Experimenting with Light Sources

I surprised myself a bit following my last post by jumping immediately into another project. I hadn’t planned to do so, but I found myself just sort of sitting around Sunday afternoon while my wife and kids taking naps. The previous portrait was a request from one of my co-workers of his dad and two kids. It wasn’t especially taxing, but I did want to make sure it turned out well for him. So, I definitely put some energy into it, and once completed, it felt like time to shift gears. But to what? Watch television or play a video game? Check some boring tasks off my dusty and eternal to-do list? I really wasn’t feeling any of those options. To my surprise, the urge that crept its way forward in my brain was to listen to some old Art Bell/Coast to Coast AM and put some pencil to paper again.

I cracked open my trusty “Art Ideas” folder, which has grown unusually full, and considered what might be the most fun. I came across a good candidate that would allow me to practice on a definite weakness; light. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ve probably read quite a bit on what I perceive as my biggest weaknesses. After every finished portrait, I spend a paragraph or two discussing what I think went right and what went wrong. No matter how well I think a piece of artwork turned out, I always find room for improvement (the inverse is also true). In many cases, the weakest aspects seem to be related to these areas:

So, this portrait decided to move forward on is based on another subject from Unsplash. I thought this would be an interesting one because it was a unique lighting situation. The lady is holding a frame with a light bulb in it, so you’ve got some yellow and bright light hitting the frame and affecting shadows on the subject to some extent. Although it can be tempting to stick to my comfort zone, I also recognize testing my limits and pushing at weak points is the best way to improve as an artist.

Here’s how this one turned out:

A lady and a light box. Derived from a photograph by Aiony Haust on Unsplash.

This piece was a wild ride; not to be overly dramatic, but I experienced a roller coaster of feelings about it as I progressed. It started strong, and I felt good about the outline and the game plan I had in my head. Following my initial blending steps though, it felt like this was veering towards disaster. I had layered too thickly and the paper had no tooth left to achieve deeper umber/brown colors. I had also lost important sections of my outline to a wave of blended pencil, which resulted in losing defining features and characteristics of the subject. If I could indulge in some hyperbole, her face was becoming an amorphous flow of color!

This was a risk, because it easily could have damaged the paper, but I decided to do some strategic passes with an eraser. Erasers have limited effectiveness once wax has been layered thickly, but I attempted some erasing around areas that made sense (definition and/or light reflecting). Then, I tried to re-highlight areas of definition using graphite, and did some spot blending again with a white pencil. To my great relief, I think I was able to salvage the portrait.

And all of the above drama was just about the face of the subject! I thought the light box would be the real challenge here, and it was in its own way, but didn’t match the trials of over-blending. I actually think I did a decent job on the light source. I may have overindulged a bit on the yellow, but it’s a significant improvement on an old attempt I made featuring a lantern. I need to work on not using graphite to pencil in the shape of bulbs (or other bright light sources) though.

Overall, I’m surprised I was able to salvage this into something I actually really like. It’s still my usual head-and-shoulders portrait view, but it’s also a little unique compared to my other stuff. As I’m apt to do, I’ve also got a progression .gif to share. I didn’t have as many usable frames (two were too blurry), but here it is:

I have a few things in mind for what’s next. As I keep mentioning, there is a lot to choose from in my ideas folder. The co-worker request from the previous post was well-received, and actually led to another request from someone else. That’s pretty exciting, because I find it flattering that someone would want something I created. So, if that materializes, it may become my next piece. If not, I’m sure Unsplash can point me in another fun direction!


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  • Glad to hear you are enjoying Unsplash so much, Jon! You got a great result from this one πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Hilda! I am indeed enjoying it, I’m even thinking about turning over a few photographs I’ve taken for use there. Nothing special, just a few scenery pics (like the beach in Oregon, the Red River in Louisiana, etc.). Might be a way to pay it forward!

    • Sorry Hilda, I meant to respond again to your last comment! I actually did upload a few photos to Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/@amdallgallery

      Just so I can in some way contribute to a resource that I’ve so much enjoyed using. The photos aren’t anything special, and aren’t even really something portrait artists could use – just some scenery. But maybe someone out in the world will use them.

      • Well Done, Jon! – I really like your attitude! Is it easy to load up photos to unsplash? Maybe I should be having a go at doing it myself! πŸ™‚

      • Much appreciated Hilda – it’s really not bad at all. When you log in, there’s a button that says “submit a photo” pretty close to where you user profile picture is (top right corner). Load up the photos you want to share, then they’re out there for the world to use!

        They give you some guidelines (5 MP size, clear image, you own the rights, etc), but I also took the step to tag the properties and file name. Basically, I went into Window Explorer/My Computer, right clicked on the image files, and clicked “Properties”. Then, I clicked on the “Details” tab and added my name/info to Title, Subject, Copyright, Author, and so on. Maybe not strictly necessary, but I thought it was good to be thorough!

  • From what you’ve posted here (but they never look the same onscreen as in real life) the lightbox looks perfect. My eye starts at the hair, travels down the face towards the right, meets the lightbox cord/bulb, travels down the light bulb towards the left and back up the arm to the face. So both compositionally and colourwise it works for me. Looking forward to seeing other comments and views.

    • Excellent, I’m glad it came across well! It’s always interesting when you try something new to see how others react. It’s tough for me sometimes to try viewing what I’ve done objectively. I guess that’s probably true for a lot of people though eh?

  • Really like this one Jon. She has a slight look of Cher about her; the same long narrow face and strong nose. Reminds me of Cher in Moonstruck, around 1990 I think. Love the addition of the lightbox.

    • Thank you Claire – I didn’t notice that when I was drawing, but you’re right on about the facial shape/nose combo

      I’m glad the light box worked out, because I thought at first that might have been way out in left field with the yellow. I mean, this is supposed to be a light blub not the sun! It still may be too yellow, but at least it’s not completely out of control

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