nature of Parisian society, of which Renoir's own circle of friends and colleagues were an important part, during that period.

The painting tells the story of the vibrant cultural life of Paris, despite the fact that Renoir would, later, state:

"What is important is avoid being literary and therefore to choose something that everyone knows--better still, to have no story at all...Under Louis XV, I would have been obliged to paint subjects. What seems to me the most important thing about our movement is that we have freed painting from the subject. I can paint flowers and simply call them 'flowers' without their having a story."

Renoir painted idealised images of his friends and acquaintances, rather than true likenesses. He had painted many of them before and knew them all, personally. In fact, the young woman in the foreground to the left, is his future wife, Aline Charigot. In a clever compositional maneuver, the characters look at one another, leading the eye in a continuous line through the painting. Aline, alone, looks away from the rest of the group, as she gazes at her dog.

Aline replaced the figure of a woman who, along with the seated boatsman on the right, originally, looked directly towards the viewer. This composition would have completely changed the dynamics of the picture, from one where the viewer is a mere observer of the pleasant and leisurely scene to one where the viewer feel inclusion and is, thus, compelled to take a more active role in it's interpretation.

The composition is very balanced, within the scene, despite being complicated by the large number of people, who are each individually characterised and play a role in the 'story'. The two figures, on the left, balance the larger group on the right by means of a tilting floor. Ordinarily, only the tops of the hats would be seen from this angle, so Renoir has altered the perspective to accommodate his unusual and busy composition. Dazzling whites of tablecloth and singlets, also, balance each other by their arrangement in the composition and the triangle of boater hats, in addition to forming a balance, provides a further means of directing the eye around the scene. The awning was added, later in the painting process, to unify the group within its setting and create a more cosy atmosphere.

As in Renoir's other works, different artistic techniques are used which reveal his respect for the methods of the Old Masters, along with his more progressive and innovative experimentation with light and colour. Thick, impressionist dabs of colour were applied in the foreground, while delicate light touches were swept onto the canvas in the background. In another example of his impressionist methods, he has laid down complementary colours side by side to create an impression of unified colour rather than blending the pigments on his palette. This technique has been used to render the fur of the dog, with the result that the impression of reflected light is apparent in a more dynamic way than would be possible using single, static colours.

More traditional techniques were used to paint the people, in order to achieve a smoother blending of tones. This allows for a softer, more attractive depiction of the personalities and is in direct opposition to the dabs of white and red, which create the impression of sunlight, in a balanced pattern throughout the composition.

No preliminary studies or drawings exist for this painting, which is unusual for a work of this magnitude. It appears to be a spontaneous work - the result of continuous development and reworking throughout its execution. Renoir used his friends as models, when they were available, and he made many adjustments - mostly minor but a few major ones - to their poses, as the picture developed.

Despite his progressive, impressionist methods, he looked to the Old Masters for knowledge of technique, as is seen in his treatment of portraiture. He was, particularly, influenced by 18th century Rococo artists, such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, who painted lively scenes of outdoor life amongst the leisurely French aristocracy, in the early 1700s. Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera is a good example of his skilled working of group compositions and his clever depiction of the subtleties of gesture. These were techniques which influenced Renoir and can be seen to good effect, in this painting.

The Luncheon of the Boating Party contains the elements of landscape, portraiture and still life. It succeeds in capturing a snapshot of French life, both in a spontaneous and an historic sense, and I think this goes some way to explain its lasting appeal to the generations which have followed. Not only does the work give us a glimpse of life during a particularly interesting phase of French cultural progression, it also recreates a delightful scene of good humour, companionship and light-hearted discussion, and it appears interesting, stimulating and pleasurable to the viewer, who feels at ease with the charming image.

(Further information can be found here, here and here.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Religious Sister - Starting Over Again!

I've been a bit concerned about the roughness of this portrait. In fact, this is something that has challenged me a lot, since I started using Coloursoft and Prismacolor pencils. They are both very soft pencils and, even on Stonehenge paper with a large-scale project, I find that they need to be handled carefully. The positives are that a deep, intense colour is possible, which gives a realistic depth and vibrancy to the finished picture.

At the moment, I am using smooth watercolour paper and I am working on a small scale project. This meant that I wasn't achieving the delicacy that I desire. I improved the situation, somewhat, by burnishing the skin tones with a layer of pale peach, but it was, still, too flawed to be acceptable. So, I've started afresh with Derwent Artist pencils. These are noticeably harder and I am able to lay down the pigment very slowly, to build up a smooth and flawless finish.

The first step was to trace the old drawing onto tracing paper and transfer the image. I didn't want to go through the sketching process, again, so I merely duplicated the portrait I had already begun. This took about half an hour and I was, then, able to start work on a simple, line rendition of the subject.

At this stage, I erased the pencil marks and replaced them with a pale peach pigment so that the original markings would not show through. Then, I applied two pale washes - cream and pale peach - using Prismacolors. I used the soft pencils for these as they are ideal for laying down even expanses of colour.

Next, I began to model the skin tones and I changed to the harder pencils for this. Using pale pink, peach and pale ochre, I began to build up the shadows of the face. Suddenly, I felt more relaxed than I have since I switched to the softer pencils! The colour is more delicate and I have more control over its application. I will keep applying increasingly darker tones and switch to the softer pencils when I need more depth than is possible with the Artists range of colours.

To achieve anything worthwhile, it is necessary to experiment and push the boundaries - but, I feel that some of my recent experiments with soft pencils have been unsuited to my style. Generally, the softer pencils are considered superior for fine art drawings, but I have been very frustrated that, even with constant sharpening of the pencils, I have not been able to achieve the level of delicacy that I usually aim for. This has affected my confidence as an artist, and it is probably a reason why my last portrait took so much longer to complete than normal. So, while my style is continuing to develop, I think I am taking a bit of a step backwards, at the moment. I am trying to regain the aspects of my style which worked so well for me, before I started experimenting with the soft pencils, whilst, at the same time, trying to take advantage of the qualities of the softer pigments, when the harder ones prove limiting.

The photo above shows the new portrait with its very first layers of modelling. It is very faint, at this stage, and it will take a few more layers before it looks reasonable on the computer screen.

The following photo shows a previous portrait, using harder pencils on watercolour paper and my usual technique. If it is compared to the photo at the top, it seems much more delicate and beautiful to my eyes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Religious Sister - Achieving a Likeness through Indistinct Shadows

There are some important shadows to lay down, before a likeness can be obtained, in this portrait.

Despite the fact that there is an absence of detail, this picture will still need to meet the requirements of any other portrait, as far as achieving a likeness is concerned. Although, the features are indistinct, there is an unmistable impression of character and form, which can be observed in the lie of the shadows. I will work on this and, also, on the colour and texture of the skin, over the next couple of days.

I will, also, need to print out another, larger over-exposed copy of the reference photo to enable me render the mouth accurately. Character shows strongly in the mouth and the eyes so I am concerned that no avoidable mistakes are made in these areas. Over-exposing the photo will lighten up the shadows and reveal previously undetectable features.

Today's photo shows the progress, after about 2 hours of work.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Religious Sister - Building up skin tones

Rendering colour from a black and white reference photo is not as difficult as it sounds. Experience of colour is important, of course, because the choice of pigment, then, becomes straightforward. In this portrait, I am working up through the values in roughly the same order as I normally do. In fact, an advantage of the black and white photo is that it shows the contrast between the lights and the darks much clearer than from a colour photo.

A little guesswork is necessary, however, as I can't see the exact skin tones, so the final picture will be an impression, rather than a perfectly accurate depiction of the subject. The lack of clear detail, in the photo, is another reason why I'm not relying on small details to make this picture work.

At this stage, I still have many layers to apply to the lower half of the face, including the mouth. The rest of the face will need more peach and pink tones to bring the skin alive and to smooth it out. I am using smooth watercolour paper for this portrait and I am finding that, with my style, it is more suited to the harder pencils than the soft. Stonehenge paper, so far, has been the most versatile and pleasing surface that I have worked with.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Stylish Blog Award

Sue at Sue Elvis Writes and Stories of an Unschooling Family, has just passed on a stylish blog award to this blog. Thank you, Sue - I appreciate your support and kind comments.

I've replied to this award here on my family blog, as my artwork is a part of my life which extends to friends and family beyond the art world, so my response was not exclusively art-related. However, I do appreciate everyone who supports this blog - hugely. So much time and effort goes into each portrait that the encouragement I receive makes an incredible difference to my work.

So, a great big thank you to everyone who visits here and enjoys my pictures - those of you who are so kind to leave a comment and those who are happy to browse. The readership numbers have been growing steadily, since I started the blog, and I am so grateful for all your interest and support.

(And, extra thanks to Imogen and Autumn for your interest in my pictures - I hope you are encouraged, in some way, in your own creativity.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Religious Sister - Laying Down the Colours

Working on a smaller scale than I'm used to means that this portrait is proceeding a lot quicker than my recent projects. I have only spent an hour or so laying down the coloured pigments, yet I am making progress, already.

This picture is 420mm x 297mm in size. It is, naturally, much quicker to apply colour to a small area than a large one. However, there are different challenges associated with a portrait of these dimensions. Accuracy and a fine touch are so important when the working area is as small as this, and it is necessary to suggest the tiniest, hard-to-see details with impressions that the viewer will recognise as both realistic and characteristic of the subject.

I am enjoying the change of pace with this work. Large pictures can seem long and, even, laborious during particular stages, whereas this small portrait feels very manageable and pleasant to work on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can Billy Come Out to Play?

Here's an old cartoon. Simple, childlike and, ridiculously silly - so, naturally, it tickles my sense of humour!

The computer can be invaluable for this type of art. In this picture, I significantly altered the exposure to the make the darks more intense and to minimise imperfections. Normally, I would use pen and ink to draw a cartoon, but I sketched this picture in pencil. Using the computer software, I was able to compensate and improve the quality of the rendition, to some degree.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Religious Sister - A Preliminary Sketch

Here's a first sketch of the nun I am working on. The quality of the photo is proving to be quite challenging and I will have to adjust my style to compensate. This portrait won't have the detail of my usual work. Instead, I will have to study the basic form of the shadows and identify the impressions which give the face its likeness. I think it would be a mistake to try to invent detail which isn't there but, at the same time, I need to improve on what is lacking in the photo.

As usual, the picture will take on a life of its own. I will plan only so far, before I begin, and then I will allow the portrait to develop, experimenting with what appears to work and making decisions as I go. A lot of faith and trust is needed, at this point, considering the quality of my reference materials and the divergence from my normal drawing style.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Back with a New Commission

Back from holidays, I'm about to start a new commission. It's a portrait of the sister of a very dear friend and it is to be a present for her 80th birthday. The dimensions of this portrait are to be significantly smaller than those of my recent pictures, so this project should be completed in a much shorter time-frame.

However, there are still some challenges to this work. Firstly, the quality of the reference photo is not too good. The picture is small and the detail is indistinct. Also, my friend would like the portrait to be brought to life with colour. I am happy to do this but it does add something to the challenge. A further issue concerns accuracy. I am not, yet, certain of the order to which this nun belongs, so I need to do some research. I will need to obtain a clearer picture of the habit of this order so that I can determine the colour and style of her clothing with more accuracy. I will, also, need to identify more closely the ornament attached to the habit. From the photo, it looks like a medal of the Sacred Heart but detail is important in my portraits, so I will need a much more finely detailed reference to work with.

These are not uncommon challenges when undertaking commissions. I am used to working from several reference photos and to making adjustments to suit the client's requirements. Usually, a client is realistic about the possibilities and it is my objective to exploit the creative potential of fine art portraiture and, at the same time, produce a personalized representation which best fits the mental image visualised by the client.