Portraiture isn't just about capturing a likeness. A good portrait communicates something about the person who is the subject matter of the work.
I have always liked the work of the English portrait artist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Many of his subjects were famous people such as the Duke of Wellington but that is not what makes the works interesting. A look in the eyes, the smile, the position of the body reveal something about Lawrence's people even the ones who history has forgotten. You feel like you would have liked to have met them.
Along the same lines, this is why most portraits done by sidewalk artists are disappointing. Many are great technically. However, in most cases, the artist is merely producing a likeness without seeking to know or understand the person who is the subject.
Since portraiture can (and should) be a way of communicating something about the person who is the subject of the work, it can be a means of self-analysis. In order to say something about a subject, you need to understand how you feel about that subject.
The classic example of self-analysis through portraiture is the self-portrait. A good self-portrait reveals how the artist sees himself or herself. Rembrandt did self-portraits throughout his life. As a result, we can see him proud and self-confident at the height of his success as well as melancholy and thoughtful after fortune had turned against him.
Towards the end of her life, my mother, the artist Valda, embarked on a series of works chronicling the important moments in her life. Inherent in this project was coming to an understanding about which moments were significant to her. Unfortunately, Valda was only able to produce a few works in this series before she became too ill to work.
Inspired by Valda's project, I began my own slightly different project a few years ago. The idea was to do a series of pictures of people with whom I had had significant relationships. I wanted to understand what made those relationships significant, what had happened in those relationships and my feelings toward the people involved.
The first step in the project was deciding which relationships were significant. I had in my mind a general idea of the importance of my various relationships but as I began to do the pictures, I realized that some were not really as important as I had thought. Eventually, I came down to four who were game-changers in the sense that I was never the same afterward.
I have probably done more than a hundred pictures on this project. For some, I based the image on photographs but most were done from memory. They have ranged from paintings to quick sketches on pieces of scrap paper.
In doing the pictures, I have thought about what happened and why. But more importantly, I examined my feelings both then and now.
Overall, it has been a worthwhile project. I have a much better understanding of how I got where I am in life. At the same time, I have come to realize that this is an ongoing project perhaps without end because my feelings towards the past change.
It has also produced some successful artwork. I participated in an exhibition over the winter in which I showed one of the works from this series. A stranger attending the exhibition spent quite a long time in front of that picture. He then came up to me and said that he liked the picture. “I would like to have met her. You must have really loved her.” While the picture has its technical faults, it must be a good portrait as it successfully conveyed the feelings of the artist.
I had an idea for a drawing so I grabbed an old piece of soft charcoal and a pad of newsprint paper and began to sketch out my idea. The sketch was coming along when I decide to use my finger to smudge one of the lines. To my horror, not only did the line smudged, it all but disappeared. Clearly, this image would not stand up to being stored or displayed.
By this point, the drawing had progressed quite far along. I thought about copying it over onto a better piece of paper using another medium. But that would be a lot of work and besides I liked the effect that this soft charcoal was producing. So I decided to finish the picture and see if I could find some way of fixing the image to the paper.
I use charcoal quite often but I usually do not apply fixatives. I don't like chemical odors and so rather than use chemical fixatives I just store my charcoal drawings as carefully as I can and just accept that there will be some deterioration in the image. In any case, I did not have any commercially available chemical fixatives in the house.
When I was in grade school, I remember an art teacher using hairspray to fix a pastel. Do they still make hairspray - - I haven't seen a can for centuries. Also, that smelled awful when the art teacher used it back in ancient times.
Somewhere along the line, I had read that Vincent Van Gogh and some of the Impressionists used skimmed milk as a fixative for their drawings. There was some skimmed milk in my refrigerator and so at the risk of having to eat dry corn flakes the next morning, I decided to experiment. There was no other downside because this drawing was not going to survive without being fixed.
The article that I read about Van Gogh did not say how he applied the milk to his drawings. Taking a glass and dumping it on the drawing would obviously destroy the drawing as well as create a sloppy mess. Similarly, putting some milk on a paper towel and wiping or blotting it onto the drawing would damage such a delicate image. Spraying it on seemed to be the method most likely to succeed.
All sorts of cleaning products come in spray bottles these days. But when I looked through the cupboard, all of the ones that I had seemed to be nearly full and it would be too wasteful to pour out their contents for the sake of a somewhat dubious experiment. Finally, I found a small sample size spray bottle that I had been given on by the spa on a cruise ship. It was almost empty so I cleaned it out.
I also had no idea what formula Van Gogh used. Did he mix the milk with something else? Was it diluted? Inasmuch as I only remembered the article saying that he used milk, I just filled the spray bottle with milk straight from the milk bottle.
Since I did not know how much milk to apply, I started with a few sprays. This had an immediate effect. A little bit of charcoal came off when I touched the drawing but the lines did not disappear as they had before the milk was applied. I sprayed it a few more times and next to nothing came off when I touched the drawing.
The spray had a noticeable effect on the paper. Newsprint is not the best quality paper and apparently it does not like getting moist. There was some discoloration where the spray had been applied most heavily. However, the discoloration had disappeared by the next morning. There was also some slight puckering but I imagine that would not occur with better quality paper.
I find it difficult to look at my works without finding something I want to change and so I was interested in whether I could modify the drawing after the milk had been applied. Not surprisingly, I could not intentionally smudge the charcoal to create shadows. However, I found that I could still make modest use of an eraser. Also, there was no problem adding additional lines not only with charcoal but also with Conte and Cray-pas.
Overall, I viewed this as a successful experiment. The picture was preserved and it was an easy process with no odor or clean-up required.
Portrait of George. Left: The drawing before applying the milk fixative. Middle: The drawing just after the milk had been applied. Right: The drawing the day after the milk was applied.
Practice, practice, practice - - you read it everywhere, it is the key to improving your skills as an artist. But in order to practice, you need time and time is hard to come by. There are a million things that need to be done everyday ranging from doing the laundry to making a living. When is there time to practice?
One thing that I have found helpful is to carry some paper and some type of drawing instrument with me and just sketch whenever there is down time. I sketch on commuter trains, when I am by myself in a restaurant, when I am waiting for the computer to upload, download or some other task that takes time.
This practice has benefited me in two ways. First, I have seen a noticeable improvement in my art skills. Second, what had been wasted time is much less boring than it used to be. Train rides are not as long as they used to be. Doctors and dentists don't keep me waiting as long as they used to do.
So what to draw? You can draw what is before your eyes. I once saw a video in which the popular artist Thomas Kingkaid said that he always carried a notebook in order to be able to sketch anything interesting that he chanced upon. But the places where I do my sketches are by definition boring places. There is a limit to the possibilities inherent in the inside of a railroad car. Also, people tend to become nervous if a stranger is staring at them.
Consequently, I usually rely on my mind for subjects. I draw sketches of people that I have met over the years or places that I remember. In addition, I try to work out problems such as how the eyes look when a face is turned in a certain direction.
I will concede that such memory-based subjects require some knowledge of the rules of proportion and perspective. However, doing these sketches has helped me understand the practical application of what heretofore had always seemed like academic theory.
To supplement the memory-based subjects, sometimes I turn to the photos on my smart phone. I have included in my phone's photo gallery images of a number of people and places that have meaning for me or which I have found interesting. These photos can be used as subjects. Be careful not to drain your phone's battery, however.
These sketches are not meant to be works that anyone would hag on their wall. They are just quick sketches - - often I will do a half dozen in a sitting. As above, they are intended primarily to improve my skills. Since they are not intended to be seen by anyone, I can relax while doing them. As a result, I have found that I am less tense when it comes time to do a more formal piece.
When I really like an idea embodied in one of these sketches, I generally will copy it later on a larger scale. I have used an idea from one of these sketches for a whole series of more formal works. Another path is to photograph the sketch, transfer it to the computer and use it as a basis for a digital work.
This need not be an expensive practice. One could purchase small sketch books and a good drawing instrument. However, most of the sketches that I have done were on the backs of scrap paper. The little note pads that hotels provide to jot down phone messages are also a favorite. As for the instrument, I often use golf pencils because they fit easily in my pockets. However, I prefer a pen-like Sharpie.
One unintended consequence of this practice is that people talk to you. Most people do not ordinarily come across art work being created. They want to find out what is going on and see the work. Often they tell you a little bit about themselves. It has been a very pleasant experience thus far.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.