Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Portrait commissions in Amsterdam, Tips for Working from Photos

As you can tell by the title of this latest post, I decided to feed lord Google a bit more content about my portrait commissions in Amsterdam.

There, now that I've used the keyword, I will tell you about a nice little portrait I made while playing around with some pastels. In doing so I will touch upon some of the topics that I discuss during my Amsterdam painting lessons, regarding color temperature, working from life versus working from pictures and impressionistic color.  Mostly, however,  I will try to discuss my process when working from photo, and things I do to try and obtain a better overall result.

I will use some high res images to illustrate this point and hope that this helps you relate to my color examples.

Here is an original photo that I took from my nephew Luke Patrick while he was toying around with his food during breakfast:

So lets discuss some of the things I try to do when making a photo for a later portrait commission or my own projects. 

Here are some tips:

Tip # 1: I know this is a tall order, but learn about portraiture

Obvious poses, people smiling while looking at the camera and that sort of thing makes for a tacky result.  An artistic portrait captures who the person is, while if you take a snapshot of the person smiling, it looks somehow timebound. Muscles in the face don't maintain an authentic smile for too long so a big smiling portrait looks unnatural and too photo-like. 

If you look at the work of all the great portrait artists in Amsterdam including the old masters, rarely will you see a big smile.  Those were saved for party scenes in the sort of raise-your-cups moment, or tavern scenes.

The best photos for portrait or otherwise will capture the person totally caught in some activity, their mind is perhaps in the moment, or elsewhere, but certainly not thinking of the camera.

Remember, this photo will be the basis for the portrait commission and the artist cannot compensate for a poor pose.

In the case of this particular photo, I set my camera to silent mode, made sure the flash was not active, and the proceeded to make pictures of the unsuspecting Luke throughout breakfast.  In the end I had many many shots to choose from and select for the best light, posture, expression, etc.

Tip # 2: Use the best camera, borrow if necessary

This point is extremely important.  Don't expect to make a picture with your mobile phone and then have a great reference for your portrait. 

Cameras do nasty things to images as it is.  The values tend to be compressed, colors that you see in nature disappear and unless your model is totally still and you're using bracketing, anything other than a nice overcast day will result in darks that are totally black and highlights that are totally white, making the useful tonal range far smaller than what your eye would give you in real life.

Personally, I invested in a Leica, the best of the best.  Leica has a long German tradition of making the best optics in the world, and a big part of what they give you is the ability to avoid chromatic aberration, or plainly stated, they don't distort color.  Therefore the photos I get from it are the closest I've seen to working from life.

Now unless you're a portrait artist the investment may not be justified, but there are some compact versions that you may want to consider.  Other good cameras such as new Canons and Nikons may give you good results as well.

Tip # 3: Select your light conditions wisely
Drawing and painting really boils down to portraying light.  When making a portrait what you're really doing is portraying how light wraps around someone's face.

Keeping in mind that cameras have limitations, try to work with what your camera can do.  A portrait in a dark room may be a great moody and mysterious project to make, but your camera may not allow for a great result.

Full sunlight on someone's face is not always esthetically nice, plus is likely to make them squint.  Interior lights that are too yellow could end up making the face look jaundiced or fake-tanned once the picture is translated to a painting. 

Try to find a pleasant light.  Masters use to work with overcast northern light.  This makes for clean crisp colors and no dramatic shadows.   This looks nice, though you must be good in handing your values.

Others use a direct white light, which makes the light-dark effect more dramatic on the portrait and helps give the face lots of structure.

Tip # 4: Use Photoshop to its full advantage
When you want to make a portrait from photo, a big mistake is to think that great photographers just point and shoot. 

Typically what is happening is professionals spending a large amount of time setting up the light and environment, the model, making a very large number of shots, and finally post-processing or editing.

This editing used to be about how films were revealed in a dark room. Now it's all about photoshop. 

Get used to fiddling around with Photoshop until you have what you want. Take care not to go too crazy with tacky digital effects.  At least in my case, I'm trying to get as close as I can to what I saw during the photo shoot and help the portrait result. 

The portrait of Luke was enhanced a bit in therms of its chroma (saturation) as you can see by comparing a normal picture, versus my enhanced sample:

I did this based on what I found pleasing to my eyes, but also taking into consideration that I would make a portrait with pastels, which allow for a very intense use of color if one is so inclined.

Tip # 5: Work from life

Nothing replaces the experience that comes from making a portrait from the live model.  My Amsterdam portrait commissions sometimes allow for this and whenever I can, I take full advantage of this.

The live model offers you depth of form, richness of color and a connection to the subject that will show through in the result.  Yes it is more challenging and hard to arrange.  The model has to sit around for quite some time and it's far from the exciting artistic fun that some people have in mind.  But it really is worth it, whether you're a portrait artist or thinking of a portrait commission.

The work of a portrait artist that only works from photos shows something of a superficial understanding of the technique.  It is usually someone who's just copying one to one what he or she sees in the picture.  This results in an unnatural 'airbrushed' feel in black and white:

And a sort of fake tan combined with flour spots when working in color:

As I've said in previous posts, these are clear examples of bad handling of values and color temperature that come from thinking that in copying a photo you can make a good portrait.

See here two examples of the opposite result, when the artist (in this case yours trully) knows what they're doing:

So this covers some of the process that I use for my portrait commissions in Amsterdam.  I will be following up with a post about handing flesh tones which is usually a challenging subject for beginning artists.

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