Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Recent Figure Sketches

Between taxes (got hosed), the flu (got beat up), and the kids being home from school for Spring break (got milk?), I really haven't done any real work in the last month.  When I don't paint, I get cranky. But this time I was kind of resigned to my unproductive state (after all, there wasn't much I could do about it) and I managed to not stress out so much. Still, each day that I don't draw or paint, I can feel my chops atrophying so I was eager to get back to the easel.

These sketches I'm posting today are from open sessions and also my figure class, all fairly recent. All are between 30 minutes and an hour, and painted on 9 x 12 sheets of Duralar.

The top two poses are the same. I just moved my easel to a different spot. In our open sessions, we usually have just one long (3 hr) pose, so I just move around to get my short poses. That way everyone else can have his / her three hour pose.

Mylar takes some getting used to, and it force you to paint thicker. Or rather, the painting looks like it's painted thicker than it actually is. Because the surface is smooth, none of the paint is lost to the texture of the surface as it does when painting on canvas.

This also means you can't utilize the texture of the canvas to your advantage. It's just a very different feel. Best to work with materials' characteristics and not fight it.

Duralar  is very similar to mylar or acetate, but made of polyester. Painting on it is also very much like painting on vellum, but unlike vellum, it doesn't tear or buckle so I prefer it.

This here is the initial stage of the sketch, just a brown transparent block in of the darks/shadows. It's the same pose as the painting directly above it, but it's not the same exact painting. I did two from the same spot and stopped this one after the initial block in because I liked the look of it and thought to use it as an example for my students.

Often I leave my sketches unfinished because...well, because they're just sketches. I'm usually studying some specific aspect, (color relationship between light and shadow, for example) and once I got the information I need, there's no point in going further. 

This model has very striking features. As my driving force behind figure drawing or painting is gesture, it is second nature to accentuate, emphasize, or exaggerate gesture in every line. Not just the overall flow of the body, but in small parts (curve of the pronator, the angle of the brow, etc) as well. And when I paint heads, it approaches caricaturing. 

I used to think this wasn't a "proper" way to paint likenesses (after all most caricatures and cartoons we see in the media poke fun at the person's features and are far from dignified) until I came across a Sargent portrait juxtaposed against a photo of the sitter, shot almost from the same angle. I realized just how much Sargent pushed the character of the model's features, sometimes to the point of which can only be described as caricature. And yet, the painting was perfectly dignified, not an ounce of irony or ridicule was detected (at least not by me).

I learned that exaggeration was OK, and that many a great portrait painter were in fact great caricaturists, and that it's possible to paint caricatures without compromising the dignity and humanity of the sitter. The great ones are able to do it, anyway.

The other important "tip" for painting heads I learned in school and I in turn emphasize when I'm teaching, is this; "Don't render the features. Sculpt them."

That is to say, try to think about the process as if you were carving out the structure out of a piece of wood or clay. Don't make it a collection of small "named"parts. (eyes, lips, etc)  We do this carving thing by modulating value, and we go from the general to the specific. Big shapes to the small. It helps to use as few values as possible, and make variations within big shapes only after "the big sculpt" looks like a head.  Sounds like what I did with the cityscape simplification? That's because it's exactly the same. In fact the subject matter is irrelevant. This applies to the general way of seeing and thinking about interpreting the visual world, so it makes no difference whether you're looking at a busy traffic scene or a pretty head.

One of my instructors often said "bake the cake first before you decorate it!" In other words, don't belabor over a perfectly realistic eye before establishing it's structural context. A beautiful eye doesn't look so good if it's an inch below where it should be, or if the head in which it sits is painted like a flounder.

Here's another sketch of the same model. The gestural lines of her pointy features are mimicked (imposed upon the design) in her body / shirt. This is not an accident, but a conscious decision on the design.

Some other sketches pinned to my "wall of studies".  I have good ones as well as bad ones on my wall. Even the bad ones are useful and instructive, as they serve as a reminder of what not to do. They helps me to identify bad habits because after a while, patterns develop and I can see what I'm doing consistently (good and bad) whereas I may not notice them in each individual sketch. 

Recognizing "trends" in my painting is one of the key ways of understanding my own identity.


  1. Brilliant post...THANK YOU! Interesting, spot on and to the point, I just hope I remember some of it when I am painting. The sketches are wonderful illustrations of your points, too.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and, as I learned when I did the cityscape challenge, you are a terrific teacher and supply lots of great tips.

  3. Very helpful advice, and I can see how you use value spot on to achieve your shapes, mood etc. I need to work on that more, and I agree it really helps to understand one's own process. Just yesterday I realized how often I mix up warm and cool areas- I realize them at the outset, but then I see all the little reflected lights, then I lose the overall contrast with these little added bits. Your blog makes a very clarifying road map!

  4. Have enjoyed and learned a lot from your studio notes. Do you do workshops in Orange County?