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Reading List: Portrait Painting Books and DVDs

February 4, 2013

Starting in December I began to reorganize my "library." While that process included culling books to create more shelf space (and resulted in donations to various small libraries) it also involved going over my notes of books I've read over the years.  

Some of my upcoming posts will be about books focusing on a single artist, other "reading list" posts will be focus on techniques. I hope to put links to all of them on a page (which gets listed in the left-hand column of this blog), but we'll see how it goes. You could always get back to this post by searching "Portrait Painting," in the blog's search engine.

Obviously this is a topic that's important to me because I blogged about "Drawing Faces: Some Book Recommendations," in February 2009.

Some of those books may be on this list today, but others aren't because they seem to me to be better suited to appearing on a list of "Figure Drawing" books I'm also working on. Or perhaps for whatever reason I didn't think them as essential. Or I couldn't find them again or never owned them so they didn't show up in the library reorganization. I thought you'd appreciate a link to the original post so that you didn't have to wait for my list of figure painting books.

I have also listed videos and DVDs I've watched on this topic. Some libraries also carry them. Today there are so many YouTube videos documenting various drawing techniques that one could just surf through them, but I would have to say that watching the videos of artists whose work I've followed and whose books I've read has been very inspirational to me. I recommend that you focus your search for videos in a similar fashion. Often you can find short previews of an instructional video on YouTube and get a sense from it whether or not the teacher's approach appeals to you. I recently borrowed the Mary Whyte videos listed below and I could listen to her talk all day long.

A lot of books on painting portraits that I read are aimed at painting with oil. It makes sense as people commissioning paintings often view oil paintings as intrinsically more valuable. I don't hold with that, but still a lot of books are published in this topic for oil painters. The oil-paint approach seems closer to my approach when painting with gouache so I find much that is adaptable. Or maybe I just want to live vicariously because I'm allergic to oils. You can translate a lot of oil techniques into acrylic approaches as well. Any good artist giving a video demonstration will teach you something about seeing which you can take away, regardless of the medium they used. So if an artist you really love is doing a demo in a medium you don't use—check it out anyway.

The following titles are listed in alphabetical order by author's surname, with video/DVD entries coming in their own section at the end of the list.

(I am not a member of any book seller's recommendation programs so I have not provided links to these books. A quick search at your favorite book seller should turn them up.)

Anthony Connolly, "Painting Portraits." (Crowood Press, 2011)

A useful and interesting book which begins with a brief discussion of the history of portraiture and launches into materials (oil paints), drawing (his draughtsmanship is exquisite), and painting.

It was gratifying to me to find an artist who begins as I do with the eye. His painting approach could be directly mimicked with acrylics by someone already comfortable with acrylics. With a bit more adaption there are bits of his process that can be made useful for the painter using gouache.

For me the excitement of this book was to read the thoughts of a portrait painter as excited about process and paint and surface as I am.

He also discusses and demonstrates self-portraits, copying masters, and working from photographs, all with an historical and philosophical approach that  may have you trying it all.

Connolly ends with a section on portrait artists he admires. He articulates his understanding of their works and process in such a thoughtful way I found it helpful when examining my own thoughts about my methods and goals.

His book is very much like having an engaging conversation with a knowledgeable and insightful art companion.

One negative: The step-by-step photos were poorly lit.

Rose Frantzen, "Portrait of Maquoketa." (Old City Hall Press, 2009)

In 2010 a reader of this blog wrote in to tell me about  Franzten's project (painting portraits of residents of Maquoket, Iowa) to me. A search on the internet turned up a video of her discussing her project. I was an immediate fan.

She paints stunningly fresh portraits in oil. I found a video of her painting which was engaging to watch: Alla Prima Portraiture. I review it later in the video section.

On my recent (December 2012) trip to Iowa I picked up this book, long on my wish list.

The first feature I must mention and for which I would have purchased the book even if everything else in it was nonsense is the "flip book" painting in progress on the bottom right of each page. Hold the book's pages by that corner and let them flip—you'll see the portrait of a young boy as it developed step-by-step. Great fun!

Happily the rest of the book is not nonsense. There are interesting essays about Frantzen and her project as well as the entire set of project paintings. This is a lovely book documenting the stunning work of a talented painter.

Louise Gordon, "How to Draw the Human Head: Techniques and Anatomy." (Penguin, 1977)

Understanding the structure of something before you draw it is crucial to success. This book explains and demonstrates facial, head, and neck anatomy.

In a readable and easily understood way (you don't have to be a medical student) Gordon then follows up with a structural approach to starting a drawing (including using your pencil as a sighting tool) and a discussion of various types of line with which you can experiment.

I've had this book since the 1990s and while I never memorized all the muscle groups and such I found that reading it (and referring to it every so often) has helped me look more closely at what is going on in the face and to see where I need to start in order to make things work.

Everett Raymond Kinstler, "Painting Portraits." (Watson-Guptill, 1971)

Caveat: I picked this up as a used book and am not sure if it is still available. My copy pretty much fell apart the first time I used it (perfect binding glue gave way).

The main reason to buy this book would be the reproductions of Kinstler's portraits. He painted many famous people and brought a fresh immediacy to his portraits.

Another reason to buy this book—it's an important document for anyone who wants to set up as a portrait painter because in chapter after chapter as Kinstler writes about dealing with hands, clothing, backgrounds, etc., he is also providing anecdotes from a long career as a portrait painter.

Things that might not occur to you until you are in a tight situation are explained in his text. His use of a golf bag to transport his studio essentials to out of town locations is brilliant. While these anecdotes are in no way exhaustive concerning the "hazards" you may encounter they are complete and detailed enough to get your brain thinking the way it needs to think—proactively.

There are only a few demonstrations at the end of the book. Written in the days before cheap digital photography  there is a huge leap from the few beginning set up photos to the final polished piece shown in color—but there is enough information to get a sense of his practice and process.

This is not a book about basics.

William L. Maughan, "The Artist's Complete Guide to Drawing the Head." (2004, Watson-Guptill)

I hesitate to put this book on the list because while I have had it since this past summer life events have prevented me from reading past page 44. I didn't want to delay my series of "reading lists" because they were set to go and I'm still out of the office sick. This is what I can tell you about this book: the artist is drawing in brown and sanguine chalk, with some white chalk, on toned paper. The examples he creates are worth owning the book for. You can study them and get a sense of approach that you might be able to adapt in your own work even without reading the book. That said, the first 44 pages I've read have been full of useful information about Chiaroscuro, sharpening your pastel pencil, holding your pencil, which paper to use, how to light the head, analyze shapes, and look at values. Sections at the end of the book deal with working on drawings from combined reference sources (which for the author means the creation of fantasy creatures) and working in color. So while I haven't read the book all the way through I can tell you there is enough useful information that if drawing on toned paper is something that interests you this is a great place to start.

Alex Powers, "Painting People in Watercolor." (1989, Watson-Guptill)

I've long admired the art of Alex Powers—realism with a looseness and freshness; planes of space moving in and out of focus; and always—design, design, design.

I'd been reading new books or books I'd recently found, and I went to file them on my shelves and there re-found Powers' book. I think it's time to reread it. I didn't want to wait until I had to include it in this list. You could be reading it now.

He writes about drawing and rotating faces in space, varying the illusion of depth in a painting, values (of course), arranging shapes for composition—focal point, negative space, color temperature, color unity. In all this there are a couple points on which I disagree with Powers, and I've marked them in the margins with strident sentences of my own—but I expect a thoughtful author will make me think! I definitely recommend you start your own dialogue with this book.

Chris Saper, "Classic Portrait Painting in Oils: Keys to Mastering Diverse Skintones." (2012, Northlight Books)

Saper's stated goals are to get people to paint more from life in "perfect practice" situations, i.e., where all conditions are set up for success; and to paint more from life—but if they are employing photo references to create and work with excellent photo references so their paintings can also succeed.

To that end she has useful discussions on choosing and setting up lighting conditions, sizing and placing a subject on the canvas, and creating excellent photo references. (She obviously can't be exhaustive on these topics, the last of which warrants a book of its own, but her tips are straightforward and sufficiently detailed that they will make sense to beginners and be useful reminders to more confident practitioners.)

Her demonstrations include step-by step handling of facial features, and then a series of full portrait demonstrations using models with various skin tones. Each model is painted once from life and once from a photo. The step-by-step photos clearly show the artist's progress in creating each painting. I don't paint in oil and don't understand the timing involved. It seems these are all done alla prima. That might be frustrating for some readers. However, the artist captures clear colors in her paintings and avoids muddiness and I find that inspiring.

Burton Silverman, "Breaking the Rules of Watercolor." (1983, Watson-Guptill)

This is an excellent book which documents Silverman's fluid, loose, yet realistic watercolor technique. So much of the book's discussion uses examples of his portrait work that I think it is a must to have on this list. My only negative comment about this book is that not all the images are in color. Were it printed today you know they would be, and we'd all be happy.

Video Tutorials for Portrait Painting

Rose Frantzen, "Alla Prima Portraiture with Rose Frantzen." Frantzen works through a portrait in oil from start to finish. Even if you don't work in oil this video is excellent because it is clear how she is focusing on editing detail and creating a likeness by getting the right shapes—something any artist has to work with.

Robert Liberace, Numerous videos—see his website for details. I have seen only bits and pieces on YouTube (promotional cuts). I was very excited by what I saw and look forward to seeing several of these in the future.

Charles Reid, "Watercolor Secrets." This video shows a number of painting sessions with the artist known for his loose, contours-and-splash style. His style is much copied but it is his deft hand and clear sense of color theory and understanding of values that gives his work such sparkle. One of the segments (maybe two?) deals with figure drawing, and as such you will see how to handle putting color into a face. This DVD will be particularly helpful to people doing quick sketches while out and about with their journals. You can learn a lot about handling watercolor that you can take with you into your own process, without the need to ape his style.

Note: This Reid title doesn't show up on his DVD page on his website. The friend I borrowed it from told me that it came with a book of the same title, so you might have to search for it a bit. One of his other videos might also give you the insights you're looking for. There is a 7 minute preview of this video up on YouTube which just covers introductory stuff and doesn't get to anything about the face that I found interesting.

Burton Silverman, "Breaking the Rules: My Friend Wes," and " Painting the Figure: Theresa," are two videos I saw years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. Silverman has long been one of my favorite artists. "Painting the Figure," is in watercolor, and while it is about the "figure" from head to lap, he spends time in the video focusing on the model's face. It is strictly a portrait. His whole approach is just too wonderful to not mention on this list of portrait painting resources.

Mary Whyte, "Mastering Watercolor Portraiture with Mary Whyte," and "Watercolor Portraits of the South." I found that the first listed title was a bit more detailed in the whole process Whyte uses. The second title focused in on some parts of the process in a very helpful way. Both were excellent videos. If you are buying them I would suggest you buy the first. If you are renting or borrowing them I suggest you start with the first title before watching the second. I really enjoyed both of these and find she has a lot of helpful and interesting things to say coming out of an established practice. Her voice is also very pleasant to listen to.

Additional Tutorial Information:

While looking about for the Charles Reid DVD I wrote about I found an oil portrait demo by Ben Lustenhouwer on YouTube. It's a portrait of a little girl, made from a photo. It is sped up so you can see the development in less that 10 minutes. The end moments where he finishes the details are particularly fun to watch.

Zimou Tan's "Lloyd" is a video of 190 minutes sped up and compressed into 11 minutes. It is quite fun to watch as well.

Mary Beth McKenzie, who teaches at the Art Students League in New York has a very helpful demo on painting an oil portrait. I love what she says about using line, volume, and negative shape, going back and forth, "challenging anything you put down. You can never believe anything you put down, you have to keep comparing."

Another approach from Gregg Kreutz, also of the Art Students League can be seen here. He starts on a toned canvas.

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