Painting from life

Watercolor portrait

Red-haired Girl (cropped)
Watercolor 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Model guild benefits are wonderful opportunities for painting. There are often two sections: short poses and long poses. I like to spend the morning at the short pose session, warming up with gesture drawings. After a quick lunch, I  get down to brass tacks for a single long pose. After racing through the brittle morning time of 1-, 2-, and 5-minute poses, I can relax into the long 3-hour pose, and the afternoon unravels and stretches like a rubber band. My mind settles solidly into the work.

It may feel luxurious to have 3 full hours with the same pose, but the model’s timer is still ticking, so I like to organize my process. For this 3-hour pose, I allowed myself 40-minutes (2 20-minute periods) to make a graphite drawing, then I started painting. I try to get an accurate drawing quickly, as poses shift slightly over time, and even the best, most rock-solid models have to take a breath now and then. And once you start painting with watercolor, you can’t make a lot of easy changes.

There is really nothing like painting from life. You are able to see infinite numbers of color that could never show up in a photograph. The blue-green in the shadows around the eyes, the mineral violet in the shadows. You can see the subtle shifting of values, the way the skin flows over muscle and bone.

I’m not against painting from (your own) photos. In the interest of time and money, I often use digital references. But there is nothing like painting the portrait of a live person. Here’s to life.


2 thoughts on “Painting from life

  1. “Mineral violet in the shadows”: deliciously poetic.

    In my single experience in college of drawing from a nude model, I created only some laughable stick-like figures. Drawing from a flat-photo, I can produce a bit more of a liveliness (in part because it’s hard for me to translate 3D into 2).

    I respect creation-in-the-moment, without the ability to change or touch-up. It reveals a kind of vulnerability that is heart-opening. . .

    1. Oh Chris, it’s really a skill that can be learned. My first attempts at life drawing were ridiculous too; also my 2nd and 3rd, and 100th. But eventually, with a lot of help from my teachers, I am able (somedays) to create something lifelike from life.

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