Looking at Faces



Why artists paint themselves is an intriguing subject.  I found Laura Cumming’s book, “A Face to the World – on Self Portraits” totally compelling reading.  Discussing images from across six centuries, the author brings the whole genre alive, as paintings in themselves, but also giving incredible insights into why painters chose to present themselves in the way they do. It is a fascinating book, very enjoyable to read and extremely thought-provoking….just loved it!

Self Portrait

It was interesting coming to portraiture again after doing it in the Drawing I Course.  I found it a great challenge then and worked hard at analyzing the face to understand the construction.  This initial work has paid off as I’ve begun to once again study the face and have found that much of the understanding that I gained then has stayed with me and I’m able to approach portraiture in a different way.

Beginning with a charcoal drawing gave me a good basis to work from. I deliberately chose charcoal because I wanted the looseness – I have such a tendency to go tight and get absorbed with detail.  The charcoal was great because I was able to work with the eraser for the highlights.  I ‘ve found that hard lines just don’t work with the face and the challenge seems to be to get the definition without using line.  Having the spine of the page down the centre of the face was not easy but, working around that, the likeness is OK, I guess – hard to judge when it is yourself!

The most difficult part for me was the left eye in both this drawing and the painting – not sure I have it right now!

Painting the face for the first time was a challenge.  I started with a tonal blocking but you can see from the photo, my first attempt at this was radically off.

It was then a matter of building up the structure. This took many hours of peering into the mirror – just couldn’t get it right!  I finally took off my glasses and painted without being able to see the detail.  Then it came together!  I learnt so much from this – mainly to trust the instinct!  Perhaps painting isn’t about the detail – something else. Perhaps we carry an image in our mind which is actually our response to the subject and it is this which we need to express – not a photographic likeness.

Does this image look like me – well, my family says, “You don’t look as old as that, Mum….doesn’t have your warmth!!!”  The look is very severe certainly but I think this comes with the concentration of staring at yourself.  Whether it looks like me or not, I am very satisfied with the mark making – I am getting a feeling for the paint and am not afraid to use it freely.

Head and Shoulder Portrait

I don’t have a sitter so decided to do another self portrait for this exercise. Just to add another dimension for myself I wanted to try a reflected image as part of the composition.

It took some time to set up the mirrors for this. The pencil sketch is an initial study of the figure and shapes.  I found that this presented me with a challenge of composition because the positioning of the figure and the subsequent reflection in another mirror left a very dull composition with the centre of the picture showing just open shapes.  I pushed the image a bit further making the main figure more dominant and concentrating on the interest factor of the background shapes. At the same time I began building up the tonal structure of the painting, working from the pencil drawing.

The image here shows the point I got to with the image before deciding that I wasn’t satisfied with the way it was working out.  I didn’t like the composition with the dominant vertical shapes of the reflective mirror – just dull!  What to do about it?? I decided I had two ways to go – either add more images to bring some degree of interest to the back ground or try to do this with colour….went this way.  I began working the colour into the background.  But as I began doing this I found that the brush took on a life of its own.  All of the hard lines had to go as the mark making took over – a really wonderful experience!  This painting feels to be about mark making more than anything else.

I learnt also about the contribution that colour makes to the compositional element of a painting – balance, tonal variation, shape. More to explore!





About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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