We were privileged to have Fiona with us to give a talk about how to produce paintings, in particular portraits, at the society. Even more to her credit was that she had recently broken her arm so could not paint, so she had prepared a tutorial like session with loads of colour prints. Asked if she needed to cancel, Fiona replied that she didn’t want to disappoint those attending by not turning up. She has gained my admiration for that.
I will begin with a little from Fiona’s biography. She has impressive training in art and a good amount of experience as a practising artists and teacher.
Fiona Bilbrough was born in 1967 and studied at the University of Melbourne, graduating with a Bachelor of Education in Fine Art in 1989.
Fiona took a two year course with John Balmain in portrait and still life painting in 1988 and 1989. She received regular feedback from him until his death in January 2000. Fiona was an art teacher for multi-aged groups in oil painting at the McClelland Guild of Artists 1986-1995. From 1988 onwards Fiona was a contract Art teacher and Artist in Residence in a number of schools and from 1990 to the present Fiona has been giving private tuition for children and adults in her own studio. She teaches still life, portraiture, plaster casts and in open air painting utilising the Meldrum methods of casual observation.
A special achievement for Fiona was receiving the Alice Bale Scholarship in 1995. This enabled her to study master paintings in Europe.
Fiona is a member of the Victorian Artists Society and Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors. Winning numerous awards her work has also been published in the Australian Artists Magazine in 1996, 1997 and 2004. Fiona received the Victorian Artist of the Year Award in 2001, 2002 and 2003. She has work in private collections in France, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland and throughout Australia.
With prints spread about the podium to quickly access, Fiona began by asking us why we paint.
So “Why do we paint?”
- We love it, even if it’s a solitary activity at times, especially in the studio.
- Painting can absorb us, especially if it is something we love or possibly a tricky portrait to study.
- Painting from life means different situations all the time, so we get some variety.
- Painting gives us the challenge of trying to get things right, such as in the case of portraits, proportions, the human anatomy, the unique features of each sitter.
Fiona says that she finds portraiture the most satisfying of all her subjects.
Even though her preference is working from a live model, due to family commitments, Fiona has had to modify her work routine and methods. She now uses photographs more often, especially for practicing the parts of the human body that give her the most trouble. As she likes to go to the best for her inspiration and advice she has taken to going to art galleries that allow photography (without flash) and sketching on site. A good artist to look at is Sir John Campbell Longstaff (1861-1941), Australian artist, followed by maybe a couple of my favourites for lighting and mood, Tom Roberts, Vermeer and Rembrandt (I also like Sir Joshua Reynolds). Keep in mind the lighting in the room as you take your photos, the time of day and the type of lights will effect how accurately the colours come out in your photograph, as well as the fact that the photo may never match the painting exactly, making the colours either cooler or warmer than the original.
This way she is able to take cropped photos of the details in some of our most prized paintings to enable her to practice from them. We have had lessons and tasks at TAFE from our drawing teacher which involved drawing over twenty noses, ears, eyes and mouths to help us with the same task. I noticed that focussing in on just the one detail from a human face and drawing it over and over from various references quickly gave an understanding of how to render them better. Have a look at the shape of the little part just above the lips and under the nose, the corner of the mouth and the shadow under the mouth as well as the angle or slope of the eyes. It is a practice, especially now that I have learnt this bit of advise from Fiona, that I hope to be able to expand to increase my own skills.
Fiona mentioned that something that good judges in portrait exhibitions look for in paintings is the presence of hands that are well executed. Many artists shy away from hands as they find them too difficult. If you can learn to include them as a positive compositional part of your portrait it will help to raise it to a higher level. This again, involves a lot of practice.
Now that we are on the subject of photographs I would like to go on with the pros and cons as Fiona described them.
Photos can be a great resource when you can not get out of your studio, have little time or no model available. They can be the wrong colour as long as the tonal values are correct. A well framed face with a relaxed expression and good lighting can be a great resource. Black and white photos can even be a better picture to use than a colour one if the colours are confusing you as far as getting your tonal values correct.
Balanced with working from a live model, photos can be a great help in practising your skills. Keep in mind that when you have a person sit for you, it is more tiring that you would expect. Regular breaks every twenty minutes are required and the session should not be too long, as the fatigue will come out in the face of the person as they get more tired and muscles start to ache.
Looking at the work of masters will help in recognising the use of the medium and the brush. In the case of many impressionist style painters one stroke of the correct colour and tone does it. The paintings are not overworked and there is not a lot of tedious blending where not necessary. Knowing the right tone and colour BEFORE you take that stroke on the canvas shows the difference between a practised artist and someone who is still learning to master the medium or beginning.
Another artist to watch out for in your practising is John Singer Sargent. His work shows how great artists interpret what they see and make it into art. They have their own rules to follow in applying paint to canvas for their own unique “look” and style. As a tonal painter these are five rules that are basically followed by tonalists that you may see in his work.
In order of importance follow these when what is most important in planning your painting:
Compose the general look of your painting (where things will fall on the canvas) then plan:
- TONE (must be important above all others)
- EDGES )lost and found, keeping the painting as soft as possible for as long as possible)
- THIN TO THICK (keep thin as long as possible as it gets very difficult to layer paint over thickly applied layers already on the canvas)
- TEXTURE (showing the surface texture of times, surfaces, skin, hair, folds, creases etc)
When painting don’t be seduced by the colour or detail, we are often rushed into painting the details in a painting too early, keep the brush strokes broad as the details should only be the last five percent of your painting, even if time consuming in comparison. The use of a mirror, turning the work up side down to work on can help you stop the desire to get too fiddly too soon. It may also help in finding where you may be going off track. A black glass or “red guy” as I call them (a red piece of perspex) is also a good help if held up at 90° to your face over your eyes to reflect the painting. You will see it reversed and only in its tones.
If portraits are still causing you a problem in oils, try changing mediums for a new try at them. I go from oils to pastels a lot just for this, apart from loving using both. Sometimes I can sort out a problem in one medium by tackling the same subject in another. It helps to zero in on where the problem is occurring, in the medium itself or in the subject.
Getting back to the photographs, the main difference in painting from them rather than life is the way shadows are shown in many photos. They are black. If you look at shadows you will note that they are seldom this flat or lacking in colour. David Chen has told us that we should look at shadows as having FIVE parts to them, not just one flat colour. They can also be either warm or cool depending on the light source and reflective surfaces. The light areas in many photos also lose detail in a lot of cases. All these are important for you to either use or not, but at least see to be able to decide on. So check your lights and darks, and check your colours in isolation to others in the photo. Adjacent colours alter the way you perceive them. Just punch a hole in a piece of cardboard so you can look at the colour of what ever part of the photo you are painting to check you are matching the colour correctly (this can also be used when matching paint colour to that on a live model).
On the subject of your models, look at the angles and tilt of the heads in many famous portraits. They are rarely straight on. Getting a good angle on the face can also make the painting or break it.
A great tip from Fiona from this talk that I hadn’t noticed about some paintings, was looking at the use of the canvas. Instead of stretching the canvas at 90° with the weave in line with the frame, the canvas was stretched at 45° so that the paint was kept soft on the edges of forms by the way the brush reacted to the weave being on a different angle. As I sometimes have trouble with paintings looking a bit “stiff” or with too many edges, I really like this idea. As the human form is not a pile of lines and edges but form and shape, light and shadow, it would be good to try out this method of stretching a canvas to see how the brush reacts differently as I apply it. It may have broader applications than just portraits.
Finally as we finished up, Fiona re-emphasised that photos are good for composition but nothing matches real life for matching skin tones. Portraiture is about picking up the individual features of a person, the face and the hands. When you decide to tackle one, look for the unique features of that person that you can translate into a painting and the ideas from the masters that have gone before us that made their works so timeless and amazing.
Thanks Fiona for a great session. Some may wonder how you can give a demo and not paint, but you have passed on valuable information and were an engaging and enjoyable speaker.