by 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.
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.
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.
About Patricia Watwood
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.Learn more about Patricia Watwood by checking out her video, Creating Portraits from Life.