Saturday, December 29, 2012


The instructor for this course this fall was a charming lady: Kristan Le. I chose her among a couple of other alternatives because of her stunning portofolio, which you can find here.

The course name is basically what you get: an intensive full immersion in portrait painting projects in oil of increasing difficulty, starting from simple head and shoulder portrait and moving into larger and longer paintings including hands. The first few assignments are given one week of time, but as the course moves it branches into 2-week exercises run in parallel with 4-week assignment projects. In total, there are 9 exercises and 4 assignments (aka 13 paintings) expected from the course, although honestly there is no difference in challenge and complexity between the two types, they just have a different tempo. The expected style is uniformely realistic, which is the standard in commission portraiture. 

My very first portrait for the course - I got a B for this one
As it is normal by now with reference-based online course, we worked from photographs. The interesting part was that after the first few weeks we were allowed to use our own reference, although they needed to get approval first. This was very interesting for two reasons. First, a lot of references were rejected and you quickly learned to be on the watch  for the differences between a good and a bad reference and how to set up your own photoshooting to get usable reference. I do believe this is a fundamental skill in contemporary portraiture and, despite my expereence in photography, I did learn  a lot about what makes a portrait reference successful. The course material is very well assembled in this aspect and really points you in the right direction with regard to lighting, composition, posing, props, color schemes, etc...Second, of course, you get to paint your own paintings, of people you know and who are important to you - and you do invest a lot more energy in a portrait of a dear person than in that of a total stranger. Of course, you could choose to use the sets of references provided by the academy, which were very nice and provided a very ample choice of model types and poses - I saved all of them as they might come in handy for future use. I did use my own reference whenever the option was available.
One of my favorite models provided by the AAU - Andrea

A portrait of a colleague of mine from my own photograph, around week 9 - a big improvement!

The style of painting suggested by the AAU is what I called the "posterizing" alla prima style, which I will describe in more detail in a future post. This is particularly successful for portraiture and I do believe my best works in the course were produced with this approach. There are several video demonstration with the course, about 2 hours per module. I have to admit that I only watched the first few, as they become so repetitive (the style used is uniformly the same) that I found myself systematically drifting away to do something else while they run in the background...which became the background of the background and then 4 windows behind my current and then just a voice murmuring something. The last ones I downloaded I did not even bother to look what they were about-  but there the problem was that I simply did not have any time left to invest 2 h to watch somebody painting - I needed to paint myself!

Similar to two other colleagues from the course, I used several references of children - my children. Boy, it is difficult to paint children. Do  not even attempt it until you feel confident in your painting skills. The easiest is men, as you can paint very loose and you will just get a more masculine feeling. Women are more tricky, as their skin needs to be smoother. Children are a nightmare - every slight mistake in values or transitions makes them look older. In one occasion, I even had the brilliant idea to use a reference I knew to be marred by insufficient value contrast - which meant I had to rely on warm-cool transitions to achieve tridimensionality, which is an even bigger challenge. The result is Spring Giulia - not too bad, considering the circumstances, though you can see how much more effective Winter Giulia is, which has a clear value structure (and a more effective staged composition on top).

Spring Giulia - insufficient value contrast in the reference made this panting very difficult to pull through

Autumn Giulia - I had to change the color of the background midway through. Shows that it always pays to do color sketches beforehand.

Winter Giulia - my last assignment and I believe one of my best paintings of all history. Optimally staged lighting and composition are mandatory for a successful painting

Critiques were thorough and useful - a little slow in coming sometimes, but very detailed and helpful. Some commens I only understood after the next painting or the one after, but this is rather normal when you are growing your skills at such a fast pace. Kristan had a very specific taste (clear forms, simple composition with large shapes, loose brushwork) which does not necessarily overlap with mine, but the discrepancy was not so strong as to cause problems.

Overall, I found the course very good and with an enormous impact on my painting skills. And I really  like at least 5 of the paintings I produced during it, which is quite a good yield considering how self-critic I tend to be. And I definitely confirmed something I discovered a while ago: I love hands! One day I will make a series of "hand portraits". 

The course concluded with a review of the business and how to market oneself as portraitist. And here I start to wonder: how come I cannot find any reference to commission portraiture in Europe? It is quite common in the US and somewhat in the UK, but no mention of mainland Europe...

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