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Working on Portraits

April 29, 2008

I’ve been trying to finish up a large (30″x22″ )watercolor/gouache portrait recently, but I always seem to come close to where I want to go, and then somehow lose it completely and wipe the whole thing off. One of the problems is that I’m not quite sure how I want to handle it.

Two years ago, I started a series of these large portraits based on photos taken mostly of people I don’t know, seen on the street or at the market. And then, with two of them unfinished, I just left off and went on with other, smaller things. During my recent studio cleanup, I came across them, still on the paper stretchers, and decided it was time to get working on them again. I’m having a tough time revving up again – or maybe I stopped because I was in a difficult spot with the last one especially. I’m not sure.

Here are the finished ones, my family doctor, smoking a cigar, and a vendor on the Sunday morning market here in Amboise:

Here’s one I’m stuck on :

And the one I’m really stuck on, which has recently been washed out again (I enhanced it a bit so you could see something):

To try to move things along, I drew this from a photograph this weekend – another very difficult photo to work from, and I gave her that spacy “I’m looking at a computer screen” look (which she was), but it was a good skill sharpening exercise. Why are portraits so hard? Partly, I guess because the tiniest little inaccuracy throws off a likeness. Have you noticed that it’s harder to get it right with people you’re close to? Any thoughts on the subject?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2008 10:05 am

    wow. i love the ortrait of the ady it is beautiful!!!1 actually in my opinion only one ortrait looks really unfinished. and it is the one of the older guy in the blue shirt. actually he does look quite good. only his shirt and the maybe the background look unfinished.

  2. April 29, 2008 10:15 am

    These are amazing! I would be thrilled with everyone of them – and LOVE the weekend portrait (Claire?).

  3. April 29, 2008 12:35 pm

    Casey, the portraits are so sensitively rendered. They all have a sort of soft focus that seems nostalgic. I like them very much. I hope you continue with them. THe one of your doctor is my favorite.

  4. April 29, 2008 2:12 pm

    Casey these are a wonderful collection of work. Beautiful. I understand what you mean about to the point of “somehow lose it completely and wipe the whole thing off” . I think its time to leave it alone for awhile then come back to it and maybe you’ll be able to see just where the problem is and carry on.

  5. April 29, 2008 2:26 pm

    Oh my goodness, Casey – I adore the portrait of your family doctor. Exquisite! And the lady (is that your daughter?) is so lovely, too – of course, I don’t know her, so any resemblance issues you are seeing are lost on me. It is very soft and romantic – I love the treatment of the hair and its unfinished quality, actually. Beautiful work!

  6. April 29, 2008 2:39 pm

    It’s so nice reading your thoughts on the portraits. And I agree wholeheartedly that those close to us are the most difficult to draw. I think that more than anything this is because we are trying to also capture their personality in the process. Perhaps we don’t care about this aspect as much with those we don’t know.

  7. caseytoussaint permalink*
    April 29, 2008 3:12 pm

    Thank you.
    Yes, that last one is an attempt to draw my daughter, but it’s not quite a likeness. It’s so hard to see what’s wrong – I sometimes feel as though I’m wearing blinders!

  8. April 29, 2008 3:58 pm

    Casey – I’m speechless to see all these wonderful portraits together and for the first time. It’s like walking into a new gallery. You should be having a show! I know I’m gushing but I love every one of them – and looked at from here, the one you’ve just scrubbed out has such a wonderful, understated beauty, it stands up as it is.

    I recognised your daughter immediately, so the likeness can’t be far off. It is your style and skill that has me gushing. Wow, wow, wow!!!

  9. April 29, 2008 4:24 pm

    The top two of your family doctor and vendor are really wonderful as is the drawing of your daughter. No one ever sees you the way you see yourself in the mirror by which I mean to say that likeness in portraiture is much more than getting features right. But you know that.

  10. April 29, 2008 4:28 pm

    I know nothing about painting portraits but I know what I like and I would LOVE any one of these! The one of your daughter is my favorite but they are all beautiful!!!! Maybe once you have repainted it (the one you are stuck the most on) you should put the photo away and look at it for what it is, see how you feel about the expressions and body language instead of the “likeness”. We all look different at different times and angles in photos…

  11. April 29, 2008 7:03 pm

    Gosh, these are so good, Casey. I’m a big fan of gouache but wouldn’t know where to begin to use it with such sensitivity.

  12. April 29, 2008 10:28 pm

    These are all fantastic!

  13. April 30, 2008 12:06 am

    These are all wonderful but that last one…Gorgeous!
    I think it’s much easier to paint people you don’t know because you can be that millimetre out and not notice it yourself, whereas when you know the person you see immediately that something is off or that the painting doesn’t reveal their true character….You get picky!
    I think painting oneself has to be THE most challenging of all, both mentally and physically.

  14. April 30, 2008 2:38 am

    Casey, I think they are all wonderful!! Wish I could even be 1/8 that good.

  15. April 30, 2008 2:44 am

    I too think they are wonderful and understand what you say about doing portraits of people you know. One tiny mistake and their eye’s are too close to the nose and it doesn’t look anything like them. It’s so difficult – one of the reasons I have barely ever attempted a portrait.

  16. April 30, 2008 3:09 am

    Wonderful work. I especially enjoy the portrait of your family doctor and the vendor. You have a good sense of knowing how much information to render without overworking the subject matter.
    I know what you mean when you say creating portraits of people you know is difficult. I think whenever I do a portrait of my family members I try to flatter them rather than draw what I see. In contrast, if I am doing a portrait of a stranger, I don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings if the picture doesn’t come out just right.
    Have you thought of maybe using pastels to complete your more challenging watercolors? Just a thought.

  17. Claire permalink
    April 30, 2008 3:46 pm

    i don’t why you were so worried about me seing my portrait! I think it looks like me, altough I do look a little spaced out.. Have you been taking pictures of me while I’m on the computer and not paying attention? That’s ok, I forgive you only because it makes me look like I’m having deep thoughts (which is what you could have said in the article…).
    It’s nice to see Jean Louis (still my favourite portrait of yours, looks even better in real life, the painting I mean) and Alfred.

  18. April 30, 2008 5:43 pm

    ALL your portrait studies are wonderful! I’m especially fond of the doctor but I also like the dreamy quality of the “washed out” one. And yes, I find it extremely difficult to do portraits of family. If I’m lucky, each one seems to capture a certain piece of the person and when I try again I capture a totally different quality. It must be thrilling when it all comes together. πŸ™‚

  19. May 1, 2008 10:32 am

    I’ve seen these in person and they are wonderful! I agree with Claire that they are better when seen in person, too. It was such a fun jolt to scroll down to tbe drawing of Claire—I thought, ” did I do that??” Not that you draw like me, but that it was of Claire, whom I recently drew, too! Does that make any sense at all? You did a great job, dearie! I sometimes think it IS harder to draw those we love, but sometimes I think not. Maybe the more you do of them (as with David, in my case), the less anxious you feel about it.

  20. May 1, 2008 4:35 pm

    Absolutely breathtaking! We’ve been working on portraiture for two weeks now at school. For me, it’s so intense! These are all great works with lots of life and personality to them. I immediately recognized Claire who is as lovely in life I’m sure. I haven’t had the spirit in me to comment lately but I have been following along and enjoying all of your posts. I have been coming back to this post often to just admire and lift my spirits!

  21. May 2, 2008 12:58 am

    Are you in France? If so, where?

    I will be over there soon and am looking for artist groups/life drawing groups/schools in Brittany…closer to Nantes and that area.



  22. May 2, 2008 8:45 am

    Casey these are wonderful! I especially like the doctor with the cigar πŸ™‚ …

    Good luck with staying patient with your garden!

  23. May 2, 2008 9:25 pm

    Casey, they are all beautiful, these portraits you have done. I love the doctor and I really really love this last one of the girl. it’s got a kind of old-masters feel to it. Fantastic work.

  24. caseytoussaint permalink*
    May 7, 2008 9:12 am

    Than you everyone for your thoughtful comments. I’ve actually moved forward on one of the unfinished paintings and hope to post a finished version soon.
    Carl – I wish I could get back in touch with you, but the link to your blog doesn’t work, and my email came back! If you get back to read this, yes, I’m in France, in Amboise in the Loire Valley. In Brittany this summer, there’s a big art project going on. They’re inviting all artists who wish to participate. Go to their website :
    to find out more.

  25. May 28, 2008 4:13 am

    I had no idea you were such a fabulous portrait artist. These are wonderful! I agree about drawing people close to you. I’ve never been able to do a successful portrait of my sons.

  26. nick fox permalink
    August 4, 2008 2:40 pm

    Thank you, Casey. I wasn’t expecting to move in the dimension that your art brought me into. Surprised by joy, quietly. And re-introduced to the timeless truth that nothing is good, or bad; that only thinking makes it so. Lose dependance on perception if only for a milli-second and know that all is perfect, and always has been. What a break … brings tears to tired eyes.

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