Sunday, October 7, 2012

Learning from Portraits

Portraits have been around for thousands of years.  Realistic painted portraits have been around since at least the Roman Empire.  Before photography a painted portrait was an expensive luxury limited to the powerful and wealthy in society.  Any good artist hoping for success lobbied for an appointment to the court of some king, duke or tyrant.  The starving artist was NOT a career goal in the old days.
Today, with ubiquitous digital cameras, portrait photos are scattered mindlessly everywhere, like gum on the sidewalks of New York City.  Similarly, painted portraits are often hard to distinguish from one another unless you know the subject, and abstract portraits, while original, are hardly portraits in the original sense.  Occasionally however, a portrait will jump out of the page and grab you emotionally, even though the subject and artist are strangers to you.  It is these works of art that can teach a lesson to an architectural illustrator.
Long ago I fell in love with Hans Holbein (the younger).  Well, his portraits, that is.  He had a trick he used of setting the subject against a plain background of grey-green.  This was done most often with a person of high coloring and auburn hair.  The contrast between the flat green and the modeled face created an image that came out of the picture plane.  No matter how plain the subject of the portrait, the effect was eye-catching in its immediacy.  Part of the effect is the perfection of the figure modeling, but that is another matter.
The painting above uses the same color combination, but handles the figure loosely and assembles the background color from a mosaic of complimentary daubs of paint.  I saved this image long ago, but didn’t note title or artist.  If anyone recognizes it let me know who and what so I can give them credit.
A similar balance can be seen in this illustration by TerryShoffner in the Wall Street Journal.  Even on newsprint the effect is striking.  I normally hate yellow green; really, hate.  But this one caught my eye and quite simply works.  
This caricature illustrating an interview shows a close affinity with the Holbein above.  NeilDavies may not have consciously patterned his painting on Holbein, but the face certainly jumps out of the page.  I love caricatures, especially ones that blur the line between exaggeration and reality.
My watercolors have a tendency to get overworked and flat.  This one of my daughter avoided the first through sheer luck since I had to get it off the board.  When I next saw it I realized that it only needed some extra contrast.  The cool background helps to pop out the flatness.  It is certainly not as strong as the professional work above, but I’m happy with it.
Daniel, above, is a watercolor handled in the same way.  I’ll never make a name with portraits, but they are satisfying in a human connectedness way.
Pastel portraits often fall into the pattern I am flacking here.  A neutral grey board serves as the base line for spots of lighter and darker pigment.  Using the board as part of the drawing allows the artist to quickly model the forms with minimal “busy” work.  The form of the face easily tricks the eye into seeing a 3D object, and the result is simple, yet powerful.
Somewhat off topic is this tablet sketch of tree branches at sunset.  The basic warm palette on a grey green background is the continuing pattern here; and it obviously works.
This oil sketch of water lilies is also off topic, but shows the surprisingly pleasing harmonization of red and green.
Applying this lesson to architectural illustration is easy, but it requires a building with a red/orange palette.  The sketch above is for an illustration to be used by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Being a red brick building I immediately tried out the green background.  I did try a number of other palette variations, but finally came back to the original conception.
This never built proposal for a residential block facing Astor Square in New York started with a Photoshopped montage of the site and proposed building.  The resulting image was “mushy”, so the final print was re-rendered in ink.  The color is a bit lurid in places, but the general tone is effective.
St. Vincent has been blogged before, but it is worth revisiting for the striking palette.
This pastel study of a church differs from the pastel portraits above in that I covered the entire paper with pastel (several layers in places).  In spite of the overworked nature of the thing, the basic red and green palette pulls it through.  This view was through an arched gateway, so the dark framing does have some relation to reality.
Finally, here are matched portraits I did of my parents several years ago.  The oil and turpentine background wash is a soup that vacillates from raw sienna to dull olive to burnt umber and beyond.  Yet, the flesh tones stand out in a smoky way that I like.
They both lived to be 90, but are now gone.  They had a long and interesting life, surviving the Great Depression and World War II (pacific theater), raising 5 kids and spoiling 9 grandkids (11 great grandkids so far).  If I can finish off my own life as well as they did, I will count myself lucky.

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