Gurney Journey | category: Portraits


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Observing How Sargent Painted

When Margaret Chanler was in London in 1893 with her sister Elizabeth, Margaret persuaded John Singer Sargent to paint her sister's portrait. 

Observing How Sargent Painted
Portrait of Elizabeth by John Singer Sargent, 1893

"It was his custom," said Margaret, "to admit callers, so that the sitting should not become too rigid. I was asked to keep the talk moving with those who came. I suggested that Mr. Kipling ought to fill the vacant poet laureate’s post. 'What an unpleasant American idea!' Mr. Sargent walked backwards to the wall of his studio, his brush held very high, then returned to the canvas. Lively conversation much amused but never distracted him. When the portrait was finished (he had painted the head in only twice), I overheard him: 'Miss Chanler, I have painted you la penserosa, I should like to begin all over again, and paint you l’allegra.'" According to Sargent, she had "the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child."

This firsthand account confirms two observations about Sargent's working method:
1. He kept his models engaged and talking, not holding dead-still as is the custom now.
2. He used a form of the sight-size method, frequently backing up from the painting with the brush held aloft, presumably for evaluating slopes or measuring segments.

From Margaret Chanler Aldrich's memoir Family VistaAvailable on

Previously: Talking Models, Speaking Likeness, Setting Up a Sight-Size Portrait

Lavery's Portrait Fiasco

Irish painter Sir John Lavery lamented in his memoirs that it is impossible to both capture a true likeness of a portrait subject and also please that subject.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most portraits are not commissioned by the subject, but rather by a relative or spouse, and their feelings must be taken into account, too. 

Lavery's Portrait Fiasco

He recalls one time when "A Lady Somebody wanted a semi-state portrait to hang beside the Gainsborough and Romney in the ancestral hall of her husband, who was to know nothing until the work was complete." 

Lavery's Portrait Fiasco

(Portraits are by John Lavery but not the one referred to in this story)

"The day at last arrived and with it the husband. Planting himself in front of the picture with both hands resting on a gold-headed cane, he maintained an ominous silence while his eyes roamed over the canvas."

Lavery's Portrait Fiasco

"At last, raising a hand, covering the figure, and concentrating on the head, he spoke. 'I pass the forehead and the eyes. I move my hand downwards: the nose the mouth the chin, them also I pass. I move my hand yet lower: what is this flat-chested modernity that I see? Where is the snowy amplitude of Her Ladyship? No, Sir John Lavery, that does not represent my wife.'"

Lavery's Portrait Fiasco

"Her Ladyship stood by his chair almost in tears, saying, 'I will not have an eighth of an inch added.' I had tried to please both and, of course, had failed."

"Later, I wrote to His Lordship that I felt he was justified in his criticism, and that if he was still in the same mind I would, with his permission, cancel the commission, and that he should take back the very expensive and highly carved frame he had ordered. He accepted."

He painted another portrait over the canvas.

Quoted from The Life of a Painter by Sir John Lavery.

Painting People in Rural France

Painting People in Rural France

Ohio-born artist Elizabeth Nourse painted directly from models in rural France. She was often "in villages with no inns or accommodations and lived either with members of a religious community or with the peasants, to an innate sympathy with women and children of the peasantry and enabled her to gain their confidence and observe them closely while living among them."

Painting People in Rural France

"Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) had quite a different experience in Brittany. Writing about her unsuccessful efforts to get a Breton woman to pose for her, she observed, 'We found that the people, especially the country folk, did not really like les artistes.'"

Quotes from Elisabeth Nourse, 1859-1938, A Salon Career

Source: Wikipedia on Elizabeth Nourse and Cecilia Beaux

Mick Moloney, 1944-2022

Sad to hear of the passing yesterday of Limerick-born Mick Moloney, Irish music historian, raconteur, singer and banjo player, sketched at a concert a few years ago. 

Mick Moloney, 1944-2022

He loved to tell the stories and sing the songs of Irish immigrants in America through his recordings, teachings, and publications.

How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking Likeness

William Oberhardt (American, 1882-1958) was known for his charcoal portraits, always drawn from life, always of men. 

How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking Likeness

How did he achieve such convincing likenesses, where the subject seems animated and on the verge of speech?

The answer is that he engaged his subjects in a spirited conversation. He wanted to make sure that the sitter had a delightful experience, and he tried to bring out their best in the conversation. 

How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking Likeness

Most of his drawings were achieved within an hour. After laying out the overall gesture he would focus on completing the eyes early in the process, because he knew he needed to get them right or the whole effort would be futile and he would have to start over.

How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking Likeness

Sidney Dickinson by William Oberhardt

To convey an individual likeness, he focused on the unique attributes of the person's face. He preferred to portray celebrities because "they are free from the inhibitions that the average man is heir to. The celebrity usually realizes that lines, plans, and wrinkles cannot be removed without loss of individuality, the individuality that has made him prominent...The trouble is that some people don't like their own faces. When that happens, I admit, the cards are stacked against you. No matter how much of the milk of human kindness you mix with your pictorial effort, you're fighting a losing game because a portraitist cannot redesign a face and still preserve a likeness."

How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking Likeness
The new issue of Illustration Magazine has a 23 page article with dozens of examples of Oberhardt's portraits, both in charcoal and oil, together with many notes about his process, including extended excerpts from several articles by Oberhardt himself. 

There's also a very detailed article on pulp illustrator Earle Bergey.

Outline vs. Tonal Shapes In Face Recognition

 Which is more important for face recognition: outline or tonal shapes?

Outline vs. Tonal Shapes In Face Recognition
Jim Carrey (left) and Kevin Costner.

According to vision scientists Pawan Sinha et al, "Images which contain exclusively contour information are very difficult to recognize, suggesting that high-spatial frequency information, by itself, is not an adequate cue for human face recognition processes." 

Outline vs. Tonal Shapes In Face Recognition

By contrast, the tonal shapes, even if they're out of focus, are relatively easy to recognize. The experts say: 
"Unlike current machine-based systems, human observers are able to handle significant degradations in face images." Shown here are Michael Jordan, Woody Allen, Elvis Presley, and Jay Leno.

That's why it's good to blur your eyes when you're capturing a likeness.
Source: Face Recognition by Humans: Nineteen Results All Computer Vision Researchers Should Know About, Pawan Sinha, Benjamin Balas, Yuri Ostrovsky, and Richard Russell,

Abstracted Realism

Some call it "deconstructed realism," while others call it "disrupted realism" or "abstracted realism." 

Alex Kanevsky

The artwork suggests that the power of chaos rivals the power of order, or that the will to destroy equals the will to create.

John Wentz 

The painting contains both randomness and illusionism, signal and noise. 

Who are the inspiring progenitors of this movement? Beyond the abstract painters such as Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn, several realist painters can be identified as stylistic influencers: Andrew WyethRichard SchmidAntonio López García, and Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

Richter, a painter with remarkable range and versatility, became known for taking a realistically painted face and smearing the oil paint with a squeegee.

Johanna Bath still II, Oil on Canvas, 19.7 W x 23.6 H x 0.8 D in

Gerhard Richter's influence can be felt in artists who use the rubbed out look, such as Johanna Bath.

Mia Bergeron
Seeing a painting created this way leaves no doubt that it's a painting, and it may remind the viewer of the struggle of creation or the fickleness of illusion.

Adam by Greg Manchess

When painters efface the surface of a portrait, they typically leave the eyes in a carefully finished state, both because of the psychological importance of the eyes, and to show that they're capable of painting realistically. 

But not always. Sometimes artists deliberately disrupt the mouth, eyes, or head. 

Artist Zack Zdrale says in the book Disrupted Realism, "I've taken passages of traditionally rendered figures and smashed them, breaking the illusion of form in space. I want to show the paint doing things that only paint can do."

Michelle Kohler

Michelle Kohler says: "Most of my years spent studying were focused on portraiture, as expressed through realism. As an artistic discipline, it has been a constant throughout my life. But it was only after a fortuitous departure into abstract painting that I was able to playfully and courageously combine two disciplines. Deconstructed Realism is my expression of artistic independence and creativity as it pertains to the depth and complexity of human portraiture."

(Link to YouTube) Mia Bergeron says that her approach to painting grew out of a frustration with the academic approaches to realism.

The deconstructive approach includes not just figural work, but also landscapes and cityscapes. 

Other artists that you've suggested to check out in the comments: Julie T. Chapman, Patrick Kramer, Jenny Saville,

More info:

Book: Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World

Joe Baer as Mark Twain

Last night, actor and writer Joe Baer performed "Tales of Mark Twain" in Rhinecliff, NY. I painted an impromptu portrait of him from the audience using sepia gouache. 

Joe Baer as Mark Twain

I set up my palette in advance with sepia colors because I anticipated it would be too dark to make out any hues. It was pretty dark.

Joe Baer as Mark Twain

Baer, a local writer, actor, and lighting designer created the show from Twain's own writings. The show is enhanced by projected slides evoking the writer's historical milieu, which gives context to Twain's trenchant observations about the human condition. 

Baer wore the classic white suit and wild hair. He gave a thoughtful, witty, and lively performance. He didn't stay long in the chair, or in any single pose, so I had to rely on memory as much as observation. 
Observing How Sargent PaintedLavery's Portrait FiascoPainting People in Rural FranceMick Moloney, 1944-2022How Oberhardt Achieved a Speaking LikenessGrisaille Portrait Video Now on YouTubeOutline vs. Tonal Shapes In Face RecognitionAbstracted RealismJoe Baer as Mark TwainSurrounded by Memory

Report "Gurney Journey"

Are you sure you want to report this post for ?