Basic 101: Class 33 – Advanced Realistic Portraiture
Part One: The Male Subject
Well the suspense is over! Welcome to the latest installment in my series of cruel exercises to be perpetuated upon the masses!
I am not quite heartless, though, so I can assure you that I will make this as pain-free as possible!
On a serious note, I’d like to begin by apologizing for subjecting you to MY teachings in this area of study, as I hardly feel qualified. You have my every assurance that I will nonetheless do my best to ensure that each of you benefits in some way from the methods of my madness, and I look forward to seeing you develop a bit of your own special madness in this class. My overall vision for this class is that each of you applies what I teach, along with your own talents and powers of logic and reason, and creates a piece of art far better than you previously thought yourself capable. That’s setting the bar pretty high, right? Well, let’s just see about that. I am supremely confident that each of you will accomplish this goal. I am not teaching a magic formula for portraits here, but I think that this lesson will open your eyes and help you to see and consider things that you have not consciously applied in the past. You will see that doing a realistic human portrait is really not so intimidating after all. You just have to take it one step at a time and be prepared to pat yourself on the back at the finish line. I think some of you will be astounded at the works that you produce in this class, and I can’t wait to see them!
Now, perhaps if not for pesky schedule demands and the like, I could have recruited a certain fairly decent portrait artist with the initials A.M. to host this class, but reality is what it is, so you’re stuck with me! You’ll be happy to know, however, that it’s not a TOTAL loss; while I thought it inappropriate to impose upon Armin by asking him to conduct this class, I did manage to capture the elusive creature himself and bring him along with me!
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Armin Mersmann:
In this class we will cover many different aspects of realistic portraiture, from practical application to philosophy. Some areas may be covered in greater depth than others, or omitted altogether, depending on their practical relevance to my specific demo. Rest assured, however, that important aspects that are NOT addressed in this particular class will likely be covered in the female lesson.
For instance, I’ve chosen not to address the issue of teeth in this particular lesson, for two reasons. First, they simply do not factor into my demo and in the interest of time it is not practical to address every single possible scenario in the written lesson. Second, because teeth are much more often a factor in female rather than male portraiture, and we’ve got to save SOMETHING for the female class, right?
That said, a major portion of this lesson will be my walking you through the sometimes horrifying but nearly always entertaining process of the creation of one of my own portraits. After deciding to divide this topic into two separate classes by portrait subject, I could think of no more appropriate model than Armin for my male demo, and I thank him for providing both reference photo and invaluable feedback throughout this little journey.
Before going onward, let’s take a moment to discuss a term that no doubt has brought many of you to this class.
A Few Million Words on Photo-Realism
This is a term that is often misused; a generic label applied to any piece of art exhibiting a high level of realism. I’m guilty of this myself, and frankly, if someone describes one of my works as “photo-realistic,” I take it as a compliment, because I understand that the essence of what they’re telling me is that I’ve achieved my goal of producing a highly realistic drawing.
On the other hand, were my work on the level of, say, Armin, I might be insulted by such a pronouncement. The reason that I mention this is because I think it is important that we recognize the distinction between photo-realism and true realism, and further that we remain conscious of this distinction as we work.
Taken literally, the term “photo-realistic” implies the presence of inherent flaws and shortcomings within a drawing. Naturally, if you consider it in these terms, it is easy to understand why some artists may cringe upon hearing their work described in this manner. There are two principal reasons for this, and both should be on your mind as you work, so as to avoid falling into certain traps that can render your work devoid of life, thus severing its connection to the viewer.
1. Because of their two-dimensionality, photographs are in fact flawed representations of reality. Phenomena such as flattening, edge distortion, and a host of other issues absolutely guarantee that no photograph is perfect, and thus can and should be viewed as a diminished form of the reality that it attempts to convey. As artists starting with a blank page, we have a distinct advantage over the photographer, in that every pencil mark that we produce represents a POSITIVE rather than negative progression. Photography cannot improve upon reality, making something “more real,” so by design it represents a negative progression AWAY from true reality. Conversely, a work of art created from NOTHING can only be positive in nature and progression. This is largely just a matter of mindset, of course, but an important one nonetheless. As artists we are not subject to the limitations of mechanical devices in conveying a sense of true reality; we create our OWN reality from the blank page, and we are in charge.
Why is this important? Because a trap to be avoided at all costs is to confine yourself to simply replicating the flawed reality contained within a photograph. Be conscious of the aforementioned shortcomings associated with photographic references, and use your knowledge and skill to manipulate the photo as you recreate it, in a way that no camera is capable. This is the central key to why artists such as Armin are in fact capable of producing work that EXCEEDS the realism of a photo. Clearly this is easier said than done, but if you remain cognizant of this principle as you work, you can only improve your results.
2. Be wary of placing too much emphasis on slavishly duplicating your reference
photo detail-for-detail. In most cases, unless you ARE of the artistic caliber of Armin, this is ultimately an exercise in futility and only leads to unnecessary frustration. More importantly, engaging in this practice necessarily removes any and all spontaneity from the drawing process, which in turn negatively impacts your final result no matter what your level of technical proficiency may be. More than perhaps any other, this fact is the genesis of the not uncommon negative attitude held by some toward the very concept of “photo-realism.” After all, even if you are technically capable of reproducing your reference photo down to the most minute detail, what are you then saying with your work that has not already been conveyed by the photo itself? NOTHING. By removing the element of spontaneity from the process, you can only hope in the BEST of circumstances to produce a static, lifeless carbon copy of a photographic image. And that, my friends, is just mmmmmmmmadness!!!
This issue confuses many artists, because they wonder, logically, where the dividing line lies between copying a static “reality” and CREATING a new one. The answer to that question is a personal one that must come from within the individual artist, but I can comment on my personal approach. When I set out to create a work of art based upon a photographic reference, the first thing I do is take time to study and consider every single detail within the photo and determine which elements I consider to be important to the overall message that I want to convey. I might consider a particular shadow or highlight of paramount importance, or I might choose to eliminate it altogether. As I work, I constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the relationship between my drawing and the reference, and make adjustments as I see fit. It’s not uncommon for me to eliminate certain details from my drawing, only to backtrack later on in the process and add them back in. Or vice versa. As stated, my evaluative process is ongoing, and my opinion as to the relative importance of certain elements is always subject to change.
In fact, it is not unheard of for me to make wholesale changes that result in a finished product that differs dramatically from the reference, whether in terms of tonality, atmosphere, or any number of other considerations. Think of a reference photo as a buffet of sorts. You are the artist and you set the rules. You pick and choose which things you want on your plate, and leave the rest behind. Then play with your food as you deem necessary!
Essentially, my personal approach vis-à-vis portraiture is to copy only what I consider the critical elements necessary to achieve a proper likeness. Beyond that, while I typically tend to remain faithful to the reference in a broad sense (such as replicating the major light/shadow patterns, provided that I’m satisfied with the photographic representation thereof), I will often draw for hours on end without once looking at the reference. I just use logic and common sense to create or minimize detail as I prefer.
I’m certainly no authority on photo-realism, but the above is my philosophy on the matter. Ultimately, as with any artistic endeavor, you will need to experiment and decide for yourself what works best for you. The important thing to remember is that your art is your creation, and as artists you should always strive to go beyond the photo and create your own personal reality. The finest art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer, and it therefore follows that the artist’s own personality, vision, and soul should shine through in his interpretation of the subject. If you take nothing else away from this, remember that it is YOU, not the two-dimensional photograph, who is in charge of the reality that you create, and the story that you tell through your work.
Thoughts on Circulism
It should be noted that while the main technique featured in my lesson is what will be referred to for simplicity’s sake as “circulism,” it is not the “required” technique for your own submissions. The core principles of realistic drawing are not specific to any one method of applying tone, so you are free and encouraged to use whatever method suits you best.
For those interested in specifically learning about circulism as a means of creating realistic textures, hopefully you will gain a better understanding of the technique as this lesson unfolds. It is important to consider, however, that there are many different approaches to this technique, and mine may or may not work for you. Additionally, bear in mind that my own technique not only constantly evolves but also tends to vary substantially from piece to piece, depending on a multitude of factors. As you become more familiar and comfortable with the technique, you will no doubt come to appreciate the usefulness and necessity of variety in practical application.
All of that said, at its core, the technique remains fairly constant. It is, after all, simply drawing circles at its most fundamental level. This brings to mind an issue that has been touched on previously by myself and others: CONTEXT. Circulism is by no means a method that is only useful for depicting skin tones. In the right context, it can be used to portray any number of different materials or textures, or even used in the abstract as either a generic background or a means of optically separating adjacent similar values.
For those interested in seeing this point illustrated in practice, you can take a look at my recent Thrill of Victory WIP.
In that drawing, I used circulism for the dog’s scarf, the dog’s tongue, the asphalt under the dog’s feet, and the generic “sky” behind the dog. Now, we all know that these items generally bear little or no resemblance to one another in art or reality, but when viewed in the proper context and alongside the appropriate visual clues in my drawing, each of these is effective and believable. (* I must admit, though, that I think I missed the mark on “asphalt” because of the way that I isolated the dog in the composition. However, I am confident that had I included a proper visual clue such as a roadside curb, the message of “asphalt” would have been correctly sent to the viewer.) The important thing here is to realize that by learning circulism you are actually adding a pretty versatile tool to your proverbial belt. It is not to be viewed as a single-purpose application, only to be employed when called upon to render human skin.
For the benefit of those completely unfamiliar with the mechanics of circulism, I would encourage you to take a look at the following thread. It’s not necessary to read through the whole thing – just read my initial post. There you will find a thorough explanation of how to physically go about the business of applying graphite using this method. I’d planned on posting a close-up demo of the technique here as well, but I think that’s going to have to wait until the female class due to my computer issues. I should have a brand new computer by then, so we’ll be in good shape!J
Okay, let’s move forward to the next in our checklist of preliminaries…
Prior to this class, I posted a list of recommended materials. Let’s quickly address some key materials and their functions to clear up any lingering questions, confusion, hostility, suicidal depression, etc…
While I’ve left it up to you to decide what type of pencils to use for this project, I would recommend using a .5mm mechanical pencil with a 2b lead as your primary instrument. The reasons for this are as follows:
1. Because of the higher density of mechanical pencil leads, you can produce an extraordinarily wide range of values with the same pencil simply be varying your applied pressure. This simplifies the process and reduces the interruptions associated with rummaging through a whole assortment of different pencils for different tasks.
2. Mechanical pencils do not need sharpening, and their nature allows for the constant availability of a broad, flat tip and a crisp, sharp edge at the same time. A simple turn of the pencil in your hand enables you to apply either broad, soft tones or razor sharp fine lines and details.
There are as many papers and paper types as there are artists, but certain types lend themselves better to realistic portraiture. For convenience, my recommendation for this class was Bristol smooth, as it is commonly found and a very good surface for this type of work. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference, but a good rule of thumb is that you will get best results from any hot pressed substrate that is durable, acid free, and has no distracting tooth pattern. If anyone is curious, my demo for this class was done on acid free Crescent Antique White mat board. This is the surface that Armin uses, and on his recommendation I decided to give it a try. I like it, but it is a bit tricky, and might not be practical for some due to cost, availability, and other considerations.
This is superior to a standard kneadable eraser in all shared functions, and can be used to create an array of effects. Admittedly, I tend to rely more on my pencils than erasers to achieve my desired results, so I have neither the knowledge or expertise to speak at length about the many uses for this little tool, but I still consider it an invaluable asset even if only used primarily to lift excess graphite.
This can be used to create very fine, precise lines and highlights, and is excellent for detail work because you can hold and control it like a pencil, and the end can be manipulated to create various types of edges.
This is useful in two instances. First, it serves as a finishing spray to preserve your final drawing and prevent smudging, etc… Second, in certain situations it can be applied to your drawing for the purpose of creating an artificial layer of extra tooth in order to apply more graphite. This is helpful if you find yourself having difficulty achieving sufficiently intense blacks.
Some were puzzled about my inclusion of tracing paper on the list of class materials. To be sure, if you do enough high detail portraits you will come to understand that tracing paper is your friend!!! There are two key uses for this aside from its obvious function.
1. Often when working on a portrait, or any type of drawing, you may find yourself in a jam. Maybe over the course of things you have lost part of your line drawing (this happens to me quite a bit, as I make my line drawing transfers EXTREMELY light and it takes very little effort to smudge them right off the paper!), or maybe you suddenly realize that you screwed up somewhere in your line drawing. Or maybe you decide to alter your line drawing altogether for a better visual impact. These things do happen, and sometimes we can’t see problems until we begin applying tone. Having tracing paper on hand allows you to save the surface of your drawing while you figure out how to solve your problem. Just place the tracing paper over your work and lightly re-draw the problem area. Once you get it right, slip a sheet of transfer paper between the tracing paper and your work surface, and transfer your corrected drawing. Presto!
2. Tracing paper is an invaluable tool for indenting, such as with fine hairs, whiskers, etc… Just as above, the principal benefit is that you can see through it, and can therefore be sure to make your indentations in precisely the correct places.
** A note about tortillons/stumps, etc…
While I have not “outlawed” the use of these tools in this class, I strongly discourage the practice. Tortillons and blending stumps can be used to great effect by some artists who know how to properly use them, but the reality is that most do NOT. Rather, they rely on these tools as a means of accomplishing that which they lack the technical proficiency to accomplish with a pencil. This mainly comes into play with respect to blending and achieving smooth, gradual tonal transitions. The trouble is, since these tools have no inherent magical properties, if you are incapable of achieving gradual tonal transitions with a pencil, you are kidding yourself if you think you’re effectively doing so with a tortillon or stump. More often than not, the use of these tools results in three things, any one of which would be problematic even in the absence of the other two:
1. Flattened tooth – Smashing down the tooth of your work surface inhibits the paper’s ability to accept subsequent layers of graphite. This is a sure-fire way to completely ruin a drawing if you blend too early or too aggressively.
2. Severely reduced contrast – Used improperly, all that these tools do is smear your darks, redistributing the surface graphite into your lighter areas. As this happens, your darks become lighter as graphite is removed. This results in a completely flat tonality, turning virtually everything into the same muddy midtone value.
3. Complete obliteration of texture – This is the most common problem that I see even in supposedly “good” portrait art. Even if you manage, by layering and blending and layering and blending and blind luck, to come up with a passable range of values, your work is not going to look truly realistic if it is completely devoid of any discernable texture. Unless your portrait subject has no pores and no skin blemishes, the texture-free approach is only going to make you look like an airbrush artist in my opinion. Now I’ve seen some impressive illustrative works that have a decent range of values and a reasonable degree of depth while lacking in texture, but they are just that – ILLUSTRATIONS. This is a class on REALISM!
If you insist on using these tools, I would urge you to at least be cognizant of their potential problems as outlined above, and proceed with extreme caution! Ideally, what I would like to see is for you to put these tools aside, even if only for this class, and try to train yourself to achieve your values and subtle tonal transitions using only your pencil. Nothing but good things can come of such an effort.
Continued next post...