Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Head Study After Sargent

Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent

First, I want to thank everyone who came out to the opening of my exhibition last weekend at the Christopher Hill Gallery! The art looked really good all hanging together in the beautiful gallery space, and the reception was a lot of fun! It was great to see friends whom I hadn't seen in a long time, and to have met some new friends too~

OK so today, I'm going to share a recent head study I did as a demo. I took process shots along the way, but I found out afterward that my photos weren’t all that good - the white balance on my camera was set wrong.  But I thought I’d show you anyway - it may still be worthwhile.

I am using a charcoal drawing by J.S.Sargent as reference for this one. As I hadn’t painted heads in a while, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to just use the Zorn palette - Titanium White, Ivory Black, Cad Red Light, and Yellow Ochre. 

I toned the canvas lightly with a mixture of black, red, ochre and Gambol. Mostly black with red and yellow to warm it up a bit.

I started my drawing with a small brush, using the same puddle. Just trying to get the shapes reasonably accurate. Paying particular attention to the distances between hairline, brow, and bottom of the nose. 

Then I started more careful measurements (eyeballing, but a more careful eyeballing) using the glabella area as my epicenter. This is a good place to start because it’s bony and has a lot of sharp edged shapes that don’t move around. 

I tried to get the overall shape of the head in the ball park, but I don't commit to a tight outline. Not that I could get it precisely anyway. Then I start getting placements of features by going to the glabella and working outward. In the end, the outer edges of the face / head is measured out from the middle out, and the adjustments are made to the initial drawing that way.

I placed the dark shapes of the brow, eye, and the shadow under the nose (which defines the bottom of the nose). I typically have a hard time judging distances between the brow and the eye, and between the eye and the nostril wing, so I tried to do this very carefully. 

The distance between the brow and the hairline, and the distance between the nose to the chin are easy to adjust later, so I’m not too worried at this point. As long as I have reasonably humanoid proportions, I'm OK with that. For now.

I then knocked in the shadow side with the same thin paint. I didn’t make it too wet - just lightly scrubbing in - but I could have made it washy like watercolour as well. I don’t think one method is better than the other, except that with the wash method, you have to let it dry a bit before moving on.

A little more work with the underpainting. Just blocking in the shadow pattern doesn’t give me the “big sculpt”, so I tried to emphasize the blockiness of the volume at this stage. I see now that I didn’t quite get the turn of the form on the temple area - that should have been addressed here as well.

Now I start in with colors. Before I started, I got several puddles going on my palette, primarily to make decisions on major color relationships between shadow, darker light, and lighter light areas. As I haven’t painted with the Zorn palette in a long time, I thought I needed to familiarize myself with the color range before I put paint on the canvas. 

I want to emphasize that my aim in premixing puddles is not so I can approach it like color by numbers. I'm just trying to get a feel for the major relationships. The puddles I mixed are not so big, so I do have to keep mixing and adjusting as I go forward from here. 

Then, I just blocked in the head, trying to maintain the big sculpt. The original drawing doesn’t give us any info on the shadow side - it’s very dark - so I just blocked it in very dark.  Later, I might be able to give it a little more information but I didn’t want to guess at it without the overall context, so I made the decision to leave that dark and simple for now.

Had I decided to block in the shadow side at a lighter value, I would have had to provide more information in there. Lighter value assumes it’s illuminated, which means information will become visible. If the information is not available, one would have to either make it up, or hide it somehow. 

Blocked in the hair and the mustache. Also gave a softer turning edge to his left temple.

Working around the eye socket and the nose, a little more modeling and adding some warmth to the skin in those areas, while cleaning up a few edges. 

With the Zorn palette, warming up means increasing the amount of red and /or yellow ochre in the mix. (That's all we got!) Obviously, because the original reference is in black and white, I'm making up the colors on this study. Certain areas being warmer or cooler are more or less generic tendencies of an average head. 

Integrating the skin with the hair to achieve a very soft edge at the hairline. 

Darkened the shadow side of the mustache as well. 

Cleaned up around the eye socket so he doesn’t look like he has a black eye.

Dropped the value around the chin area - I needed more overall vertical value change of the big sculpt, so that the front plane of the face has more of a curve from top to bottom, underneath all the features. It’s easy to lose sight of this.

A little bit of definition in the shadowy area under the mustache, and around his left eye (bag underneath, etc.)

Defined the hairline a little bit more by painting in darker areas between hair and skin, but still keeping them very soft. A few sharper (but not super sharp) edges are present where hair casts a shadow on to the skin. The original drawing has some dark, sharp lines but John is using the line as an expressive device here. If he were to paint the same head, he wouldn’t make those notes.

Made the plane changes a little subtler, a little softer. (forehead area and front-to-side plane change)

Decided the skin tone needed a little more variation, so added blue-leaning cool tone at the temple (lit side) and green-leaning one around the mandible. The nose became redder as well.

Subdued the eye detail in the shadow side, a little more paint in the lightest areas. Modeled his dome a little more. 

Background and clothes. I did the clothes first. When I painted the dark background, the lopsidedness of his hair became apparent. So I fixed that after I took this shot.

At this point, I’m just making minor adjustments. Making sure the big forms turn, and the little forms turn, and nothing jumps out. Softening and sharpening edges in strategic areas.

Here’s where I stopped. The hair is fixed, The highlights on the nose and the eyelid taken down a notch. 

Some of the dark notes within the shadow area were too harsh so I knocked those down too. 

On the forehead, I defined the transition plane from light to just before the core shadow more clearly - this isn’t in John’s drawing, but the painting seemed to need it. 

The sharp edge of the shoulder against the dark background would be a no-no in a traditional painting - that form, after all, has to turn away from us. I just like doing that as a nod to myself. 

I think that’s it. I hope you found this interesting!


  1. Terry, I love your work so much and you are so generous with your information. John Singer Sargent is one of my all-time favourite artists and I was so thrilled recently to be able to attend his exhibition at the NPG in London (twice, lucky me!). You've certainly done him proud with this lovely painting.

  2. This is a wonderful painting and exercise for those of us not yet brave enough to tackle a portrait. As visual beings, it is invaluable to see these steps and how you got from point A to point B. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome and thank YOU for reading my blog! I'll try to do more of these sequence things.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing your process. Really interesting information for me here !

    1. Thanks Nicolas~! Glad you found it interesting!