Value-added Impact

Strange and compelling eyes pull us immediately into this intense portrait painted by teacher and traveler Gregory Gordon Vikse. Suspicious (watercolor, 12×10) is based on black-and-white photographs the artist took while living in Egypt. Vikse did an excellent job of using the eyes to draw us into the painting and having them communicate the man’s feeling of distrust. Harsh, theatrical lighting plays up the swarthy countenance and reiterates the theme, as do the jagged eye wrinkles and bushy eyebrows. Having made the eyes the focal point, however, Vikse now needs to alter his treatment of other parts of the painting so they don’t steal power from this area.

Areas to Work On
Vikse’s goal with this painting was to have the man peer right at the viewer and not be embarrassed in doing so. He certainly accomplished his objective in that respect. Through photography, he’s developed an appreciation for the power of values and tonality to express emotions and feelings. Now he needs to learn to better use these tonal values. For instance, the emphatic, deeply lined forehead is too strong and active. These high contrast values demand attention, while the horizontal lines lead the eye higher and farther away from the focal point.

The simple shapes that describe the middle of the face—the nose and the smooth sinuses next to it—do work well. This simplified area nicely sets off the complexity of the eyes and mouth, as well as provides a visual relief.

Art Principles At Work
Learning from photographs. As Vikse translated the photographic image into a painted one, he realized that all the lines and values in the face were open to interpretation based on what he wanted to communicate. His recognition of this concept is important. Photographs should serve only as a point of departure for subjective artistic decisions based on the ultimate message of the piece. Determining this message requires asking such questions as: What feeling do I most want to communicate? What feature of the face will best express this emotion? What details should I downplay to give power to the focal point? How can I use the abstract shapes of light and shadow to support my message? By answering these questions, Vikse will be better able to express even more emotion and excitement in his paintings.

Unifying with shapes. Establishing large simple shapes that echo or interlock with other shapes builds unity and cohesiveness into a painting. Artists can accomplish unity in a variety of ways, but often turn to draped fabric because it also allows them to weave in light and shadow. In addition, the fold lines of draped fabric act as directional arrows and move the eye through the painting. The characteristic Arab headdress in Suspicious provides an excellent vehicle for incorporating tonality, shapes and directional lines. As well, the dark fold areas encircle the face and intensify the image.

However, Vikse could make better use of the drapery shapes by varying the value range in them. He began to darken the value in the shadow beneath the beard, but didn’t extend it far enough. Continuing this darker value up and around until it disappears under the frontal folds across the right side of the forehead would define that area as a clear tonal shape in itself. Starting on the forehead and falling across the eye, cheek and right side of the mouth into the drape, this shadow would pull together the rich mix of lines, values and textures on the right side of the face and drapery.

Defining shapes for impact. With the right side of the painting quieter and more cohesive, the stage is set for enhancing the left side for maximum dramatic impact. Vikse has set this up well. The light fold of the headdress tracing the left side of the face contrasts sharply with the deep facial shadow. There’s also the high value contrast in the left eye. Then the pattern of strong lights and darks continues in the eye lines, facial hair and mouth, bordered by the dark line of the fold on the left. To further accentuate this strongly lit focal area, Vikse needs to introduce more middle values into the headdress. Increasing the value of the second fold on the left as it continues down to the chest, for example, will keep attention from being pulled away from the face.

In addition, the fabric forming the forehead piece could be tilted down to break up the strong horizontal movement. Meanwhile it would still echo the rounded directional lines formed by the draped fabric on the right. Also, check out the patterned fabric on the lower right, which relieves the sweeping shapes of the headdress and contrasts nicely with the stark image.

Creating excitement with highlights. By darkening the lightest values in the headdress, the white highlights on the face will now be more noticeable. These will be the final visual zap since the Payne’s gray color scheme makes it impossible to use that last touch of yellow or flaming red to get the impact needed. As the darker side of the face appears to recede into shadow, bright highlights on the nose, forehead and lip will pop forward, adding excitement and giving the illusion of dimension. Highlights will also add volume to the head. Finally, highlights can be used in smaller touches to move the viewer’s eye around the image, such as on the edge of a fold.

Lessons Learned
Vikse has established himself as a competent artist with a good command of his medium and something to say. He’s painted an intense image, asking us to study at close range a face that’s direct and unblinking. As in all good artwork, the image raises as many questions as it answers. Is the man friend or foe? How does he perceive us? How do we establish a connection? Vikse effectively uses carved facial lines, a bristling beard, and the shapes in the headdress to express a variety of emotions.

But to sharpen the focus, Vikse needs to better establish a focal point, and vary the treatment of the face from one side to the other. Further, he needs to accurately use value so the light, middle and dark values are placed throughout to increase visual interest and heighten the drama. Finally, planning the highlights so the lightest value is reserved for those places will complete the strong painting. As Vikse adds these lessons to his skillful technique, his work will increase in power, yielding promising results in the future.

Martha Newfield is an artist and North Light Art School instructor based in Cincinnati.

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