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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Learning to See

Value study demo from mannequin - oil 11x14"

Just taught a 4 day portrait workshop to a small, enthusiastic group of students. The curriculum in this course is more demanding than anything else I teach because the primary focus is continued attention on drawing precision.

As painters, developing drawing skill may be the most tempting thing to skip out on. Not only does building skill in this area require intense focus and discipline, it may also seem like one can get away with poor drawing by clever painting. (Many artists do, I am guilty myself of not making drawing a top priority in the past.)

The good news is, if you take the time to truly become masterful in drawing, it enables you to paint anything you want with confidence and freedom, and to tackle the subjects that are impossible to pull off if your drawing skills are weak.

By the middle of the first day I thought a mutiny might be brewing, but instead these guys rolled up their sleeves and dove in, making it a true pleasure to work with them. 

We started with a day of drawing from mannequins, learning how to measure properly, rechecking and correcting as we went. On day two we focused on painting a value study from the mannequin, with a focus on form before detail.

Once they had a handle on this we started working from a live model, raising the bar several notches. Wheels started falling off, but the troops rallied and in the end really started to grasp the importance of getting the structure down correctly. This is primarily achieved through accurately capturing the design of light and shadow before pursuing detail. If the foundation is wrong, no amount of detail will turn it around.

Here is an excerpt from a book about John Singer Sargent's portraits: "He never attempted to repaint one eye or to raise or lower it, for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for the eye, and if it was wrongly placed, the understructure was wrong, and he ruthlessly scraped and repainted the head from the beginning, sometimes after multiple sittings with the model."

A huge thanks goes out to Scott Burdick and Sue Lyon for providing me with some amazing tools for both my own painting and my teaching in a 10 day intensive I took with them last year.

Lastly, check out this great post on a contemporary master painter, Casey Baugh, demonstrating his approach to portrait painting recently at the Portrait Society of America National Show.

The Hard Core painting gang -  Invermere, BC. :-)


  1. "... if you take the time to truly become masterful in drawing, it enables you to paint anything ..."
    The TRUTH packed in this statement is absolute my friend! xox

  2. An excellent, valuable post, Liz. Thank you for your efforts. I appreciate the photos and the references as well.

  3. What an amazing and interesting post, I enjoyed so much reading it (I am an art school student -in my 40s- and I found your class so complete). Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Liz- I always enjoy reading your posts. I went to the Hispanic Museum last month to see the Sorollas- they were wonderful. I have a question which may sound silly- I've looked online for a mannequin head to have when I teach, where did you find yours? Haven't seen a good one.

  5. Hey Kathy, glad you got to see the Sorollas!

    Here is a link to the site where I purchased the heads I use (I got 4):

  6. Hi Liz. And look how happy we all are at the end of a challenging four days! Excellent learning experience. I am doing the 30-day drawing challenge. I hope for the "aha" moment any day now...

    1. Hey Laila, way to go girl - make sure you let me know when the pin drops!

  7. Wow, I would have loved to be there. I'm sure everyone learned a ton.