All in Your Head


While visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1994, my friend and mentor Everett Raymond Kinstler took me to see one of America’s premier portrait and figure painters, Bettina Steinke. At nearly 80 years old, she was vibrant, engaging and hard at work on several portraits in her studio. Only moments after our introduction, Bettina drew her hand into a tight fist, held it in the air and said, “Is he teaching you about structure? Volume? You’ve got to sculpt those heads–hack ‘em out of stone!”

Both Bettina and Ray were the fortunate recipients of a long line of teaching that connects them directly to such great artists as John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Robert Henri, Frank Duveneck and others. One of the paramount principles in the work of these masters, much like what Bettina said to me, is that an artist must model a head as if working in clay–not just painting features but building a head based on its mass. Features and details come much later, and that’s the difference between really painting a head and merely rendering one. Sargent once stated, “If you work on a head for a week without indicating the features, you will have learnt something about the modeling of the head.”


Of all the fundamentals of portrait painting, the most valuable in my
opinion is painting from life. To look at your model through your own eyes and interpret the information through brush and paint is to discover the secret path to a strong painting. Unfortunately, you can’t always have numerous, lengthy sittings with your model, so I encourage sketching from life whenever and however you can. Plus, seeing intelligently–a practice that begins with working from life–will help you to understand the value (and the limitations) of your photographs. Photos are excellent tools that can aid you in the development of your work, but to rely on photographs alone is to limit your understanding of the subject, and thus the beauty of your work. As Kinstler reminds us, “the camera records, the artist selects.”


“The question is what is essential and how can the greatest economy be
practiced,” said Henri, teaching his students that they had to grasp the general before the specific. No amount of detail can save a picture if you miss the effect. Economy–the ability to edit, simplify and select what we feel is important to our subject–ultimately creates a sense of reality that no camera can record. When painting a head (especially at the beginning) keep your statements as simple as possible, and strive to see the whole rather than the parts. Go for the big masses. If you’re successful in the massing, you’ll find yourself returning again and again to that initial statement. It’s said that Sargent was ruthless in his pursuit of such simplicity, scraping off heads after hours of painting.


In painting the head you’re constantly judging the relationships and comparing proportions, so the ability to draw well is the cornerstone of the process. Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, a French painter and one of Sargent’s teachers, stressed the value of finding signposts, or creating a map so that you can move more quickly to the modeling of the form. The drawing should be sufficient to make you feel comfortable that your relationships are accurate and the shapes and contours of the light and dark masses are proportional. Then you can begin to mass the head in bold, simple shapes.


All great painters are essentially great value painters, for they’re sensitive to the power of relative lightness and darkness in creating the illusion of solidity and three dimensions. Value is the critical technical principle in painting, and it’s one of the most difficult to master. To get it right, try simplifying the values in your portrait into three distinct groups–dark, middle, and light–and then focus on the middle, because most of what we see is in the middle values. (“Seek the halftone!” commanded Carolus-Duran.) In the areas of shadow and light simplicity is essential, and it’s helpful to eliminate unnecessary detail whenever possible, for both are mainly accents to the middle values. Consequently, the subtle transitions in the middle areas become crucial in the creation of form, and it’s the modeling of these transitions that turns one plane into another.


Concentrating on forming the head as a well-built structure will more
easily lead you to the creation (I like to think of it as a discovery) of the features. When a student watched Sargent paint a head, she said it was as if “the mouth and the nose just happened with the modeling of the cheeks, and one eye, living luminous, had been placed in the socket so carefully prepared for it [that it was like] a poached egg dropped on a plate.” It’s helpful to relate the head to an assemblage of boxes and balls under a single light source, where the boxes represent the clearly structured planes and the balls represent the subtle transitions between the planes, creating a sense of volume. In the nose, for example, the bridge and both sides of the nose are structured like a box, while the tip is more related to a ball. Squint your eyes to see these structures more simply.


“Bring it out of the mist and then put it back into the mist.” That’s how Whistler described the handling of edges, understanding that most of the
edges in a figure are soft, lost edges. Sargent taught his students at the
Royal Academy to “draw the things seen with the keenest point and let the things unseen fuse themselves into the adjoining tones.” Too often the use of photographs causes us to see too many sharp edges, giving the head a harsh, rendered look. Instead, look for every opportunity to lose an edge. The area of focus will be the area that contains the crispest edge, while the areas around this one will tend to be softer. That’s how we see with our own eyes. We can’t see all forms sharply at one time, so use sharp edges carefully and sparingly.


Easily the most important factor in good color is good value, so if you concentrate on your values, color will be strong as well. Another important factor is a limited palette–I recommend keeping your colors to 10 or less, plus white. Sorolla, a master of color, often used as few as six. Practice your fleshtones by spending time mixing. I’ve spend hours with my palette, mixing fleshtones as I saw them and recording the combinations on scrap pieces of canvas. A few yeas ago, two friends and I went to see a Sargent exhibition and brought swatches of our own colors to compare, and we were amazed not only by how beautiful Sargent’s color is but, more importantly, how subtle and controlled the hues are.


I’m afraid I don’t know who, but I believe a writer once said that his most successful stories were his shortest, and that if he could keep his descriptions relatively simple, readers would add to the illusion with the power of their own imaginations. The difficulty, of course, lies in selecting the “correct” words to create this illusion. So we are also challenged in painting. We must decide what information to leave out and that doesn’t add to the effect, and we must resist the impulse to add detail simply because it’s there. Think structure, volume and big masses before you think about features, and I assure you the features will spring from a well-structured head. As great artists have known for generations before us, the simpler portrait is the stronger one.

by Michael Shane Neal