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Monday, February 2, 2015

my portrait painting process

Today marked the beginning of my artist in residence at Marquette University.  Eight hours down, sixteen to go!!  Check out Instagram for daily painting updates.  

Part of Marquette's request for my artist in residence was to document my portrait painting process.  This is a summary of my background work that goes into painting a portrait.  

Pick subject
I paint portraits of people I admire, people I feel have a message to share.  I like to learn something through my paintings and hopefully teach others at the same time.   The more inspired or curious I feel about a subject the more energy and work I’ll be able to put into the portrait. 

James Foley, the subject of this painting was proposed by Marquette University.  I didn’t know much about James before starting this painting, and I was glad for the opportunity to research and study him, especially because of his passion for journalism and the relevance of his story to current politics.  

Research subject
I like to have a good understanding of the person I’m painting to capture their spirit in their portrait.  I read and study available photos, articles, books, and videos to get a sense of the person, their work, and their legacy. 

For James, I read articles written by and about him. I also watched video of the speech given by James at Marquette University.  Finally, I read and reread James’ last letter to his family dictated by his fellow prisoners. 

Pick picture to represent subject
My portraits are typically done of people I don’t have the ability to paint in person so my portraits are painted from photographs of the person.  In my research I come across various photos of my subject and usually one will stand out from the others.  It will usually be “head on,” give a full view of the person’s face, and give a glimpse into the person’s personality.  Much can usually be sensed by very subtle facial expressions. 

For James Foley, Marquette asked that I paint a certain picture of him: James giving a speech in front of the Marquette seal.  I liked this photo because it included all the things I usually look for in a subject photograph: a head on shot, a full view of his face, and a glimpse into his personality.  Additionally it told something about his story and his connection to Marquette University. 

Begin practice sketches, gradually put more time into sketches
After my picture is chosen, I practice sketching the person before drawing on canvas.  Without a good base sketch, the person will not be recognizable no matter how well the paint colors come together in the final painting.  One line in the person’s face being off – even one to two millimeters – can throw off the whole portrait.  For this reason, I’ll invest a good deal of time on practice sketches before I even begin drawing on canvas. 
For the portrait of James I did three practice sketches that took me anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours.  They helped give me an idea of the parts of the portrait that would be challenging for me and what I needed to practice before painting.

Painting sketches – pick colors, pick style
Some of the portraits I paint stay very realistic, true to life colors.  Others, like the portraits of the Salvadoran martyrs, are painted in symbolic colors to capture the energy of the person.  Doing a paint sketch prior to painting on canvas helps me decide how I want to approach the portrait.

Because the portrait of James Foley would be on display at Marquette I decided to use true to life colors.  The painting sketch helped me practice the style of painting in each of the sections.  The painting styles won’t be completely finalized until I’m actually doing the painting.  A lot of painting is experimenting, trying different things to see what looks best and feels right for the painting.  Some things work while other things may have to be revised even on the final canvas. 

Finalize composition
Finalizing the composition includes deciding how large the subject will be in the painting, whether the subject will be centered, how the background will be painted, and what quote will be included on the portrait.  I like to combine quotes written by or about the subject of a portrait because it gives the viewer a better idea of who the person was.  Many portraits can end up having an anonymous feel, but quotes give another glimpse into whom the subject is or was. 

I had a challenge picking the quote to include in James Foley’s portrait.  James’ letter to his family was the last thing he wrote and encapsulated so much of who he was and what and who he loved.  But James Foley’s legacy to the world was his work as a journalist and his passion for what he did.  His letter captured his humanity but other quotes captured why he was killed for his work as a journalist.  For this reason, I chose a quote from James taken from an interview with Marquette students. 

Begin sketching on canvas
This is one of the last and most important stages of the painting process.  It’s tempting to rush the work of the final sketch to get to the fun painting part, but every time I’ve done this it’s been a mistake.  Spending time on this final step before painting is worth every minute to ensure the final portrait is as close to “right” as I can get it. 

I spent hours on this final sketch working and reworking James’ face.  I’d sketch the portrait upright, then flip it upside down, then stand back, then take a day off to look at it with fresh perspective the next day.  The process took a week, and I think it was valuable for the end result.   

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