Part 8-Painting Faces
Lessons in Watercolour, Part 8-Painting Faces
In this article I am presenting ways to paint the face. This is not portraiture because “A portrait is a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person” (Merriam-webster).
Unless a portrait of someone is relevant to a buyer, friend/relative or is for a competition, paintings of recognisable people are usually very difficult to sell. A painting of a generic person is much easier to sell and can be turned into art rather than just a portrait.
True purist portrait painting is an art genre of its own, which I greatly respect, requiring a much more disciplined approach. It relies on the innate talent of the artist who will use much analysis, positioning, tonal work, comparison and an intense study of the sitter. This article is not about portrait painting as a genre.
There are many great commercial portrait painters of the past (e.g. Sargent and Kinstler) and many less commercial face painters (e.g. Goya, Renoir, Lautrec and Manet). All have produced great memorable faces but where some faces have excellent representation of all the features of the sitter in their proper place, others have produced faces that are similar to the sitter but not perfectly correct. These latter paintings have artistic licence about them and could be anybody. The art of true purist portrait painting though is a complete art genre and often portrait painters are mainly known for this rather than their landscapes. Face painters on the other hand do not have so much pressure to be perfect.
Other non-purist methods of painting faces involve grid measurements and the projection of the face onto the canvas using transparencies. Many of the massive head paintings in today’s art world are done via projection of the photographic image.
Other methods of painting faces is to stick to a theme, big eyes (e.g. Keane) or green skin (e.g. Tretchikoff). As with all art always, the end product will appeal to whoever likes it. It is whatever leaves an imprint on you. Miniature face paintings of the past are collected because they appeal. The very clever portrait painters of Montmartre and most tourist destinations are extremely popular and their resultant art work is treasured.
Painting faces can also be in the form of caricatures (see Poultry Fanciers) where liberty is taken with certain elements of the face, e.g. exaggeration of distances between eyes or between nose and mouth, enlarging of ears. Cartoonists use these exaggerated features brilliantly through great observation and understanding of their subject. Faces may also be painted theatrically (see James Hyatt as
Prof Fate), costumes are a focal point and give extra interest. Sorolla or Sargent’s Spanish dancer paintings are examples where the face is secondary to the costume and activity. The paintings of this genre require artists to understand body language and gesture.
My method of painting faces is to “just begin” and let the wonderful medium of watercolour take over. There is certainly much more risk involved but with added washes and lifting off a reasonable image can be obtained. There is much pleasure to be gained in “free falling” into a face painting without the self-imposed pressure and restraints that a photo realistic outcome demands.
“If I create from the heart nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.” —Marc Chagall