Meet this month’s Artist of the Month, Patricia Watwood. Watwood (Creating Portraits from Life) is a figurative painter based in Brooklyn, New York, and she is a leading figure in the contemporary classical movement. Her subjects are primarily women and figures, often using allegory and mythic imagery. Her work is in public and private collections, and she has exhibited at the Beijing World Art Museum, the Butler Museum, St. Louis University Museum of Art, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Forbes Galleries, among others.
Art Notes: What does painting people give you as an artist?
Patricia Watwood: It is essential that an artist have a strong feeling of connection and passion about the subject of her artwork. In my years of painting, there is no subject that has sustained my interest more than connecting with another human being. I find the subtleties of form, features, and skin tone both impossible and tantalizing, so on a technical level, the portrait and figure always keep me on my toes.
Even more engaging is the spiritual presence of my sitter. I want to share the stories and experience of how it feels to be human. In painting a person, I work to both see them from the outside and draw them out from the inside. I want to know about their life, thoughts, energy, and values. If I can simply make a painting that evokes the depth of experience in a single life — that seems worthy of art.
Art Notes: Can you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Almost every work I spend some time on, I will break down the development of the work into the fundamental components of drawing first, next mapping out the value relationships and composition in an underpainting, and finally, refining the work with a finishing pass. Even a quick plein air study gets a cursory version of these three stages.
To understand the drawing for a portrait, I usually make a separate preparatory drawing on paper, and might make multiple versions. Drawing for me is much faster than painting, so it allows me to quickly “learn” my subject, try out various angles, and memorize the three-dimensional volumes. This often takes a couple of hours, and I also find that in that time spent with the sitter, we get to know each other and settle into a natural pose and relationship.
Once I have a clear vision of my painting and feel emotionally connected to the subject, I’ll create an underpainting to map out the work on the canvas. Sometimes I transfer a finished drawing to the canvas between sessions, and even develop the work from memory, studies, and reference. The essential questions of this stage are: Does this image idea work in the two dimensions of the canvas? And how should the value or color structure of the painting be designed?
I make my underpainting in a limited palette of three or four colors, like white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and blue black. I often vary the palette depending on the intended color design of the work. Any changes or decisions about the composition as a whole must be worked out in this stage. I won’t move on until all the major problems of drawing and design are settled. Most important is the question “Do I love this image and want to invest the time in finishing it?”
The last stage is a finishing pass. In some ways this is the least creative and most technical stage. At this point, I’ll work in a full palette of oil colors, usually about 12-16 pigments. Now I’m focused on finishing one part of the painting at a time, like the eye, then nose and cheek, then mouth, moving to adjacent areas and slowly covering the entire work. I don’t use many glazes or indirect methods. Generally, I make an alla prima finish on top of a carefully mapped-out design. I’ll work with the model and finish the face, hands, or other details, and then finish the background or clothing after the model has left. I’ll paint the clothing from a mannequin whenever that’s possible, and incorporate photo reference as needed.
Art Notes: What are you looking for when you’re working with a model before you begin painting? What do you need from your pose and lighting?
Developing a friendly, relaxed, and positive relationship with my sitter is my first order of business. People blossom like roses when they feel at home, and know that you are there to work with them in a respectful, gracious, and collaborative way. Each individual has unique energy, style, and character, and I want her to bring that into our process. A model who is beautiful on the inside is far more interesting to me than one who is just a pretty face. In hiring, I think like a casting director, and search for a model whose physique will convey the concept and mood I want to create in my artwork, and one who has a personality that I will enjoy sharing my creative space with for a period of time. I also love a model who is “game,” and brings inspiration and problem-solving to the project to create the pose or shapes I’m looking to paint.
Good lighting is absolutely required, which means a strong light source from one primary direction that reveals a clear light and shadow shape. I now use an LED light designed for camera and video work, which is portable, adjustable, and has both a dimmer and a warm-cool adjustment setting. With this equipment, I have good lighting in any location, and of course I can paint at noon or midnight.
Art Notes: Painting from life — especially when working with a model — can feel so intimidating. Is it worth building your skills on photos before working from life? Or should a student start working from life as early as possible? Why?
All skill-building helps you reach your goal. But working from photographs doesn’t actually teach you the skills you need to create masterful figurative art. The inconvenient truth is that there is no substitute for the development of skills and understanding that comes from the labor of working from life. To learn to draw requires two major components: learning to see and understand structures and three-dimensional forms, and learning to organize complex visual information into a unified artwork. You can helpfully chip away at individual skill-building by, say, studying a feature from a photograph. However, you simply cannot master the larger artistic skills of intelligently understanding form, and the organization of complexity, without putting in your time in the figure studio with a life model and a good teacher.
I think it is more efficient for anyone aspiring to master the portrait or figure to work from life, and begin right away. If not, you will be perennially frustrated with a feeling that your drawing skills are holding you back. Later, photographic reference put to use with a trained visual eye can help you create many marvelous things one can’t just set up in the studio.
Art Notes: How do you approach the composition aspect of portrait painting? What makes a strong composition in portraiture?
For me the most important composition element is a compelling sense of presence and engagement with the subject of the painting. I don’t want to just “look at” the subject of a portrait, like she is a beautiful specimen. I want the subject to create the illusion of a direct connection with me. Because of this, my portrait subjects are often looking at me in my compositions (or at you, the viewer), and sometimes I position them very simply, very centrally in the painting. I feel this gives them more power and more energetic communion.
The other element I focus on in composition is the color and value relationships in the pictorial space, considering what background complements the subject’s coloring, clothing, and the intended mood of the work. I often work with a simple set of two or three colors in the overall design, perhaps adding some carefully chosen accents.
Art Notes: How do warms and cools work when painting a person? Generally, where do you look for opportunities to use warm colors? What about cool colors?
Achieving a beautiful balance of warm and cool tones in skin is a really important component to making the skin look realistic and natural. The skin is complex because it is both varied in color — some parts pinker, or yellower, or browner, or paler — and the skin is also semi-translucent, like marble, and not opaque, like a storefront mannequin. So I put a lot of effort into making broken color effects and variations in the skin tone, so that each change in plane and placement is also a change in chroma and temperature.
In general, I find the most chromatic warm notes — pinks, oranges, yellows — in the light mass. The coolest lilac and grayish notes tend to be found in the half-tones, where the light is turning gradually into the shadow areas. You can also find cooler tones, like greens and ochres, in the receding planes of the face on the side where it’s turning away from the light source. The most intense chromas and hot notes can often be dropped into the reflected light. I tend to work and mix colors from observation with an open palette instead of using premixed strings. This can take more time, but the color notes can be more lively and less formulaic.
Art Notes: What’s the biggest challenge you see with students and mixing skin tones? What advice do you give them?
The most common problem is to make the chromatic range too narrow, without enough variety in color. Simply put, beginners often make the skin “light brown” and shadows “dark brown” and end up with an overall tone that looks too much like beige. Leaving out the temperature and chromatic variation leaves the figure looking a bit like a skin-colored mannequin, instead of flesh and blood. The other common mistake is to have too much of one type of chroma, like orange, which makes the skin look garish. Working only from photos really aggravates this problem, because the references lose all the subtlety, variation, and cool notes.
I advise students to overshoot the chroma and trust that it will be modulated as you blend and stitch the forms together. Killing off a bit too much color is far easier than re-injecting life into a gray painting. If you get the values correct — with enough contrast in the light and darks — you would be amazed at how much vibrant color you can “sneak in” to the tones. Then, be sure to balance the warm notes with cool, and look at your work from a distance to see if it’s reading as a natural skin tone, and not an orange Cheeto, which is never a good look!
Art Notes: How do you assess a piece after it’s finished?
Honestly, it can take me a long time, even a period of years, to really evaluate a work I’ve been in the heat of making. While I’m working, I know that a work is finished when all the various components have been refined to my intention. Often some passages get very detailed, and others are left open and painterly. At a certain point I will recognize that I am no longer making a painting “better,” but just “different,” and when I have lost the clear sense that my actions are improving the painting, then it’s time to put down the brush.
I’ve never made a painting where I felt like “Everything was perfectly resolved,” but more, “I gave that all I could.” Once my painting is finished, it’s not my job to assess it, but rather to learn from it. After a couple of years, I can look at something I made dispassionately, almost like it was made by someone else. Then I am able to understand its strength, which I might want to build on, or weaknesses, which I try to improve on next time. When a painting is fresh, I have very little capability to see my own work objectively. It’s a great joy to me to see a work of mine after a long time, maybe in a collector’s home, because I might get a thrill of “Wow, what a beautiful painting,” and the struggle of making it has all drifted away.
Learn more about Patricia Watwood by bhecking out her video, Creating Portraits from Life.