Polishing the Portrait

In the Heartland is a beautiful work of art. Artist Toni Boudreault draws very well and has organized all the visual elements into a unified and harmonious work of art. And there are many other things she?s done well: The model is posed in a delightfully simple setting; the angle of the sun yields a configuration of lights and shadows that define the forms in a clear and interesting way; and our moderately upward view is much more powerful than it would have been had Boudreault given us a view at the model?s eye level.

Rugged Femininity: In the Heartland (charcoal, 17×14) by Toni Boudreault.

The California artist also kept the composition from looking too static with the numerous, energetic diagonal lines in her portrait. Yet, amidst all these diagonal lines, Boudreault has used a solid vertical column (the upright post and the forearm resting on it) to stabilize the composition. And she adeptly uses the directional forces to keep our focus of attention where it belongs: on the model?s face. Overall, I find this portrait professional and pleasing, and free of any detracting mistakes. Improving it, then, isn?t a matter of correcting errors, but of making a good portrait better with foreshortening, contour lines and shading.

Possible Revisions
When Boudreault submitted this drawing, she mentioned that she may have overdone the hair, and that it might be better to have toned it down. But I think it?s the distinctive contrasts in the hair that give this portrait its alluring charm. The upper right area of the drawing is visually dominant when compared to the rest of the composition because of the preponderance of dark values and sharp tonal contrasts within the hair. But the way to resolve this problem isn?t to tone down the hair, which is one of the most magnificent features of this portrait. Instead, Boudreault could exercise a little artistic license to revise the lower left area of the composition.

A Matter of Depth and Balance
Giving the illusion of depth. I found the lower part of the model?s body to be flat and anatomically ambiguous. Such plainness in this corner of the composition makes it look dull. It also weakens the three-dimensional illusion of foreshortening in her left leg, which is raised up so that the knee is pointed toward us.

So in my version of In the Heartland above, right, I strengthened the contour lines of the raised leg to set it apart spatially and thrust it forward. I then used shading to intensify the effect of the legs? projection in space by shading the left leg lighter than the rest of the jeans behind it, which makes it look more like it?s coming toward us. (Keep in mind that lightness appears to advance, whereas darkness appears to recede.) In addition, I deepened the shadow on the underside of the model?s left leg just behind the knee to reinforce the illusion of volume in this foreshortened limb.

Next I wanted to set the post on the left firmly behind the model?s body, so I defined the contour line going down the side of her right hip and upper thigh. Then I slightly darkened the inside edge of the post, which brings her hip even farther forward. This bolstered contour line at the right hip emphasizes the small triangular negative shape between her hip, her glove and the adjacent post. My next step was to reinforce the contour line of the right side of her shirt to more clearly state the negative area under her raised arm. These negative shapes produce the strong effect of empty three-dimensional spaces, through which we see beyond the figure. This, in turn, intensifies the illusion of depth.

Balancing the composition. The heavy shading in the model?s hair tips the balance of the composition a bit, so to better offset that, I darkened the entire area of her jeans. And, finally, I beefed up parts of the contour lines at two strategic intersections: the point where the edge of the taller post meets the model?s right arm just behind her elbow; and the point where the outside edge of the upright post (the one upon which she?s resting her left arm) intersects the top edge of the diagonal post in the lower right corner. These modifications strengthen this portion of the drawing and bring it into better balance with the rest of the portrait.

Lessons Learned
Drawing skills are important and essential. But it takes more than just good draftsmanship to create an outstanding portrait. To do this requires a convincing illusion of depth and a thoroughly balanced composition. Another tip to remember is that an artist is also at liberty to improve nature. Boudreault can modify the tonal values?the contrasts of lights and darks?in the model?s jeans, and selectively heighten contour-line contrasts to turn a good portrait into an extraordinary work of art.

Toni Boudreault of Bakersfield, California, worked in ophthalmology for 18 years and recently began focusing most of her energy on making art. ?I find myself frequently recommending The Artist?s Way by Julia Cameron,? she says. ?It?s full of beautiful insight, practical advice, effective exercises, and inspiring and memorable quotes. One of my favorites is this one by Seneca: ?It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.??

?Medicine, carpentry, painting?the threads that pull these vocations together is working with my hands and trying to be the best,? says Philip Smallwood. Born in New Jersey, Smallwood grew up in Massachusetts, went to college in Florida and now lives in New Milford, New Jersey. Last year, one of his paintings garnered a medal at the international exhibition of the American Watercolor Society. He was also a finalist in The Artist?s Magazine?s 2000 Art Competition.

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