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The time has come to open a dialogue about how you achieve a likeness in portrait painting.
There is no right way to achieve a likeness, instead there are several valid approaches.
So is it contour and grids or lights, shadows and shapes or perhaps both?
All opinions are welcome, the risk being that we might learn something.



  • @Dencal I kind of agree with @Kingston it all depends on what you mean by likeness.

    Are you speaking about the technical aspects of making a painting and achieving a degree of accuracy or something more?

    I once saw a video of Burt Silverman speaking about capturing a likeness and he said that there is a built in problem to painting a portrait. People see themselves differently than others see them. I could also add that there is a lot of psychology involved in portraiture. People bring a lot of their psychological baggage, culture, prejudices, etc. into how they read a painting.

    When I have shown some of my drawings or paintings to people I couldn't believe some of the comments that I received.

    What are your ideas about capturing a likeness? This could turn into a very long discussion.
    [Deleted User][Deleted User]dencal[Deleted User]
  • I'll offer my brief experience to this conversation. By "likeness" I'll restrict my meaning to having my portrait look like the subject enough to be recognized without needing to tell everybody who it is (provided the people know the subject in life).

    I still follow DMP pretty closely and plan to do so until I'm painting more regularly and feel comfortable enough to ad lib.

    I use a golden vertical line and a golden horizontal line and plot key points. I then do a very simple line drawing with the primary focus on getting proportion and line angles right.

    Then I just paint and try to match values in each color group, and tweak the chromaticity. I'm still not good enough at this to feel comfortable yet, and it winds up leaving me exhausted. My next area of focus is trying to see if I'm overdefining things, comparing the subject with my painting -- which has more contrast, etc.

    By this time though, the likeness is either there or it isn't. What's left is how close to realism I can get, or how close to what I want the painting to look like I can get. I haven't yet found the kind of energy and focus I'd like to at this phase and haven't really done a portrait yet that I'm satisfied with, but that's my process so far.
  • I do what @rgr does. I'm fairly new to the method and should stay pretty tight to it for a few more paintings (my discipline here is not very good!). I have done the grid method before, and it's too easy to miss a line especially going in a diagonal. I have better likeness with golden lines.

    I'll add that I draw on paper and transfer. My drawing stays cleaner (erasing is easier) and my painting underdrawing stays cleaner too. I use willow charcoal for transfer. If the ground is still tacky, it transfers really well. I do much better with a dark line than a white line.

    For me likeness is a huge struggle. I find that I need to get it right the first time and try not to meddle with it. I tend to paint very tightly around lines. I try to put the "line" (line an eye/lid line.) in the middle of the line. I'll even leave a gap (1-2 mm) there until both sides are filled then gradually paint into the line. No additional paint is needed. Just a brush to push it where it belongs.

    The features that have to be right: jaw line and hair line which gives the shape of the face. The spaces between features: ex., between the nose and upper lip. Then the shadows that are in the features that give the three dimensional shape, ex., outside nostrils, cheekbones, shape of the chin.

    The problem with getting really good likeness is that the closer you get to it and have a few mistakes, the higher the chance of putting it in the uncanny valley. Those paintings get disturbing even though it's so close.

    It sounds like brain surgery above... I don't mean too. With most portraits that I've done (and it's not that many), I'm tight in the face, and everything else is looser. Hands need to be sharp and if there's a narrative, the point of the painting needs to be sharp too.

    I have a painting currently that I know isn't quite right. It's been drying since Thanksgiving. I'm trying to decide if it's necessary and whether it's worth the risk of making more mistakes.

    Struggle, struggle.

  • dencaldencal -
    edited February 2015

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Love to hear from a few more Carderites.
    By "Likeness" I mean fidelity to the subject's physical appearance. The topic is how is this achieved; by plotting points and careful drawing or is the likeness rendered by using large brushes and light and dark values, moving from big shapes towards finer detailed features in the final hours of painting a portrait. Which technique works for you?

    I feel more comfortable with a PD and scale if I am working from a photograph, making a fairly complete line drawing with contour and some indicative shadows, using dashed lines for value changes and hatching for the shadows. I can be confident of a good likeness with this careful drafting.

    Life drawing cannot use any of the above method. The model would have turned to a skeleton before I could get any paint on the canvas, making a likeness even more difficult. So I have had to go with the large shapes to small shapes method leaving details like eyelines and such linear features to the very last. Faigin uses the analogy that it is impossible to draw a recognisable map of the United States unless the big landmass and ocean shapes are correct. Florida or Ohio just won't look right if the big masses are wrong. His broad thesis is that likeness is more a product of the relationship between the shadow shapes. Demonstrated by our ability to recognise family members in a class photo in high contrast bright sunshine, even if the detail is fuzzy.

  • I think ,it is all about shades. After I do the drawing ( which is only an outline )It doesn’t look at all like the subject but after an hour or two of putting down values and colours being aware of not losing the key points (as Mark explained )the likeness starts to come out .If you look at the small photo with many people in it ,you can recognise who they are even if you can’t see details on their faces because of the shades .
  • When DRAWING, If time isn’t an issue I will usually start with a quick sketch to get a feel for the facial features. My next step is to move onto the final surface and start the piece by drawing one of the eyes, adding a bit of shading as I go along and once I feel that I’m pretty close to my reference I will leave it alone. After that I will start measuring to locate a different part of the face, ex. the other eye; and repeat the procedure until the portrait is complete. Finally I will go over the entire drawing and make value corrections where needed.
    Susan Lyon is one artist I know that uses this method.

    But lately I've been learning this other approach by David Jamieson.

    When PAINTING, I will just go straight for the grid as I’d rather spent the extra time painting than on a drawing that will not be visible.
    dencal[Deleted User]
  • I find when Im totally lost because Im too close to my painting, that my wifes fresh set of eyes can usually pinpoint the nuance that is wrong or just not treated properly. The likeness is usually easier for me than catching the persons spirit,which is what makes the portrait captivating for the viewer. Sorry to go all Zen on y'all but it works for me.
  • Does anyone know what methods Sargent or Andrew Wyeth used? I admire their work, but was not able to find anything specific.
  • The user and all related content has been deleted.
  • Schmid in Alla Prima says the mouth is the most challenging aspect to properly define and that capturing and properly drawing the mouth is to capture the likeness. Most artist believe the eyes are the thing to nail but I think Schmid is correct on this.
  • dencaldencal -
    edited February 2015

    This quote from Sargent and the comment indicates Sargent began his portraits using large massed tonal shapes;
    John Singer Sargent - Handprint
    When Mr. John Collier was writing his book on The Art of Portrait Painting he asked John Singer Sargent for an account of his methods. Sargent replied:.

    If only one had oneself under perfect control, one could always paint a thing, finally in one sitting. Not that you are to attempt this. If you work on a head for a week without indicating the features you will have learnt something about the modeling of the head.

    Every brush stroke while he painted had modeled the head or further simplified it. He was careful to insist that there were many roads to Rome, that beautiful painting would be the result of any method or no method, but he was convinced that by the method he advocated, and followed all his life, a freedom could be acquired, a technical mastery that left the mind at liberty to concentrate on a deeper or more subtle expression.

    I had previously been taught to paint a head in three separate stages, each one repeating — in charcoal, in thin color wash and in paint — the same things. By Sargent's method the head developed by one process. Until almost at the end there were no features or accents, simply a solid shape growing out of and into a background with which it was one. When at last he did put them in, each accent was studied with an intensity that kept his brush poised in mid air until eye and hand had steadied to one purpose, and then ... bling! The stroke resounded almost like a note of music. It annoyed him very much if the accents were carelessly indicated, without accurate consideration of their comparative importance. They were, in a way, the nails upon which the whole structure depended for support.

    It would appear that Wyeth, being a dry watercolorist or tempera painter proceeded from a careful drawing and rendered every item with meticulous care. Difficult to find any description of his method.
    Looks like these two giants of art have very different techniques.

    [Deleted User]
  • Thanks for the post,Denis. I would be interested in reading the book.
  • Kingston and Denis,

    Thanks for the feedback and the website reference. I will enjoy reading through it; there is a lot to digest. Also, the books on Kingston's website are a big help.

    I am doing a lot of drawing but nothing like I know these two did. I am still enjoying seeing the results, especially when the image in a portrait starts to look back at you, very cool for someone completely new to all of this.

    Thanks again.
  • rgr, Thanks for the link, it is quite a book, lots to digest and practice.
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