Maggie is a beautiful young woman with an outgoing personality and lot of potential. Her long dark hair and sweet smile seemed ideal for a painting I wanted to do at this early point in my career, that of a sharp young lady with smooth gentle features. This was the first one I have done with a young woman as my model and I wanted to do a professional job that would be a good portfolio piece. I've known Maggie and her family for many years yet having her model for me was a new situation and I knew she would be uncomfortable at first. Soon after she graduated high school I asked her to pose for me and she agreed, however she had moved to Charlotte that summer so arranging a time for her to sit was getting more difficult.
Selecting the Location
I wanted this painting to portray a young person in modern attire, and I didn't want to fill the background with clutter or objects that would detract from the simple beauty of the model or make the image look dated. There are plenty of terrific locations close to me that can provide a simple backdrop but the Moses Cone Manor is a setting that seems to provide a sense of quiet elegance from a by-gone era. I have wanted to paint there for a long time but needed the right subject and a composition that would seem fitting there. Choosing a modern home as a backdrop offers the danger that the painting will soon look like a leisure suit from the seventies. The Manor seems timeless.
Maggie met me on location and we set up near a door that provided a simple background. The late afternoon sunlight coming through the trees hit the subject at a severe and awkward angle casting a harsh shadow, so I had her move away from the direct light as I had no way to soften its powerful impact on her features. But I liked the sharp angle of sunlight on the background so I moved my subject and my point of view until I saw a way to get both in a workable position. Maggie posed patiently while I took a number of photos then I tried a quick alla prima oil sketch to see how much I could capture in a short time. While this sketch served to give me practice, I did not feel as though I had captured her likeness very well. I took it all to the studio and began work on a larger painting.
While I enjoy composing a figurative work and realize that the viewer will probably not know if the likeness is accurate, I will know. The model will know. Her friends and family will know.
While I enjoy composing a figurative work and realize that the viewer will probably not know if the likeness is accurate, I will know. The model will know. Her friends and family will know. So I work hard at making it look good, like a portrait, with a good rendering of her facial features. I wish I could say that I posed the model for hours and hours, painting from life while I worked on the proportions and shapes to make sure it looked just like her, but I didn't. I used photos. I don't use a projector, or trace my subject. But I have not the time or have I found models who are available to sit for long periods of time while I try and try again.
Practice, Practice, Practice
In order to get a good likeness, I have to practice and practice and practice drawing the face in pencil and learning all of the nuances of the model's features. I am trying to get away from approaching a painting as if it is a line drawing though, where I'm totally dependent on a detailed pencil outline. I see artists using that technique while referring to the historical methods of a precise under-drawing and layers of glazing to build up color. I have a great respect for many of them, but I am trying to loosen up my methods and concentrate more on starting with the masses then getting more detailed as I successfully paint the larger shapes.
When I move to the canvas, I start with a light pencil sketch to block in the outline of the character and the general masses and try to capture the movement in the subject. After a general background wash to establish a tone, I work on the placement of the major shapes with a brush, using light amounts of thinned paint, then continue to paint the shapes building up paint layers as if I am sculpting, carefully putting in darks first, then midtones. I am cautious about putting in highlights and hold off on them until I am satisfied with the overall proportions, placement and values.
I can't say I have a structured way of progressing through the painting, such as main subject first, then background, etc. Each time I start a painting, I plan a different way to reach my end goal based on my excitement about the work itself. Sometimes I get excited about the background and the effects I am acheiving with brush strokes so I work on that portion before moving to more detailed areas. I have to admit, I am moved to emotional decisions as I progress through a painting.
Correction After Correction
I am a perfectionist at heart. My work does not show loose, relaxed, impressionistic strokes. The downside is that I have a tendency to overwork the details. Yep, correction after correction and wiping out or overlaying more paint tends to make the painting look like I went too far. So, I have a lot of learning to do, I'll admit. I wonder if Sargent ever stepped back and felt like wiping the whole thing out and starting all over again. I sure have. I may not reach the level of his bravura painting strokes, but I will learn to be more precise each time I lay down some paint so that I can achieve that likeness without losing the freshness of a good painting.
How did I know when this one was done? I was working on a smooth surface so I stroked those soft mongoose brushes until the transitions were smooth and the facial colors were balanced with the darks and lights represented by the right values and colors. I have a tendency to stop when I am nearing the end and leave the painting until the next day so I can see it again with a fresh perspective. I did that many times with "Maggie." I have found that too many hours looking at it up close can cause you to miss important things that may look wrong tomorrow when you see it with fresh eyes. When I finally finished this one, I made an internal decision not to go back and try and "fix" it. At that point, I was willing to tell myself, "leave it alone, its done."