Portraits in Oils
Venue: Berwick Artists Society
Date: 28th November 2012
Demonstrating Artist: Lee Machelak
Lee is a “considered painter” who puts a lot of thought into her works before laying a singe dab of paint on a surface. I watched before the demonstration as she carefully set up her work space, including lighting for her model and where she would sit. The lights in the room were adjusted and we all moved back a bit to allow her to do the massive amount of walking back and forth she does whilst painting.
Lee came to us with very impressive credentials. Her training includes some time overseas at very reputable art schools and she is a member of both the Victorian Artists Society as a Signatory Member and the Twenty Melbourne Painters Society. She teaches and exhibits her work with many awards to her name.
Having the opportunity to watch and learn from an artist of this calibre is very rewarding and another reason why I keep notes!
Sound observation was a key and important point that Lee wanted to impress on us. Take the time to really look and compare between your subject and your painting. This includes other subjects apart from portraits. If you are trying for a likeness, for animal portraits for example, or even getting a scene to look like it does in life for a commission, getting the scale, proportions and colours are important. Note however that these rules are overshadowed by a major one called TONE. Getting your tonal values right no matter what colour you are using can make or break a work. Not having a wide enough tonal range in your work means that it will look washed out. This can be shown up by taking a photo and reducing the pic to greyscale or using a “red guy” which is basically a piece of red perspex that when you look through reduces all colours to tones.
For the portrait sitting, the subject was placed next to the easel. Lee likes to work on a one to one scale and has a point marked on the floor to step back to for measuring and making her observations. She also had a viewfinder to frame the sitter. This is a great little tool that helps you know where you will put your subject on your canvas. It makes seeing the negative space all around them so easy to see and this in turn helps with getting shapes and proportions right.
Rather than marking up the canvas with lots of marks to measure as other artists have done that I have seen, Lee used a thin wash of burnt umber and ultramarine to block in the negative space around the head and shoulders. The brush was used on the diagonal to keep all the edges “soft”. She likes to squint as she is making these first marks and use a large brush so that the whole work remains loose and large. Details can be refined as you works your way through the painting process.
Keeping the paint thin, the darks in the face and neck were blocked in such as eye sockets, under the nose, lips and chin.
As she got into the next stage Lee started using a mix of medium by adding some Liquin to the turps. She doesn’t always use this as she prefers to use other products, but the Liquin makes the paint dry very quickly which is handy for a demo. Normally the major part of the scene which in this case was the bright clothing would be next to block in but as it was not a main feature of the painting, Lee decided to concentrate on the face. Making up a dark green with black, yellow ochre and a little blue Lee blocked in around the head, cutting in to help refine the shape a little more. For the skin she made up the dark tone on the shaded side on the face by using white, raw umber, indian red and a little alizarin crimson. She mentioned how important it is to check the temperature of the area you are painting. Does it require a warm colour or a cool one? Even if it is reddish it can be a cooler or warmer red. The left side of the face was in a warm light so a warm colour was made up to reflect that. It did look quite dark a first but as the lighter and darker tones were later painted in to model the face, it started to look a lot lighter in comparison. You can always check this sort of thing by either wiping a little back to show the white of the canvas or putting a dab of what will be your lightest light on where a highlight will later fall.
Lee said that you can’t paint things out of context so you need to keep asking yourself at all stages through your painting, what is the temperature, how is every detail working with all the others? By checking one thing against the other you can make sure that you have all the features, especially in a face, in the right place and the right size.
As Lee kept stepping back to check and recheck she refined the edges and shapes so that a real likeness revealed itself whilst we watched.
After the break more refined details such as lips and eyes were painted in. By this stage Lee had a good arsenal of brushes in use. She likes to help keep her colours clean by using a lot of brushes and cleaning them when she pulls one colour in over the edge of another.
As the mid tones and highlights were painted in to start modelling the face, revealing the shape of the nose, brow and chin, the portrait, though still in progress, really took shape and reflected the sitter. Still doing test patches to check her tonal values, Lee was still working colours over the edges of others keeping the soft painterly look.
Since we were short on time, Lee put the details into the eyes to show off the pupils and iris. This is where the character of the person really comes out so this is where putting in the little reflections, reflected light, the look of wetness and the colour of the eye is so important. The painting was not finished, but you could tell who it was and we picked up some great tips.
My thanks to Lee for passing on some of her elite and professional training from such places as at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy and with highly regarded painters such as Alan Martin and Max Casey as well as her many years of experience applying her craft.