Technicalities first. There’s nothing worse than a blank white canvas, so I put a mid-toned colour over it, then put a markdown. Don’t be scared of it. Look carefully at what you’re about to draw for a few minutes. You’re not drawing an eye or hair; you’re just making marks that relate to each other. Before I continue, I take a few minutes to talk, to gain a connection with whoever I’m drawing. It’s important to me to find a story or a feeling that I can bring through in my work, but don’t try too hard. Simply trust that what you’re feeling will come out somehow in the work.
I start from the top then work down. I put another mark opposite the first one that I made. Then I repeat. Carry on like this until the portrait starts to form. Examine the relationships and distances between the marks. It’s a technique called ‘the balancing act’. Once these little light marks are made, a structure starts to take shape.
I used to begin by drawing an eye then the painting would grow from there, but now I start from the top of the head, constantly measuring, comparing. Using ‘the rule of thirds’ is helpful if you’re just starting out—as you progress, you can throw those rules away.
Portrait artists I admire are Jonathan Yeo and Annie Kevans, each for different reasons. Yeo is fond of a grid structure for composition. I tried it, but it doesn’t work for me. I end up looking at the grid more than the person in front of me.
What makes a portrait successful? If an artist can convey something about the person’s character in the way that paint is applied, all well and good. I just do what I can in the time that I have. I like to tell a story within a portrait by adding details that aren’t always noticeable at first glance. It could be by adding an object that means something to the owner, or a particular pattern that suggests personality or a place in time. These additions can only happen if we strike up a decent conversation and I ask the right questions that reveal the sitter’s personality.
Let’s take a classic example: Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). Its narrative is clear with the particular choice of objects that are positioned, with signifiers about clothing relating to the power that these individuals hold. There’s also a fantastic visual surprise that can only be seen from a particular viewpoint. This painting inspired me to learn how to read paintings.
A portrait is a beautiful thing to have. It serves many purposes, apart from capturing a moment in time. It could begin to make a reality of a person’s hopes and dreams. It says, “I was here” and “Here I still am,” long after our digital files, online photos—and ourselves— are gone.
—Marion Cheung, Guest Writer (Art)