I’m from a card-playing family, so when it comes to discussions about artists using reference photographs, I always think in terms of watching for a “tell.” Like in poker—where players’ subtle mannerisms can reveal whether they are bluffing—portrait paintings created by closely referencing photographs have certain giveaways. The work can seem overwhelmed with minute details or look stiff and belabored, as if the artist went back and forth, back and forth, foregoing vision for exactitude.
Artists avoid this by maintaining a strong awareness and control over what they incorporate from photos and how they convey certain effects, and that leads to less-visible tells in their artwork. A study or source photo might be used to reproduce certain details—the moue of a mouth or a strong brow line—that indicate the personality and presence of the sitter, but there’s enough left unsaid, artistically speaking, so that the viewer’s own ideas and perception come into play.
A recent series by Louisiana-based artist Joel Kelly speaks to some of the challenges of using photography as an aid to creating artwork. Kelly is neither a portraitist nor a realist. His oil paintings often include depictions of the human figure but on the whole tend toward abstraction. Therefore, his charcoal portraits in a show at the Coup d’Oeil Art Consortium, in New Orleans, were a departure on many levels. The group show, Obituaries 1913, was conceived around 22 fictitious characters, and their lives—and demises—were manifested through music, written obituaries, and portraiture. Kelly’s part in the endeavor was the portraits—drawn on watercolor paper in a narrow format to resemble the thin columns of a newspaper, where obituaries are ever-present—and he walked the line between grounding them in a specific time and place and rendering them organically.
“There needed to be a certain level of detail to suggest the time period, but I didn’t get too heavy-handed,” Kelly says. “A moustache, the neckline of a dress—hinting at these was enough. I wanted to let the person looking at the drawing interact with it. An artist profits from that—leaving space for the imagination of the viewer. The human mind craves those areas where we can go in and let our imagination work.”
Kelly consulted a variety of sources for the drawings, including era-appropriate photographs found in antique stores, old postcards, and family photographs. He sought out images of figures that were not necessarily crisp and clear or front and center in the composition. “I was drawn to people on the periphery,” he says. “There might be eight people in a family photo, and I was interested in the one figure blurred on the edge. Or in a photo of children running around in front of school I focused in on the teacher, caught unaware as the photo was taken.” Seeking out figures that appeared murky or inchoate allowed Kelly necessary artistic leeway and also reflects how our mind’s eye often sees. “Some of the portraits have one area of the face defined,” says Kelly. “I approached it akin to how memory might work. You remember certain details, but not necessarily everything.”
Judging the success of the invented characters’ portraits was a matter of stepping away from a piece and, when necessary, unflinchingly redrafting. “I’d work on a drawing one night and then the next night I’d think that it was boring or too literal,” the artist says. “I’d go back in on it, sometimes turning it over, scuffing it up, and recreating it without going as far back into the details as I did before.”
The portraits Kelly created are true figments of the imagination, but the mix of amorphousness and strong, defining features or expressions makes each figure appear quite real. Learning how to draw people and how to create portraiture that isn’t too referential but still captures a likeness is a matter of understanding what to incorporate and what to leave behind. For a full-fledged immersion into the skill set of a portrait painter and draftsman, consider the Master Portrait Painting & Drawing Collection. You’ll find step-by-step portraiture instructions focusing on facial features and successful depictions of hair, as well as discussions on how to work, whether from photos or life, to get the results you are after.