Wokingham Art Society
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Demonstration by Keith Morton
Acrylic Portrait, 21 January 2014

Contact him at km_art@blueyonder.co.uk or visit www.saa.co.uk/art/keithmorton
Straight in - no nonsense. Keith had already taken great care to pose and illuminate Glynis exactly as he wanted and had pre-prepared a sheet of paper with thin "red-brown" acrylic. One hand held a small tin with a squirt or two of alizarin crimson, the other an old well-trimmed round brush (almost a short rigger) between four (4) fingers and thumb.

He likes to make heads, top to bottom, about the span of a hand:- thumb to little finger. He made two tiny marks by aligning the brush with the top and bottom of what he could see of the head and touching the side lightly to the paper. These defined where the head would appear and became his initial unit of measurement. Then a third mark - where the face ended and the top of the head started (visible because he was looking from above). He seemed to see a clear division between "the face" and the side or top of the head.

The last mark, before really serious placing of features, was about half way up the face - for the eyes. Measure. Is one "half" slightly bigger than the other?
Keith's measuring was meticulous, particularly angles: the angle of the line of eyes; the centre of the face (one touch) and then, going across from left to right, the relative spaces (and check resulting angles) between cheek, eye, centre of nose, tear duct and end of eye. Then the nose length (shorter than you think), the angle of the nostrils and finally the line of the mouth. All defined by short marks with the side of the brush. One eye shut, one eye almost shut, feet in exactly the same place. Check positions, check angles, check a different way, correct the odd 1 mm error. Re-check. "Which side of her right tear duct is the tip of her nose?"

Then another tiny mark for the back of the head - always further back than you think. With the brush strictly at right angles to the line of sight, compare the height and total width but also check the angles from there to facial features (add top and bottom of ear).

For a good likeness, the eye-to-eyebrow distances are as important as the line of the lips. I understand he was quoting John Singer Sargent when he told us that a portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth
Measure the collar: this is easy to underestimate. Check angles! Re-check distances: "How many times does this fit into that?"

With the drawing complete, Kieth's next stage was to start shading. For this he used the same colour but with more water and a bigger flat brush.

Then colour. He had put out 6 colours (and white) onto a home-made stay-wet palette - one set of "primary" colours (red, yellow and blue) each side . One set was "warm", towards the red side of the colour circle, for use in areas lit by direct light. The other "cool", towards the blue side, for shadowed areas.

Immediately after telling us that oil and acrylics should be put on from dark to light the first colour he added was the brightest skin tone. Challenged, he said that the darks were already there: in the alizarin shadows!
His application of colour was just like his drawing, but with a flat brush: single short marks, put on and left. The straight edge of the brush was always carefully aligned to the edge of some feature. Each brush-full of colour was mixed on the palette and adjusted there, so no two were exactly the same.

Finding that some of his alizarin drawing marks had been hidden by skin or hair colour, Keith went back into his carefully-measured-drawing mode. His whole approach, if you haven't already realised, was to make tiny decisions, check them and stick to them. He paints accurately but not neatly. For example, time was needed to get the tones right where the lip turns into the mouth/teeth and to indicate where the face becomes the side of the head (more shadow, more blue). He works all over the paper: when he notices something interesting he captures it immediately.
As always there were little asides:

Was it Ruskin who said "I draw in order to understand"?
When setting up a portait, you need side lighting (use a piece of paper as a reflector if the contrast is too big).
If you want to mix a pink make sure there is not a trace of yellow
If you do something right, leave it - don't try to reinforce it
Be sure you know where the lightest and darkest points are
A background doesn't just complement the adjacent colours - it gives you a final chance to correct tiny errors in shape
Painting from a photo is dull.
By the end of the demo, Glynis was happy to be given the painting. Keith had spent 90 minutes of what would, if it were a "proper" portrait, be a couple of weeks' work. I wouldhave been very happy if I could get such a good likeness.


Thank you Keith for a very interesting evening and a salutary lesson: you can't get a likeness unless you really look.
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