Laughing Portrait

Painting recognizable faces:

There is something that is so satisfying when I paint a watercolor portrait actually resembles my subject. At first, I was satisfied to get the appropriate shape of the head. The next problem I addressed was the proportions of the features within the face. Even when they became more or less correct, in the long dimension, I still had to gauge how they fit from side to side.  Finally, with all the face parts in the right place from up to down and from side to side, each one must have the uniqueness of the particular person in question.

I have accomplished this on several occasions, and am still practicing to get it right.  Sometimes practice means drawing only noses; generic noses, particular noses, one after another or eyes by themselves or in pairs, set close together or far apart. Other times practice time is taken up with integrating face parts into the oval that is the shape of the head, taking care to adjust proportions appropriately.

I took a cue from the strategy of people how have the condition called prosopagnosia, otherwise known as ‘face blindness’. In order to remember a particular face, people with prosopagnosia take note of a unique feature such as a mole or a scar, to identify that person.  When I analyze a face that I am drawing, I look for such features. It may be an unusual arch of the eyebrow, a bulbous nose or a wide or narrow mouth that I address initially. I reduce the arches to semicircles, the mouth to pairs of lines and other features to their constituent shapes with the hope that together they will somehow merge in beholders’ eyes to become a face they recognize.

I was advised against using this method when I took a life drawing class. I understand, and even agree with the reasons one should avoid analyzing and breaking down features to simple shapes. The life drawing instructor was emphasizing eye-to-hand coordination. In this context, one should look at and draw the lines one sees in the subject itself, not interpose an intermediate shape in the mind’s eye and let it interfere with the coordination between the eyes and the hand.

The happy medium is of course to do both: practice abstract (meaning non-specific) noses, ears, eyes, etc. and also particular ones directly from life or a photograph, without analyzing the intermediate shapes that compose them.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

Below is a watercolor that started out as a charcoal drawing. I wanted to portray the laughing face of my brother-in-law. He’s got a great face, and when he laughs, everybody laughs.

I used a four-color palette consisting of my skin tone formal (cadmium red light, yellow ochre and white) together with phthalo green, the complement of red.

The eyes were easier than most, since they were closed and I only had to account for the proper orientation of the lines defined the lids. The eyebrows and some of the muscles of the forehead also were important to the expression.

Watercolor: Close Up Portrait of Man Laughing

9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

The most important feature in this portrait was the mouth. I may not have captured it quite right, but then again,  an intense laugh is sometimes hard to recognize as a laugh.


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