Research point- artists who work on the face in different ways

Look at contemporary as well as historic artists who work on the face in different ways. Use your research to inspire your own experiments. Look at the reading list as well as other sources and make notes on what you find in your learning log.

I have a very useful and interesting book “The artists complete guide to drawing the head” by William L Maughan, which talks about the traditional techniques used by old masters for painting portraits.  Chiaroscuro was the result of observing light and shadow on form and paying particular attention to the edges between the two is fundamental to capturing a likeness.  It was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who in the late 1400s, first realised that duplicating the  shape of the shadows was fundamental to creatine an illusion of 3D form and capturing a model’s likeness.  In his studies Leonardo identified two distinctly different shadows: a form-shadow (caused by turning away from the light source) with a soft edge and secondly a cast-shadow (where the light casts a shadow on an adjacent surface) which produces a hard edge.


The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-17) is probably the most famous portrait ever painted.  Leonardo perfected a technique known as sfumato, which translated literally from Italian means “vanished or evaporated.” Using this technique he further softened the edges of a contour, creating imperceptible transitions between light and shade, and sometimes between colours,. He blended everything “without borders, in the manner of smoke,” his brush strokes so subtle as to be invisible to the naked eye.  Since the human eye can’t focus on more than one depth of field at a time everything beyond the focal point will be less defined and blurry.

Looking at the subtle approach of Graham Little who uses coloured pencils and fine repeated marks and lines.  His style is almost photorealistic- although not quite “photographic”.  the portraits are almost too perfect- rather like an airbrushed image- which lends a sense of unreality to otherwise very perfect pictures.  The ultimate contradiction!  It is interesting that this “blurriness” creates an unrealistic finish, while the sfumato effect on Mona Lisa renders a sense of believable form.

Now looking at the more fluid blocking in of tone by Elizabeth Peyton Although both Little and Peyton use colour to draw the face in a ‘painterly’ manner, I feel that Peyton is more “artistic” in her approach.  The “watery”  watercolour effect of a lot of her portraits I viewed resulted in rather tonally flat, 2 dimensional, sketchy stylised images.  I felt that where the sitter was known to me that the likeness was not great: e.g.John 1971 (1997) and  Prince Harry and Prince William (2000) – where facial tints and colours are blocked rather than shaded to give a rather angular/ robotic effect.

face John 1971 E Peytonface prince harry & prince william- E peyton

Elizabeth Peyton’s picture of  Daniel, Berlin (1999) is rather less angular as it has more shading from built up layers of watercolour washes- although it does retain sone watery effect and is still quite sketchy in its finish.  It is quite moody and rather depicts a sense of a glamorous male fashion model..

face daniel berlin E peyton

Other artists have dealt with the face rather differently.

Have a look at my post about the BP portrait artist awards I visited in Edinburgh.  Here I was much more impressed with the photorealistic style of Michael Gaskell compared with that of Graham Little.

Other contemporary artists I looked at were Andy Warhol’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe.  I find it amazing that the image so strikingly resembles her even though it is reduced to the minimum sum of its parts.  Maybe this says something about how our brains recognise faces.

face warhol


Lucian Freud 1922–2011 The Painter’s Mother IV
(1973)  There is an intensity of light in much of his works and his perspective is often surprising.  For example in this portrait of his mother she is painted from slightly above so she appears to be looking down.
The Painter's Mother IV 1973 Lucian Freud 1922-2011 Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008
The Painter’s Mother IV 1973 Lucian Freud 1922-2011 Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008

Vincent van Gogh’s painting of The Old man with a Beard (1885) Oil on Canvas -captures a different approach to portrait painting.  In the vein of impressionism b=he attempted to capture a sense of the “inner life” of the sitter rather than simply the purely physical resemblance.  He used brush strokes and captured a sense of light to bring the picture to life and give a sense of his qualities.  I find it interesting that in contrast to other portraits by Van Gogh this picture is realistically dark and monotonal- recreating some of the style of old masters more conservative approach to portraiture.
face Portrait-of-an-Old-Man-with-Beard

Henry Matisse 1905- uses non-realistic wild colours and dramatic brushstrokes to create a sense of simplification and abstraction, whilst capturing a resemblance of his friend Derain. Both Matisse and Derain’s radical use of colour led critics described them and their associates as ‘Fauves’ or wild beasts, and ‘Fauvism’ became an important parallel to the rise of Expressionism in Germany.

Henri Matisse 1905 Andr? Derain 1880-1954 Purchased 1958
Henri Matisse 1905 Andr? Derain 1880-1954 Purchased 1958

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