DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Rough Likeness

Chuck, 2009, by Fred Hatt

There’s an old saying that all artists paint themselves.  Take a look at these examples compiled by art historian Simon Abrahams, different artists’ portraits of Napoleon, paired with the same artists’ self-portraits, to get a sense of how literally this statement may be taken.  In a broader sense, of course, the artist depicts her or his own perception, energy, and way of relating to the world and other people.  The portrait is perhaps the most relational, the most other-directed of all the traditional forms of pictorial art.  The most wonderful portraitists, from Diego Velasquez to Alice Neel, seem to feel their sitters so deeply that the subject’s personality shines through the work even despite the artist’s very distinctive style.

The whole point of the portrait, after all, is to capture a likeness.  Of course, a snapshot can get a pretty good likeness.  The interesting thing about a portrait drawn or painted by hand, directly from life, is in how it records the way an artist looks at another person, the interplay between how the sitter presents himself or herself, and how the artist experiences that through the focus of artistic representation.

In this post I share some of my portrait drawings for what they reveal about how I see and draw.  Here I have selected only relatively rough sketches, mostly 20-minute pieces.  The rough sketch shows the feeling out of the form, the attempt to understand the distinctive features that will give the drawing a likeness to the subject.  In a more finished work the initial analysis is obscured under layers of refining, so here we’ll look only at quick sketches for what they show best.  All of these are drawn directly from life, with no photographs, preliminary sketches, or optical aids.  All of these are from open life drawing sessions, not from commissioned sittings.  I find I draw more freely in these sessions, where there is no requirement to succeed.

Here’s a famous illustration from Alfred L. Yarbus’ study, Eye Movements and Vision:

Saccadic eye movements looking at a face, from Yarbus, "Eye Movements and Vision" (1967)

Human visual perception is quite different from photography.  A camera records a whole field of light levels simultaneously.  The human eye has only a very indistinct perception of the wide field.  We see by constantly scanning the scene, and the full picture is assembled in the brain, not in the eye.  A fuller explanation can be found in this post.

Yarbus used eye-tracking equipment to analyze how people scanned objects, their perception dancing from one salient detail to another.  The tracing of the eye movements in the above illustration is, in itself, a very rough portrait.  This is essentially what the process of observational drawing is:  every glance of the eyes is a moment of perception, recorded by the artist’s hand rather than Yarbus’ eye-tracking system.  Most artists combine this direct perceptual recording with various analytical techniques.

Michael R, 2010, by Fred Hatt

The fundamental particles of perception in drawing are contours and light/dark variation.  For me, the trick of faithfully converting visual perceptions to marks on the paper is to experience the sensations of the eye as tactile sensations.  All the human senses are extensions of the sense of touch, complex organs evolved to focus particular aspects of the environment to be felt by specialized nerves and interpreted by specialized areas of the brain.  I think my extensive experience in body painting helped me to train my brain to this task.  I am used to feeling the body through the soft touch of a brush stroking over its surface.  When I look at the light falling upon the body or face, I imagine that the light is stroking the skin, being gently applied by an invisible brush.  My hands are familiar with the feeling of this brush, and naturally reproduce the movements of this imaginary brush of light.

Alexa, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I usually prefer to draw on a gray or mid-toned paper.  I use a light crayon, white or any color lighter than the ground, as I follow the undulations of light over the three-dimensional surface of the face.  In the same way that I think of the light crayon as a brush, I sometimes imagine the black or dark crayon (or pencil, or marker) as a chisel working on a sculpture, carving the deeper shadows, the hard edges and crisp contours.  On gray paper, I focus alternately on the highlights and the dark places, and let the paper provide the more passive in-between values.

Michael H, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I try to stay always engaged in a tactile way, moving with force and feeling as though I am engaged in massage or sculpture.  I almost never allow myself to lapse into imagining the drawing as a flat surface.

Bob, 2007, by Fred Hatt

The particular contours of an individual’s features convey the singular essence that the viewer experiences as likeness to the person.  In the sketch above, note the free-flowing quality of the light lines, and the very different quality of the dark lines as they clearly delineate the shapes of such salient features as eyebrows, lips and jawline.

Adam, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Adam, the face above, is utterly different from Bob, the previous one. Adam had a wiry intensity, and that energy affected the quality of all my lines.  If the light lines in the Bob drawing meandered like a delta stream, those in this Adam drawing are quick and jagged, like strokes of lightning.  The eyes are surely larger than proper proportionality would dictate, but it works with the energy and does not destroy the likeness.

Robyn, 2010, by Fred Hatt

On this one, Robyn, the mouth is too big.  Caricaturists have long understood that if you get the shapes of the features right, proportions can be way off and the likeness still holds.  [Check out the fantastic celebrity caricatures of my friend, Dan Springer, to see this principle masterfully applied.]  If I’m doing a longer portrait, I’ll try to correct the proportions as I go along, but I don’t worry about it at first.  The likeness will be better if the drawing captures the sitter’s energy, and for that, the drawing must be spontaneous.

Shizu, 2010, by Fred Hatt

After I’ve brushed in the lights and chiseled in the darks, sometimes I use mid-value colors to analyze the structure, to figure out angular relationships or to unify forms that remain vague even after the light and dark have been separated.

Izaskun, 2009, by Fred Hatt

When the drawing conveys both the quality of energy that the sitter expresses, and the particular shapes of individual features, it will seem to have likeness to its subject.

Taylor, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Each of these drawings was done in approximately twenty minutes.  All of them are drawn with aquarelle crayons on paper.  All are 18″ x 24″ (45.7 x 61 cm) or a little bigger.

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