Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mary and Martha oil painting: Reworking Faces

It’s taken me almost six months to finally be happy with Jesus’ face, and I’ll probably change it more. One problem with working at this scale is anticipating how it will look in reproduction, which will almost always be tiny compared to the original.

Sometimes I found myself pleased with a facial expression, but after photographing it and viewing it on my laptop or iPhone, I then found the expression indiscernible. Or I found even more troubling errors.

Illustrators working at a drawing table have long been able to use a tabletop attachment, configured like most desk lamps, with a reverse magnifying glass— a minimizing glass— to be able to anticipate how the image will look at reproduction size. The old masters surely had to envision how an alter piece or fresco would be seen at a distance, such as from the back of a chapel. Michelangelo painted the 50,000 square foot Sistine Chapel ceiling to be viewed from sixty feet below, but he could not have seen it from that distance until the scaffolding was removed. How did he know not to waste time on details no one would see? Clearly, Mike was a lot smarter than me.

Stage drama is played differently than screen. Opera singers have a reputation for being lousy actors, and some of them deserve it. But I’m thinking of a young soprano who plays a character as well as anyone in Hollywood, whose facial expressions give marvelous meaning to the slightest glance. Unfortunately, you can’t tell from the balcony— at least, not without binoculars.

I know that most viewers of my paintings will never see the original, and I want them to know my characters’ emotions.

Some of my reference photos have Jesus’ profile silhouetted against the dark wall behind, and some have the white of his robe showing behind that elegant nose. I chose the photos with the expressions I wanted, without thinking about contrasting the lighted face against the background. I found later that the highlights on the nose were lost against the white robe. I’ve been trying to create shadows between them, which look fine up close in the original, but still washed out when viewed on screen. Should I move the robe? I might yet.

The figure of Martha is the closest to being done. But the energy in her eyes is still lost in reduction. Mary, below, looks up to Jesus in anticipation of his words. I have the most work yet to do on her.

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