Thursday, May 01, 2014

Portrait Society of America "The Art of the Portrait" 2014 Conference - April 25 highlights

Morning view of Reston Town Centre from The Hyatt Regency Reston Hotel

On Saturday morning, two of the demonstrators from the previous evening, Quang Ho and Jeffrey Hein painted together while engaging in playful banter.

Quang Ho mentioned that he has lately started working with a verdaccio (a green tonal underpainting), focusing on values and then glazing over that, which is a new way of painting for him. He also stated that while painting alla prima he destroys and then brings back the image. To challenge himself, he plays with color concepts, going into the studio with an assignment to work with a certain color scheme. He mentioned that the main thing is to be excited about whatever you are painting first!

Sharon Sprung, of New York,  talked about the narcissism of small differences - how colors look the same when far apart, but very different when side by side. She emphasized the importance of stating everything loosely at first  since every color (and value) is influenced by what surrounds it. Her palette consists of 9 colors: yellow ochre, raw sienna, bright red (transparent and chromatic), scarlet sienna, alizarin crimson, raw umber, red umber and payne's grey, cobalt blue plus white. She sometimes uses prussian blue and indian yellow for cool or dark skin tones. Sharon mixed a multitude of skin tones from her limited palette and showed how she matches skin tones by actually placing swatches on her model's skin. She mentioned that the strongest color is in the half-tones where form turns.

As I watched her paint swatches on her model (plus a few brave volunteers possessing varied skin tones) with flake white based colors it occurred to me that I might try something similar but probably use some plastic wrap for protection! It is a little risky for the health of your subject to apply lead based paint to their skin, but Sharon mentioned that she and her models get tested regularly, so I guess it is possible to get away with a little exposure in that manner.

The next presentation I chose to attend was a panel talking about lighting, materials and posing for portraiture. Jennifer Welty, a charming and experienced portrait painter, talked about how she proceeds to get the reference material she needs. She prefers to use natural light whenever possible but has an Omni light with barn door, umbrella and an LED light with a warm, transparent overlay. She uses a Canon 50 mm or Tamron 18-270 mm lens with a reflector on a stand. She likes foggy weather for the intense color, conditions similar to those favored by daVinci or Bougeureau. She mentioned that you ought to have a composition in your head before taking photos and early morning/late evening has the best light. She uses a 22x14x10 Pelican case to carry fragile gear encased in foam layers.

Working with photo reference (slide by Jennifer Welty)

With regard to painting, she advises to take things out rather than put them in. Look for the wrinkles that tell the story! Don't slavishly copy every wrinkle simply because it is there. What remains will have more prominence. This is good advice that I have heard more than once from top portrait painters. She recommends the principle of selective focus. Painting every line and wrinkle works against the illusion of reality as that is not how our eye sees. Our mind edits and knows what is most important.

Jennifer also gave a few tips for dealing with difficult children (she does a lot of kid's portraits) and recommended Apple photo booth to get them laughing - it distorts the face and is quite entertaining for a young child. She schedules the whole day, with a lunch break, for a photo shoot to give the subject time to relax in front of the camera.  It is best to keep the head small in proportion to the body (I have noticed this in Sargent's work, some of his paintings are 9 or 10 heads high) and to not have a static pose, always including a twist in the body.

Paul Newton (the artist who brought all his enormous lighting equipment) is from Australia and uses a different electrical system than we have here in North America. Since I prefer to use natural light with maybe a huge piece of white foam core as a reflector, I am not going to go into huge detail about his particular choices. He does emphasize the need to reflect back some light into the shadows since we all know that the camera does not portray reality and shadows are often black holes rather than airy and subtly light filled areas even though a darker value than anything in light.

Main light is placed VERY high to light model

Here is Paul Newton adjusting his fill light - as you can see, this is serious photography equipment. He mentioned that you can use a white wall instead of this light. These are monolights which consist of a lower intensity constant light that shows you the effect and a strobe that goes off when you click the shutter of your camera. He uses Prophoto (a Swedish company) since they have dual voltage and 250 watt bulbs.

The final speaker was Virgil Elliott, who spoke about oil painting materials and showed us how quickly a number of colors (such as many brands of alizarin crimson, even the permanent type) faded. He encouraged us to do our own testing, since some colors he expected to do well faded quickly and others were fine.

Don't miss the next blog post - third day at the conference coming up!

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