"Trade" - Portrait by Sam Spratt
In art school, one life painting class changed my perception of what a portrait meant. I had always been under the impression that artists painted portraits, regardless of medium, in almost a “paint by numbers” fashion, where the areas of color you see on a final piece were deliberately and meticulously placed there and next to each other to comprise a face. To anyone with any experience, you know the absurdity of that – but it really wasn’t until this class, where we were taught the technique of Peter Paul Rubens, that it finally clicked: just as in actuality, how the color of a face is determined by many layers of skin, where blood flows most, how light hits it, and an infinite number of other factors – paintings are often built through many layers, with the physical history of how it’s layered creating color and light variance that you can’t just lay down like a coloring book.
As I was taught, Rubens would establish form in sketches, lay down a loose wash of gold/raw sienna to create warmth, work in some achromatic raw brown into the shadows and highlights to establish light, use an achromatic greyscale in the cooler toned areas of the skin which he called the “dead color”, lightly glaze in color areas over the form, lay opaque color down to bring some life into it and work over mistakes, with a good ‘ol coat of details to finish it all off. There’s a lot of academic debate about his exact process, but whatever my professor, Roger Walton, passed along – stuck. Now 4-5 years since that class, that same oil technique stays in the back of my mind even on the Cintiq. Long-winded artsy gibberish aside, I just wanted to share a tiny look into process and give credit where credit is due on how one class and a great teacher had a profound impact on the direction I chose to head in.