I’ve been wanting to up my skills in human portraiture for a while now, and I’ve been stalling, but today I decided to dive in and resume my first vignette portrait in progress.

The context

Right now my primary project is an abstract project that considers Life thru art & Art thru life as it aims to connect to the meaning in the lives of ordinary people. However, I benefit a lot from moving between projects regularly, like a bumblebee in action, to keep my perspective fresh, to allow my subconscious to mull the pieces I’m not currently focused on, and to keep my art practice from starting to feel like work, i.e. not a playful and creative exploration/expression of my interests.

In fact, I have this back-burnered portrait project in mind that focuses on vignettes from films that really almost tell the whole story in that one image.

Vignette–a brief evocative description, account, or episode–or in my case an image that evokes a story.

I am fascinated sometimes with the way a single image holds so much, and film is full of these due to the often expert directing, acting, and cinematography. I’ve been studying ones that catch my eye lately, intending to study them further. Through painting, I aim to hone in on that something that evokes their depth.

I haven’t been focusing on this vignette portrait project much because I have these other more pressing projects, and to be honest, the human face is a bit intimidating.

Art and the subconscious

But also, a large part of my process involves subconscious work. I have learned to trust that if I don’t feel ready to move forward on something, there is probably some elusive work going on under the hood. Our brains are fascinating that way. Feel confused? Ask your brain a question and forget about it for a while. Sooner or later, an answer of some sort will appear, without even trying!

Knowing this, and trusting my mysterious subconscious mind, I try not to force myself to move forward with something unless I can tell I’m just procrastinating or holding back.

A fear of failure

I do do this sometimes because of a perennial fear that I will fail. Every time I start or return to a project, I have a sense of dread that I can’t paint. Some of this is just normal fear of failure, but a lot of it is due to the fact that, as mentioned above, making art is often a mysterious process. I will often look at a finished piece and think, How did I do that? So yeah, a few things holding me back here…

…but today, I decided to dive in.

A vignette portrait in progress

Enter vignette portrait in progress. I started this painting a month or so ago and sort of hit a wall with it.

The hair was driving me a bit crazy, and I wasn’t “feeling” the face, so I left it be.

This unfinished painting has started to feel and look like a sore thumb lately (I often know I need to work on something when it bugs me insistently), so this morning, I decided to take some inspiration and technical tips from a few YouTube experts and give it another go.

The wise ways of the YouTube

A random point and shoot led me to Andrew Tischler and Alex Tzavaras. And by the end of the second video, I was itching to put some of these techniques to work.

Beginning again

I decided to take a completely different approach than the one I’d started this painting with. This second approach is a technique I usually begin with but was too impatient to use initially. Namely, begin with an underpainting, just one mid-tonal colour to set the basis for the painting. Doing so will add richness to the painting you do over top of it, and as one of my favourite painting instructors says, it prevents you from having to “fight the white” of the primed canvas. Good ol’ Martin Guderna.

The other reminder I decided to carry forward from the wise ways of the YouTube was to use a limited palette. I like the rich but natural tones you can get with an old-school earth tone palette of yellow oxide, red oxide, and Payne’s grey–which is a softer set of yellow, red, and blue than classic modern colours–so I decided to go with that.

I also wanted to use burnt umber, especially for the ground, but I have split my studio between two locations, and unfortunately I didn’t have that on hand in studio 2.0. Np. I mixed up some burnt benzi orange, yellow oxide, and cerulean blue on an intuitive whim and got a pretty close approximation!

I painted this mixture, heavily extended with acrylic medium, right over top of the whole partially completed painting. Not ideal, but this is an experimental painting, so I’m ok with it. Rub the excess paint off with a rag and I’m ready to go.

Blocking is not for blockheads

At this point, I’m outside my comfort zone because I don’t like blocking, effective as it is. It’s best to block tones and colours into a painting before getting into details, sort of like how a sculptor bangs out general shapes and proportions before finely tooling in the eyelashes. This is the technique I was hoping for inspiration with because I need it. I have a tough time doing this because my eye like to sees things in great detail and want to attend to every little tonal shift and piece of fluff.

So I decided to just sort of squint my eyes and look for “zones” of tone, tint, and colour, and stick to just focusing on these and their relative closeness or distance to each other. Maybe in painting it can be thought of sort of like paint by numbers haha, except in the mind, and for young kids not teens, i.e. no fine brushes or strokes here.

In fact, I picked a 3/4″ flat brush, which is probably triple the size I would usually use.

I decide to jump in, no matter how cold the water is.

A swing and a hit

Wait, I thought we were swimming here, you know, with jumping into the cold water?

Yes, I am a frequent mixer of metaphors. I have stopped fighting it. I recommend just going with it.

The blocking starts to work! At first, as my guy said, it looks like she’s all bruised up, because I went in with the shadows first, but eventually, going between, dark, light, and middle zones, the face began to take on a true likeness, and even began to capture the subtle expression on the face that is the key to the story and emotional tone of the moment this painting aims to represent. This is something I was really struggling with in my preliminary drawing.

No “right” way

Even so, there is no “right” emotion or story. My hope is purely that there is a sense of these in her face. What does her expression evoke for you?

What is the feeling that you get? Are there ideas or stories that come to mind when you contemplate her? I am genuinely curious to know.

I’ve still got some work to do, but this is definitely a work in progress.

And that’s a wrap

Probably need to call it a day and rest up. My chronic illness calls for me to take extra self care right now, but I feel good about where this is at now.

Perhaps the hair next (aaaaah!).

Stay well. I hope you are making it through your days with whatever it is you need.



Vignette portrait 1 - painting in progress by Julie Karey

I have since my initial posting gone in and done two more drafts, and I came to a point where I may be finished. I decided to change the background to a more traditional portrait grey, which really focuses the image on the woman’s face and creates a visual vignette effect–wherein the background fades out–which supports the vignette feeling that there is more to the story.

Something still bugs me about her eyes–I had to align them better in the last draft–and there’s the small matter of the pink of the cheek extending too far into the ear.

To be continue?

If that feeling persists, I will eventually go back in, probably with subconsciously generated insight, but if it subsides, then I’ll call it done. I am reluctant to fuss with the painting at this point, even with the pink, which is not a mystery how to fix. Fussing can sometimes kill the life in a painting. We’ll see. To be continued…


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