When it comes to painting portraits, it helps to think big. This train of thought not only applies to setting goals but also to applying paint. A direct approach of applying simplified, accurate shapes at the beginning of a painting can often lead to a strongly stated portrait which captures the unique personality and character of your sitter from the very start.
The “shapes” that I’m referring to are seen as a result of the way that light falls across your subject. By themselves, each one of these shapes has a specific value (how light or how dark it appears), color (warm or cool) and series of edges (hard, soft, broken, etc.) that accompany it. When put together side by side, these shapes create a bigger picture. Although void of any major detail, this visual shorthand carries with it the weight and strength of the entire painting. It’s the foundation on which all detail work is built. Without this framework of solidity first established, you may find yourself frustrated at the results, often focusing your attention on areas that are better left for a later stage, such as getting an exact likeness or paying too much attention to unnecessary details.
My early introduction into this broad approach to painting came as a result of studying the work of the great portrait painter, John Singer Sargent, particularly his portrait of Edward Wertheimer. What makes this painting so rare and valuable to an artist is that it’s one of the very few unfinished portrait commissions that have been left by Sargent, due to the sitter’s untimely death. This canvas contains some of the greatest insights into the working methods of Sargent and his initial approach to painting a portrait by using large shapes to quickly define the figure, while achieving a sense of volume in the planes of the head. The importance of this broad approach of shaping the entire painting as a whole cannot be overstated, as it’s at this stage that Sargent chose to end the sitting, leaving behind a solid structural foundation for future work.
Unfinished portrait of Edward Wertheimer by John Singer Sargent
So, the next time you’re looking for ways to strengthen your latest portrait, remember to get into shape by exercising your artistic skills to see the big picture.