Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thinking about Art-Making: People and Faces

I don't depict people very often in my artwork, and even more rarely will I depict actual faces. I think that's because I don't feel like I really do them well, and/or I don't know how to work them into a composition in a balanced way. During my efforts to draw Marilyn Monroe's face for a painting, I said in that post that depicting faces is not a strength for me because I haven't done it enough to properly learn how.

I decided to spend a little bit of time after that trying to draw a portrait. I spent several hours on a watercolor working from a photograph. It didn't turn out as a true likeness, but the coloring pleased me and overall I liked it. I think if I spent more time on something difficult, such as faces, I would be satisfied with the result. Thinking about it reminded me of that part in Napolean Dynamite where he gives the drawing to his prom date and tells her how much time he spent shading the upper lip, and that makes me laugh.

I realized part of the problem is that I don't feel like spending more than 30 or 40 minutes on any one thing, though I HAVE been known to pour hours into a painting (I spent like 8 hours or something on the bird on a ball painting, and about that much time on the Birds Playing Go Fish painting). And I can spend a lot of time on a quilt, though it's rare that I plug in for 10 hours straight anymore - now I'll spend a few hours here and there on one until it's finished, which might take months.

I want to practice the discipline necessary to paint high-quality faces that please me or that satisfy me. There are few things worse (in art) than doing a painting where all the elements feel right except one big thing that just throws off the whole thing. I will paint it out or cut up my painting to get around that sometimes. I guess it's really not a bad thing if that happens - it's a learning point or leads to something different that I might not have considered previously.

I've seen those Youtube videos where the person draws a face in 10 minutes and makes it look very like a photograph. That's kind of cool. Even more, I appreciate some of the less 'realistic' portraits done by Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso (in his earlier years, though I will say some of his stuff is pretty bizarre) and Alexej von Jawlensky, like his 'Head' at the MoMA. One of my favorite Cezanne paintings is Hortense Fiquet in a Striped Skirt - look closely at the face and it's just a lovely mish-mash of bright color blocks. Matisse had the right idea - he just did whatever he wanted with color, and I have no doubt he first mastered the ability to paint people "the right way" (i.e. more realistically and less 'impressionistically'). I love so many of his paintings, with all the floral and geometric motifs and the brilliant color. But check out this Portrait of L.N. Delekorskaya, it's even more deconstructed than most of his works. This painting tells me, take risks, do what you want with color and line and shading, don't worry about it being 'realistic.' And one of my favorite artists is Maurice Prendergast - such wonderful colors and lines and people strewn about the seashore or the forest, people made of little lines of color, no attempt to distinguish faces for the most part, yet you get a feel for their posture and their attitude just by the simple lines he used.

Looking closely at these types of colorful artworks in museums teaches me that a portrait, a face, a figure or body does not need to look like a photograph to be beautiful. But sometimes what comes out of the pen or brush is something resembling a stick figure, or one of those depictions of zombies done by a 14-year old. You know what I mean - the stiff figure that looks more like a concoction of rectangles. Is that so wrong? No. But it's not what's in my head. So that's the frustrating part - not having sufficient technical skill to translate what's in my mind onto paper. (On a side note, I recently saw this picture of rectangles, David Hansen's Streetscape I, and it is fabulous.)

Another thing I realized is that I tend to paint or draw from memory or imagination, essentially 100% of the time, rather than look at something (unless I'm making a specific effort for a particular project). That means all the landscapes and still lifes (lives?) and other artwork is coming from my head, and therefore usually lacks proper dimensions and shading which might be translated better if I worked from reality. I know if I want to increase my technical skill I need to spend more time painting from what I'm seeing.

1 comment:

  1. I taught art for about a zillion years.

    One lesson I taught to 7th or 8th graders was a lesson on drawing a face using a grid to enlarge it and draw the face and features in proportion.

    I use this method myself when I want to enlarge a photo I've taken to use for a drawing or painting.

    For my class, I looked through magazines for face photos that I could cut to 4" X 5". (Photos in which the head filled almost the entire space worked best.) I purposely did not choose faces of famous people, because students would become frustrated if their drawings didn't look like those people. My goal was to have the faces look like real faces, but not necessarily a specific person. I had hundreds of face photos, so student could choose the ones they wanted. I also told them ahead of time that they could look for their own photos in magazines at home. Many students brought in a dozen or so photos and we added any they didn't want to the mix.

    On the 4" X 5" photo, they had to draw a 1" grid (although I reused photos from previous years, so many already had the grids drawn) in fine-line marker. Each student was given paper that was 8”X10". On that paper, they drew very light pencil lines in a 2" grid. (This was also good practice in measuring in two places to make sure lines were vertical and horizontal and evenly spaced.) They added a dot in the center of each square on both the photo and paper. I demonstrated how they had to try to draw the outlines of the face and features by seeing where the outlines of the face appeared in the squares on the photo and reproduce them on the drawing paper in pencil, using the lines and dots to reproduce the proportions and shapes. Once they were finished, they used a fine-line pen to outline their drawings and then erased pencil lines and the grid.

    That was just an exercise for the REAL project on "objective abstraction" in which each one used the same photo but distorted the face and colored it in impossible colors and shaded the faces the way the photos were shaded. Even the students who had trouble with the first part of the project did well on the second part. It was one of their favorite projects all year. The way we did that is an entire other story.