High Contrast Challenge – Antje Traue Portrait

As I continue on clearing my backlog of paintings that have yet to be shared, now I’ve come to the fourth of five paintings done during a holiday weekend in October. This one in particular was focused on really pushing for a high contrast/heavy shadow challenge. Last year, I did a colored pencil sketch of some characters from the movie Pandorum. It’s an entertaining movie with an interesting twist, but the primary reason it captured my interest from an art perspective is the interesting lighting. Many scenes have very pronounced shadows, but without making the actors hidden in darkness. Painting has made me much more aware of good lighting, and this movie sticks out in my mind for how it treated light and darkness.

My previous colored pencil sketch on this topic turned out okay; I think it captured the actors’ likenesses (Ben Foster, Antje Traue, and Cung Le) fairly well. But my attempts to depict those deep shadows didn’t work as well. Somehow I washed out the entire piece and made it into a drab, gray mess. I wanted deep shadows, but still with some color to it. So, getting back to “Jon the Aspiring Painter.” As I was churning through a massive painting weekend, I randomly thought about this drawing. Although oil paints are wily, with properties that take time to fully understand, in some respects they are more forgiving than pencil. Why not try to capture that shadowy element again, this time with oils?

This would certainly not be the first time down the path of redoing old artwork. Sometimes, a piece that I’ve done just “sticks in my craw” in terms of how it turned out. It might be one of the reasons I’ve drawn Dirk Nowitzki so many times (aside from the fact that I’m just a huge fan). A solid example is related to the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. When I first started drawing again five years ago, I also happened to be reading and thoroughly enjoying that series. I did a few drawings, but one in particular of Susannah, Jake, and Oy never sat well with me. So, once I got some additional experience under my belt, I gave it another shot! The same goes for some drawings I’ve done of friends. And of course, the common artist mainstay of self-portraits.

Anyhow, back to this specific piece. Oil paint gave me exactly what I needed to make this work; some vivid colors and darker shadow hues. Oil really pops off the page in ways I can never get colored pencil to. Here’s the final result:

Portrait of actress Antje Traue from Pandorum. Oil paint on textured paper, linseed oil solvent.

Off the top, the first question is did I accomplish my overall goal here? Which was to successfully depict deep shadows and high contrast without losing all of my color. I think the answer is yes – especially compared to the previous effort. As I hoped and anticipated, the properties of oil paints were definitely conducive to this goal. The contrast is strong, the likeness is mostly on point, and overall I consider this to be a successful portrait.

I think one of the issues I had with colored pencil last time around comes down to my typical approach. My technique usually involves layering colors, blending with white, then layering more details. The white blend helps depict skin texture fairly well, but if I don’t supplement by blending with the colorless blender, sometimes things get washed out. If I come back again with dark colors after the first blend, usually it works out okay.

But paper only has limited capacity to grip pencil wax, so I think I ran into that limit and couldn’t do much else to adjust. It worked to my benefit with this oil painting that oil is much more forgiving; it seems like you can layer and blend paint to extreme degrees. Or at least much more than colored pencil.

Another aspect of this particular portrait worth mentioning – I can see tangible results as I continue to practice painting. This piece is my 8th painting, and I feel like there’s definite improvement along the way. The next painting after this one actually feels like a slight step backwards, but otherwise all the ones that have followed seem to continue that slow but steady build. I think I’m on painting 14 or 15 now, and I am very excited to talk about those as well. But I need to take these one at a time, as tempting as it is to jump ahead!

I may have also finally figured out a good solution for filming these paintings. It’s still not my favorite thing in the world to have a camera right next to me in my peripheral vision, so perhaps I will still do some progressions similar to this one, which is more of a slideshow of still photos. But people do seem to like actual video, so I’ll keep trying to get some of them going at least.

So, next on tap…I need to decide if I want to completely skip a painting that I’m not a huge fan of and instead show a self-portrait painting. Or just go for it and share something that isn’t much of a win, but still maintain the correct chronology of this learning effort. Either way, something else is coming soon.

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