Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Portraits Develop

Apart from the sketches I make of strangers on the subway, in restaurants or in public parks, most of my portraits are made from photographs. Sometimes I take the photos, and sometimes I'll clip a photo I find arresting out of a newspaper. The two portraits below, done over ten years ago, are exceptional in that they were first drawn from black and white newspaper photos. 

Drawing, of course, is really nothing more than looking intently at a subject. If you really look at what you're drawing, what you get down on paper will represent that subject faithfully, rather than reflecting clichés and bits of visual short-hand stored largely in the left cerebral hemisphere. The left brain tends to be highly linear, deductive and rational, and quite impatient with the slow absorption of contours and detail you need while you're drawing. When your visual perception of something you're drawing is dominated by the left brain, it tends to pull out a simplified symbolic representation of that thing rather than letting you look at it long and lovingly. That's why many people who have not been trained to draw will often, for example, draw a human head in profile with an almond-shaped eye seen from the frontal position; they're drawing what they know and remember about the eye, not what they're seeing.

When drawing, painting or sculpting, you want to unchain the right brain and let it dominate your efforts to see and represent, albeit with inevitable and necessary coordination with the left side. The right hemisphere tends to be more holistic and intuitive, less rational, less linear, less deductive and more engaged by details.

So I use drawing to get acquainted with my subject.

 Preliminary drawing for "Centenarian" · Sanguine and charcoal pencil

 "Centenarian" · Oil on canvas

The model for the drawing and subsequent painting was a black and white newspaper photograph of a one-hundred-year-old woman. What I enjoy about working from a black and white photo is that it grants me complete freedom to invent the color scheme that most appeals to me. I used Venetian red to create a feeling of aged, weathered sandstone in the woman's face.

 Conté crayon study for "Screaming Brazilian Stockbroker"

"Screaming Brazilian Stockbroker" · Oil on canvas

In the preliminary conté crayon drawing, I developed my intention to distort and exaggerate the lower half of the stockbroker's face to underline the man's strong emotion and impulse to be heard. I tried to convey his stress and aggression further by using intense yellow to paint his face and neck.


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