Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I heard recently a major museum is doing a show of those retro  'paint by number' oil paintings that you buy in a cardboard box complete with little tubs of garish paint as small as pill boxes and a few K-Mart quality brushes.

I think this is a really good thing. I have always been intrigued by these kits and even did a couple when I was a kid. The painting appears like magic before your eyes. They are quite marvelous really if you don't want to be bothered spending a lifetime on the annoying skills needed to really paint. Sucks that one has to learn to draw and paint and color theory is for the birds.

I was reminded of this magic on a very recent trip to Raleigh, N.C., for a portrait artist meet/greet with scores of reps hosted by my  Southern portrait agency.

All was just lovely. Basically a weekend long portraitfest to sell yourself and your portrait work. Nothing wrong in that! Lucky in these times really. Chit-chat flowed along with the wine and southern charm until I got to the afternoon 'paint from life' session. There I was painting in front of 25 of my peers, some of THE  very best portrait painters in the land, and being watched by artists who chose not to paint, and oh, only about 40 agency reps from around the country.

It suddenly dawned on me, one false move of the brush, and there might be no more bookings in my future. You are only as good as you last head study let's be honest. And a bomb in front of this crowd would be of Titanic proportions. I have often been told I look a little like Titanic Kate Winslet  ( I wish!)  but I didn't want to be at the helm of this collision. The pressure felt a little 'on' to be honest to avoid the artistic iceberg that could possibly be ahead of me.

I started out pretty good, but then lost my navigation, only to regain course toward the end after a serious self-talk about what was needed. I LOVE those kind of talks! That is of course the joy and pain of life  painting. Things can go south real quick especially when you are in THE South. Why do we do it? There are easier ways to paint. Numbers, projection,  and tracing are all out there but I want to be an artist who relies on a skill that has been built up through repetition and training.

It got me to thinking about how a paint by number deal would be very cool for life painting. Someone should invent an acetate -type thing you can place over the model's face, number it, and then transfer your numbers to your canvas! Bingo.

And then I realized, I pretty much DO paint by numbers when I life paint and it was actually this approach that got me through the icy bumps on this afternoon. My paint by number system is this...three values for the light side of the form and two for the dark.  Period. It is what I teach at LAAFA like a BROKEN record.

Concentrating on this simplicity got me through and has done many times before. I have a feeling it will do so in the future too. Structure and simplicity of values....value one for the lightest plane, value two for the mass of light, value three for the transition/halftone, value five for the turning edge of the form, and value four for the reflected light.

Just like those painting kits, keep it simple stupid. Now, heck, how come a museum isn't calling me for my version of paint by numbers? It really has to happen especially as I can't rely on my aging Winslet looks anymore.


Marian Fortunati said...

Your posts always make me smile, Johanna!!
I LOVE listening to your 5 values lesson... over and over and over and over...
Thank goodness you're patient!!
So glad they all loved you!! No one pointed and broke out laughing.. As all of us who know you expected... You were a winner!!

Mary Aslin said...

Hi Johanna,
Wonderful portrait...I love your accuracy combined with your brushwork. Just beautiful! I also love your essay on the what is going on in your head and the process. Really great.