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Painting Portraits from Photographs 2: More than Head and Shoulders

April 6, 2021

Week 1:The Whole figure

Picture taken by Alisha when working as a doctor in Afghanistan

Over the next four weeks we’ll consider painting rather more of the clothed figure than just the head and shoulders.  Choosing reference photo is the first challenge.  You may have one of a complete stranger or you may have or can take a picture of a family member reading a book or even asleep. At least they won’t be giving you a great big beaming smile.  For this week include the whole figure either seated or standing in your reference.  The aim will be to get really used to looking at the various elements of the figure because understanding figure itself will help us understand how clothing drapes across the body.  Usually there are a lot of clues especially with more tailored and tight fitting garments but the particular pose that presents itself can also give invaluable clues that will help you make a believable portrait.

In subsequent weeks we’ll look at suitable cropping points so that successful compositions can be made of to the waist and also three quarter length studies.  We’ll also consider figures wearing uniform, formal regalia or traditional costume less familiar to us, but for all of these a general understanding of the figure, its proportions and the way it moves will inform all the work done.

Chris and Toby

Look at the standing reference first; in an adult the head is about one seventh of the total height but in a child this ratio is considerably more. In the photo above it is between one sixth and one fifth. 

Follow an imaginary line from the top of the head down the spine to the pelvis and think about what happens when you get to the legs.  With a standing figure the neck will be directly above the foot bearing most of the weight and if the weight is being evenly shared between both feet will be directly above a point between the feet.  If your figure is leaning against a wall notice if this changes anything. 

Neck above weight bearing foot
Load more evenly shared by each foot

Look at how far the arms extend down the body if they are down and how far again if they are folded or the angles made if they are on the hips or if one arm is on the hip what is happening with the other arm. 

In the sheep market: Tafraoute, Morocco

Look at the tilt of the shoulders and the hips if these can be identified.  Thinking about how the body moves will help.  Look at the knee in relation to the direction in which the foot points.   If you stand fairly upright with your feet together and then turn one foot out a bit the knee follows it and so the knee points in the same direction as the foot.  When sitting this is also the most relaxed position for the foot, but of course if you cross your legs you will find the foot has far more freedom but still feels more comfortable when pointing the same way as the knee.

Try to find out how your own joints limbs and back behave, then look at your reference again and think through what is going on.

Harriet sketching; here the body is changing the shape of the chair back and seat, and because we have a side view the upper leg is not fore-shortened. Note how the foot is pointing in the same direction as the knee.

With the sitting reference, look at the relation of the sitter’s form to the form of what they are sitting on whether it’s flat ground, a grassy slope as for the Afhan girl heading this post, or some kind of seat.  It can be useful to make a sketch of the chair, bench or stool, but remembering that the soft parts of some chairs will be altered by the sitter as above.  The appearance of the figure, especially the fore-shortening of the upper leg will be very different depending on whether you are viewing the person from the side or the front.  The height of the chair in relation to the person’s leg length will also result in a very different posture for the sitter.  If a tall person sits on a low bench they will either stretch their legs out or bend their knees up bringing the feet closer to the chair.  Just think about things like this when looking.

You may like to look at how other artists have portrayed standing and sitting figures so do have a look at the following Pinterest boards.

For the seated figure:

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/jhall1282/portraits/the-whole-figure-seated/

and for the standing figure:

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/jhall1282/portraits/the-whole-figure-standing/

Then it’s high time to have a go!

Choose to work either from a standing or a seated figure and make a few thumbnail sketches first, before launching into your first painting.  Work so that you make note of the tones in the composition as well as the shapes of the forms.  Try to imagine you are in the presence of the sitter and that the figure actually exists in three dimensions rather than the two dimensional image you are referring to.

Composition

After that decide how much space your figure will occupy in your painting. Look at the overall height and width of the figure and how much of the background and what of its features you wish to include or exclude.  Sometimes an indication of the space around the figure and the objects within that space helps the composition while at other times there are things in the background which are irrelevant and may detract from the main focus: the figure being portrayed.

Although not a whole figure this shows how clutter removal can calm the whole composition. The choice is entirely the artist’s, so if I were portraying an electronics wizz in his shack rather more chaos might add to the viewer’s understanding of the character I am painting.

The medium is up to you; pastel and acrylic are possibly more forgiving than watercolour but whichever medium you choose once you have established the main shapes, take note of the tonal balance as well as the colour. If you choose to work in watercolour you may like to Google the portrait watercolours of Charles Reid, and Hans Schwarz, and of course Singer Sargent also produced some wonderful watercolour portraits.

Your paintings:

Rosie by Sarah
Rosie
Watercolour by Sarah
Hugo
Acrylic by Ann
Anika
Soft pastel by Elizabeth
Roger
Watercolour by Elizabeth
Sketches from Photos by Liz
Amy takes a Selfie in the Mirror
Mixed media by Liz
Deborah
Acrylic by Malcolm
Heather
Acrylic by Heather
Artists at Work
Pastel by John
Paula Rego
Coloured pencil on cartridge paper by Angela
A Beer in the Sun
by Mali

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