Alla prima portrait study

In my previous post I mentioned an out of town trip last weekend. I was over in Colonial Beach VA pursuing one of my main 2009 goals (exploring the figure) by taking another class with painter/portrait artist Robert Liberace. This class was a 2 day workshop on alla prima portrait painting. Since this is the way I am accustomed to painting with my landscapes (particularly smaller works and those done en plein air) I was really drawn to the class. Rob is as enthusiastic and energetic as I remember him to be from my first class with him in figure drawing last semester at the Art League School. I am continually enthralled by his masterful demos, and I found it interesting that the process he set forth for this style of portraiture was very similar to the method I use to paint my landscapes.

The palette we used, however, was quite a bit different and more expansive than what I typically use for my landscapes; burnt umber, cad yellow light, followed by several reds, several blues, two violets and a couple of greens. He also used two different kinds of white, Titanium (a very strong, bright white) and Lead White (the most opaque of the whites.)

Rob began with an imprimatura (toning) in burnt umber on Ampersand panel, and a very quick and sketchy (though amazingly accurate) grisaile. From there he then built his way to layers of color from shadow to mid-tone, halftone and finally highlights. Of course he made it look so easy, but I soon found out otherwise!

The model I painted on this first day was a very stunning young lady who looked to be about 15 or 16. Turns out she was actually only 12. I think for her age and energy level she did exceedingly well sitting for us, and it was a real visual treat to paint her. By the luck of the draw, I found myself setting up in a spot that put the model in complete profile. I'm not normally overly excited with profile views. In fact I find them boring. But the model had a great hairdo and a nice twist to her torso that actually enlivened my view and made it fun to paint:


She was wearing a great red satin dress in the Asian style, which went well with her beautiful golden skintone and almond shaped eyes. Unfortunately in the remaining time we had left to work (after Rob's excellent demo) I got none of the dress, save for a brief outline. I did take a photo of her though, in case I decide to work more on the painting. But most times I leave my workshop studies as is, to serve as a reminder of what I learned and in what areas I still need to grow.

In any case, I  learned a lot from this first sitting. First of all, just as in plein air painting, it's important to get your drawing down accurately and commit to your big idea as soon as possible. While the lighting in a portrait studio doesn't change the way the natural light does en plein air, what does change incrementally is the model. It's really hard for a model to get the exact same pose and facial expression after a break. And it's also really hard to hold a pose for any length of time (especially if you happen to be 12 years old!) So while it's tempting to jump right in to color, Rob wanted us to spend a good deal of time first developing a strong grisaille and really fleshing out the portrait in it's proper porportion, placement, light, shadow, and halftone-- BEFORE putting down the first dab of color.

Another very important thing I learned once I moved beyond the grisaille had to do with painting children. As in landscape painting, it is oh so very easy to overdo it by getting lost in details. It's an interesting dance; because while you want to accurately record what you see, too much unnecessary detail can detract from the character of the subject and weaken the overall painting. At about an hour into my painting I was well into color, painting in every shadow I could possibly see on the model's face. I knew the likeness in her profile was pretty accurate, but still  I wasn't getting her character--her "glow".

Then Rob came by and said, "You're aging her." Taking my brush, with literally two sweeping strokes he pulled some of the middle skintone I had put down on her upper cheek and quickly swept it downward, blending away almost all of the shadow work I'd done around her mouth and nose, leaving only part of the cheekbone shadow and the shadow work I'd done under her jaw. I just stood there and chuckled. It was like one of those "miracle line eraser" wrinkle ads you see on the Internet.

"You just took 10 years off of her, " I said. Ah, if only it were that easy in real life!

p.s. The above 20x16" study was after about 2 to 2 1/2 hrs. of work. The sketch in the upper right corner of the canvas was a hands-on instructive from Rob early on, because the initial lines of my grisaille around the eyes were too juicy and lacked definition.