Sunday, 1 July 2012

Two heads are better than one?

I just finished this double portrait for a friend of my brother, a commission of sorts.  I thought I would post a blog entry reflecting on some of the things to consider when accepting commissions for portrait paintings. 

I am quite a fast painter, some portraits I manage to turn out in a weekend or just an afternoon if there are no complications and it is just a head to paint.  My brother asked me if I would paint two children of a friend of his and I said no problem, imagining that it would be done in a week.  The photo he sent me looked quite nice, with light coming from behind the subjects, a challenge I thought!  This would be interesting.  In the background there were some beach umbrellas which looked a bit messy so I decided straight away to just paint the deck chair they were sitting on and a bright sandy yellow streaming from behind them.

I got started and painted in the main shapes, I could imagine how it was going to turn out and I was fired up with the prospect of exciting backlit faces.  Then I went on holiday for Easter along the Mediterranean Coast and my enthusiasm for this double portrait wanned, I began thinking about lots of other new paintings I could do.  By the time I got back to my easle it seemed less of an exciting project and more of a chore I just had to finish before i could paint anything else.  I began painting and did a little detail on their legs and had a rest, then some detail on their shirts and had a rest, then some detail on their hands and had another rest.  Then I left it for a week and painted nothing, over the next month or so I fiddled and procrastinated and I began to realise that although it may only take me an afternoon to paint a face with loosely suggested hair, it takes me considerably longer to paint two faces, hair, clothes, full length bodies, toes and fingers, and on top of this, complicated backlit faces!  

Part of the problem with a double portrait is that you cannot rely on each face looking real in relation to the colours of the clothes and background, it must also harmonise with the tones in the face of the second subject.  I have painted a few portraits where one child looks too pale in relation to their sibling, if they had been independent paintings then they would have been self-contained and balanced, but because their heads are right next to each other one looks like they have been out in the sun longer than the other. There is also the risk of getting lucky with one head and not with the other, when the muse descends and you catch the expression on one face perfectly with grace and ease, but then the muse goes off for a tea break and you are left struggling and over painting the second face and you begin wishing the first one didn't looks so good because the contrast really shows how badly you painted the second.  I find it's best to jump between the subjects, using the same palette but paying attention to the variation in tonal values.  In this painting it was quite difficult to capture the different shades on the kids' legs, the light was different on each one and I had to rely on just painting what I could see to try to get it looking real.

To conclude, when accepting portrait comissions you should take into account how much of the figures the client is expecting to be painted, it can be nice to include hands in a three-quarter-view portrait but even hands can really complicate things. Also, for the reasons I have mentioned, two subjects in one painting is a much more complex task than two paintings of individual subjects.  If you are not a very experienced portrait painter then maybe it's better to avoid painting group portraits and save yourself some frustration and time.  

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