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Form and Features in Portrait Painting Explained

Nov 25, 2007
In portrait painting there is the matter of representing the human features: notably the eye, ear, nose and mouth. Of these, the easiest to do are usually the ear and the nose. The ear is a complicated thing in appearance to be sure, but excepting for its size and general set and shape there is nothing very individual about it; normally we pay little attention to the ears of even our closest friends unless there is something radically distinctive about them.

For that matter, the ear is often wholly or partially hidden by the hair, or viewed in shadow or in a greatly foreshortened position. So the usual rule is to suppress the ear's complexity of parts, merging them in the simplest possible indication so that the spectator's eye will scarcely be aware that the sitter even has an ear.

While the nose is a more distinctive and distinguishing feature, prominently located as it is at the front center of the face, it is relatively easy to do, for, though capable of some movement, it is quite immobile when compared with the ever-shifting eyes or the changeable and highly expressive mouth. An important point in doing the nose is to avoid the all-too-common effect (in work of the beginner) that it is plastered on to the face and has little relationship to it. Make it look like part of the head, for it is.

Artists differ in their feeling toward the eye. Many - perhaps a majority - speak of it as the most expressive of all the features.

Some, however, point out that although the eyeball itself has a quality of mobility and animation which the painter should strive to catch, the individuality and expressiveness of the eye come less from the eyeball - for eyeballs look much alike - than from the flexible muscles of the forehead and eyebrows, the type and position of the lid, and the surrounding network of wrinkles, in particular those at the outer eye corner and across the bridge of the nose.

But don't overdo these details - one can paint a perfect likeness with the eyes almost lost in the general tone of the eye socket.

It is the mouth which is the truly sensitive thing. It is seldom twice alike, for under normal conditions it records instantly every change of inward thought or feeling. There are times when the shifting of the lines of the mouth by scarcely more than a hairbreadth will alter one's entire appearance. Therefore, the painter must observe his sitter's mouth keenly, recording with fidelity what he thinks to be its most significant expression.

But it is pointless to write much of such features. The main thing is to paint them all with restraint, remembering that they are but parts of a whole. Yet they are not separate parts, each complete in itself, but they form, together with the cheeks, the chin - the whole head, in fact - a homogeneous mass which must be painted as a unit. Only in this way can all the features be of consistent shape, size, light and shade and coloring.

The best way to get these features right is by practice, so begin now!
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