Review | Portraiture: A Simple Strategy

In the world of portraiture, it is interesting how different length projects can hone different skills. An extended project is great for allowing you to really get into subtle modelling and nuanced colour, but a quick study requires the artist to rapidly analyse the big proportions which are so crucial for getting a likeness. For me, it’s getting that first simplified statement working that I sometimes struggle with, so when LARA tutor Simon Watkins ran his alla prima portrait workshop I knew it would be a good fit.

The format was to do repeated small studies starting with paintings lasting just an hour or so. Arriving on the first day I was excited to see just what I was capable of doing in such a short space of time. Knowing Simon’s expert guidance was on hand gave a real confidence boost and by the end of the first day we were already feeling much more comfortable with working in a considered but speedy way. Quick portraits like these are only possible if you work economically. The idea is to say as much as possible with the minimum number of brushstrokes. With Simon working alongside us, we could observe the development of his studies from the first marks, beginning by carving out a clear head shape and then dividing up the face using the shadow shapes. After massing in the major planes, Simon gradually develops the form by breaking down the larger shapes into increasingly small ones, sculpting the sitter’s likeness and correcting as the form emerges. His brushwork is clear, well planned and the pace occupies a narrow space somewhere between ponderous and urgent. Emulating this over the course of the workshop the students produced some impressive paintings.

The newfound confidence at quicker studies has had a big impact on my painting, enabling me to work more directly and see past the irrelevant information to get at the fundamentals of a sitter’s appearance. It has also made me more comfortable with doing small colour studies before a major project, which I have found has saved me much struggling later on. For anyone who finds they get sucked into the small stuff when the big issues are still unresolved, this is the kind of training for you. Simon will be running the workshop again in 2019, so why not give your painting a boost and check it out. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve.


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