An Extended Look

Practice makes better. That phrase gets me through the painting phase when each part of the painting doesn’t work and I’m totally frustrated. Each mark I make is a learning experience, and I know I can always paint over it. I figure by painting many portraits from photos I will improve my rendering of the form, be able to create a likeness faster, and learn the techniques of working with acrylic paint. But there’s another boon of using photographs as a reference for a portrait: I get to choose the expression.

I learned this fully when I painted my sister a few months back. I used a photograph I took when she was in high school or college, I don’t remember when exactly, but it was during that phase when you look at the world (or just your younger sister) with a “what are you doing! I’m mildly amused” expression. When I found this photo I took it out of the album and put it in the pile assembled in my studio. 

I started the portrait seeing and wanting to express one side of that sentiment: dismissal. I nearly finished it before putting the canvas into my closet. Months later I pulled it out and saw malice in the slightly raised eyebrows and upturn of the upper lip. That is not the direction I want to go in this portrait. I set to rework it and in a few days I transformed the portrait into a kind of exaggerated expression of love. I kind of liked how she is surrounded by hearts, even the shape of her lovely face is heart shaped, thanks to her widow’s peak. When I finished I compared the two portraits as I take photos as I work. The comparison is drastic, especially when viewed on either side of the original portrait. 

I’m so glad to have gone back to this painting. Every failure leads to gains, and, even if the final portrait isn’t a success, the realization that I can shift an expression so dramatically from one photograph is an epiphany. I’m excited to try telling stories in some of these portrait, using family photographs as a figure reference. I know I’ll be frustrated and question whether each decision is correct, but practice will make better.

Michelle 16x12” Acrylic on Canvas 2017 (c) Jenny L. Graham-Hougah

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