First I am looking up the word character to possibly understand some variations of it (http://www.merriam-webster.com/): character
– the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone’s personality
– a set of qualities that are shared by many people in a group, country, etc.
– a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things
Key aspect of this exercise will be depicting uniques facial features that would be part of one’s personality or behaviour. Interestingly character could be also a trait shared by a group of people.
I got a very intersting book about Facial expressions and I looked up some underlying principles, how the facial muscles play a key role in recognisable expressions (Faigin, 1990). Without reading much more I already got a feeling about how complex human facial expression can be. At least it gave me some hints about key aspects of eyebrows, eye, mouth, and signature wrinkles for facial expressions.
The key question would be how to capture the most important and differentiating ones in a short time? I am worried a bit that the painting may turn into a carricature.
Before starting my painting I wonder how character and facial expression was and is depicted by others. For the sake of simplicity I am looking at Rembrandt (for his quick character sketching capability) and one contemporary artist (to see a contemporary and perhaps more fluent handling of paint).
Rembrandt van Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)
– ‘The Naughty Child‘, 1635
Pen and brown ink on paper, brown wash (20,7 x 14,2 cm)
[Online image] Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_drawings_by_Rembrandt#/media/File:Rembrandt_The_Naughty_Child.jpg [accessed 02 Sep 2016]
– ‘The Abduction of Ganymede’, 1635
Oil on panel (177 x 130 cm)
[Online image] Available from:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Abduction_of_Ganymede#/media/File:Rembrandt_-The_Abduction_of_Ganymede-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [accessed 02 Sep 2016]
=> Rembrandt (see my post on self-portraits – click here) studied facial expressions at the mirror and his various self-portraits especially the later ones do show a high level of distinctive facial expressions. His sketch of the ‘Naughty Child’ what was done from life does show with simple lines a very expressive and dramatic expression, not only of the child but also of the two women. An excellent sketch of quick observation. It is said that Rembrandt uses this sketch for his painting ‘The Abduction of Ganymede’ with a similar facial expression of the child.
Chantal Joffe (b. 1969)
– ‘Self-Portrait with Esme and Spot‘, 2011
Oil on canvas (55 x 46 x 2.2 cm)
[Online image] Available from: cj688_self-portrait-with-esme-and-spot_2011.jpg [accessed 02 Sep 2016]
=> the child with a relaxed (sleeping) expression and the artist with a smile, though for me still with a certain intense and attentive expression (eye area).
Another good example of conveying with simple strokes expression and character are the paintings by Maria Lassnig.
I decided to go one of my favourite film actors: Columbo. Many know him as a very special cop of LAPD. Of italian origin, driving an old french car, wearing an old used raincoat and always smoking a cigar he comes across as a friendly and at times quite absentminded person with an unassuming appearance. He is always underestimated by the criminals. Columbo’s circumstantial speech irritates the others, and one key trait is his nearly always asking another question when already at the door to exit.
Columbo shows uniques facial features depending on the situations, mostly during interrogation of suspects: with a sly and/or debauched smile, attentive expression, at times with rather a comical expression. Specific features: narrowed eyes, vertical lines between eyebrows, eyebrows lifted or at times pulled downward toward the center, dimples, mouth widened with corners pulled back, lips thin, at times tight together, at times partly open.
Character trait I want to paint: sly and cunning
My painting approach: Fluent use of paint, expressive and simplified. For this exercise I am going straight into the painting(s) without worrying about preparatory works. I feel that without I will be looser in my approach. I will work in gouache as I want to be fast and expressive and catching the unique character at best instantly.
Painting #1: Gouache on acrylic paper (48 x 36 cm)
Painting #2:Gouache on acrylic paper (70 x 50 cm) – paper on stretchers
Work in progress
I had a hard time to catch the key features on the face in the first painting, mostly as the proportions were wrong in the first place and I had to adjust during the process. Gave me quite a headache.
The second one went much smoother. I wanted paint more of the figure to capture the raincoat as well with some believable environment (inside a room with view outside) – a typical scene. I was more careful of marking the proportions right in the first place. I had to modulate more the eyelids – quite low with a thin opening for the eye – till I was satisfied with the expression.
It was fun to pain theses two character portraits. At the end I am asking myself what is the difference between painting a character and painting likeness? I can understand that typical poses are rather stern – see my daily self-portraits – and that painting somehow in a different mood and with depicting unique personal traits would be so beneficial. Sitting as a model takes time and this time does destroy those features and turn into a anonymous person? Somehow I have the feeling that there must be something else that painting can do – rather interpretative, expressive, translating a felt sense into a pictorial image. Something that I would not be able to do from a photograph or video only? I am getting more curious and have to think how I could embark on that idea in the next steps (if it is not too complex for level 1 units).
- I am satisfied with the expressiveness of my approach and depicting the character of Columbo
- Working from correct proportions in the first place makes the painting process more fluent.
- As long I could discriminate and discern the key features in words I found it was easier to capture the character.
- As I find it difficult to describe in words what the key elements of a character are, I find at times it more interesting to go with the flow of the painting process and depict more from my current bodily and emotional awareness into the painting. What could go wrong when not working on self-portraits though.
- I have a feeling that painting a portrait can go beyond a likeness, visual recognised features. My perception of a person as a felt sense would involve also non-vision senses.
- I still have problems at times to describe the character or expressive markers in words. I do feel that I need to phrase more in words what I want to achieve and which elements are key before starting a painting.
- Thinking about portrait painting in a broader, more interpretative sense to capture a felt sense.
- Faigin, G. (1990) ‘The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression‘, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications