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Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

"Becky Laura" by Becky Syroka

Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby Becky Syroka » Sun Nov 01, 2009 5:32 pm

Portrait Basics – Resisting our “Default” Tendencies

I’ll bet you are reading the title and wondering, “What in the world does she mean by DEFAULT”. I’ve borrowed this word from computer lingo. In the computer world, “default option” refers to the choice that the software program has automatically selected for you. In other words, you can just click “OK”, without having to even think about the choices you are being offered. Makes installing software programs easy for folks like me who are computer challenged. But, how does “default” apply to portrait painting?

From infancy our minds have absorbed literally billions of visual images and fortunately our brain has the amazing ability to simplify all this data into basic concepts we can readily use. So, when we look at people, our brain automatically identifies facial features (nose, eyes, mouth, lips, etc.) and despite us seeing literally thousands of variations of individual noses during our lifetime, we nevertheless simply accept what we see as a “nose” (unless there is something exceptionally strange or bizarre about that particular nose).

Try this experiment. Take a blank sheet of paper and within 30 seconds sketch a girl’s face. Don’t think about it, the whole idea is to quickly sketch whatever face will come out of you automatically. Do you recognize the face you’ve sketched? I always recognize my sketch because it is basically the same face I’ve been sketching since I was about 10 years old. My girl always has a somewhat heart shaped face, with a rather pointed chin, arched eyebrows, large oval eyes, a little ski-slope nose, and pursed lips. Always. This is my “default” girl and my “default” features. This is what flows from my pencil automatically IF I’m NOT CONSCIOUSLY TRYING TO SKETCH DIFFERENTLY.

Have you ever viewed a body of work by one portrait artist and notice that all of the paintings bear a certain resemblance to each other? Perhaps they all share a similar feature? Perhaps it is something so subtle as the tip of the nose, or the shape of the eyebrows, perhaps it is the shape or fullness of the lips or the bridge of the noses. We ALL have this overwhelming tendency to revert to painting our “default” version of features, rather than painting the likeness of the specific features of the study photo before us.

There is another way in which our “default” tendencies can hamper our accuracy when painting portraits. Sometimes we are so convinced of our own version of reality that our minds refuse to believe what is right in front of our eyes. For example, we all accept the notion that teeth are supposed to be WHITE and we think of the whites of our eyes as WHITE. Thus, it might be very difficult to convince ourselves that what our painting requires for likeness is dark shading over those eyes or portions of teeth. Sometimes it is downright scary to add that shading when the action goes against our “default” notion of what is normal.

This strongly entrenched tendency to resort to our “default” features is our #1 enemy when painting a likeness! Simply being aware of the tendency is the first step. Throughout our painting session, we need to concentrate closely to make sure we are painting what we actually see before our eyes and not allow ourselves to subconsciously paint our “default” (what we “think” we see). Frequent and careful side by side comparisons of our painting with our study photo is important because even if we start our painting correctly, that inborn tendency can manage to transform those features back to our “default” by the completion of our painting. Periodically measure features with calipers or do a careful comparison under a grid. Ask a friend to compare your portrait and study photo with their fresh eyes. As artists, we get so absorbed in our own painting that we can easily overlook obvious variances with likeness, but a fresh pair of eyes can see where we are off likeness quite easily. We all suffer from a touch of blindness when it comes to our own paintings (I certainly do!). Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a second opinion! ;help: ;think;

CRITIQUE IS NOT A DIRTY WORD! Don’t make the mistake of equating “critique” with failure or criticism. Think of a thorough “nit pic” critique as a cherished gift from a true friend. If we are made aware of our mistakes, then we have opportunity to correct them and to learn and to grow from each experience. Progress comes gradually and in stages. So, seek to celebrate and take pride in little accomplishments while also taking note of areas you want to improve in your next project. Set realistic goals and don’t get discouraged. And remember to keep resisting those “default” tendencies!

:thanks:
:wave:
Becky
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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby minervacox » Sun Nov 01, 2009 5:51 pm

;bravo; Becky, this lesson is really profound!! the last paragraph admonishing against equating critique with "criticism" is right on. Thank you for putting this in such plain understandable language. Love and hugs to you my friend,
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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby Judy Gile » Sun Nov 01, 2009 7:43 pm

Hi Becky, I enjoyed your lesson. I really have difficulty resisting my "default" ideas concerning a face. Do you think that is a strong reason that we can frequently identify who painted a portrait before seeing the signature? Thanks for Portrait Basics. Judy Gile
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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby Priscilla » Sun Nov 01, 2009 9:27 pm

Becky, I really enjoyed reading your lesson on resisting our default tendencies. ;thumps; ;bravo;
You always amaze me with your explanations as well as your beautiful portraits! Simple words that everyone can understand! ;thanks; ;thanks; ;thanks;

Priscilla :wave:
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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby Becky Syroka » Mon Nov 02, 2009 8:27 am

Dear Minerva and Priscilla,
Thank you both so much! I especially appreciate hearing that my lesson was easily understood. I tend to get so wordy that I worry that the abundance of words confuses or turns readers off. Thanks for your positive feedback!!

Dear Judy,
Good question to ponder whether our artist defaults are part of which causes viewers to recognize our work....hmmmmm.....I hope not (since those defaults are ways we stray off likeness, which isn't a good thing) Now, to be recognized for a soft touch and gorgeous skin tones (like Jane Marcks)...that would be a good thing. And I think some of us tend to paint certain STYLES of portraits....like I paint my kids.....Mariela paints ladies with flair and style......you paint a lot of Indians....that sort of style recognition.

Great question though! Gives us a lot to think about, eh? ;huh: ;dontknow;
Becky

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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby marcib » Sun Dec 06, 2009 11:44 pm

Judy Gile wrote:Hi Becky, I enjoyed your lesson. I really have difficulty resisting my "default" ideas concerning a face. Do you think that is a strong reason that we can frequently identify who painted a portrait before seeing the signature? Thanks for Portrait Basics. Judy Gile



Boy, thats a great question ,Judy ... and definitely something to think about...
To my mind though , falling back into painting a default means that youre painting the same feature on everything you paint.. the same eyes, same lips etc.. ( we've all seen painters who do this :dragon: ) ...

But painting with a strong style doesnt necessarily mean painting the same nose, eyes and lips over and over again ... A great example that I can think of is Harley Brown , the pastel artist...
There is NO denying a piece was painted by him with its strong color and strong vibrant backgrounds.... and the hand of the artist is definitely visible in every piece of his....BUT the distinct features of each of his subjects comes through .

Each person is recognizable . You feel like you would know them if you met them in the street.

Anyway,thats my take on it..
Marci >^..^< (x 8 )
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Re: Portrait Basics - Resisting our "Default" Tendencies

Postby wen » Tue Dec 29, 2009 1:05 am

Thanks Becky - that makes a lot of sense!

It always helps me to only think of what I am painting as a shape - instead of thinking about painting that eye or that beak, I break it down into shapes - arches, squares, triangles etc. If I don't do this and paint and eye as an eye it always looks dreadful!

I hadn't thought of it as our 'default' but you are right, if I'm not careful I paint the same old same old - whether it be a leaf or a branch!

Cheers,
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