Friday, October 9, 2015

Painting a Portrait Using Ideas from Chuck Close Paintings--Part 1

This is the final version of my ten year old art student's self-portrait.  He completed it in six sessions of about one hour each.

One evening when J. W. and his mother came in, she mentioned that the art class J. W. had signed up for had been cancelled.  The students would have been making a Chuck Close type portrait using ink pads and their thumbs.

I didn't  have any ink pads and didn't want to buy any but...I had three shoeboxes of the original type of acrylic paints in tubes.  Since I have switched to the newer acrylic paints that dry slowly I had no use for the older type.  An opportunity to clean off another shelf!

I am fascinated by Chuck Close's huge portraits, ( 100 by 80 inches or about that)  The entire area is a face.  Not only that, squares that make up the painting are tiny abstract works of art.  There is no visible face when the painting is viewed at close range but seen from the entrance to the next gallery the face emerges and the tiny abstract squares disappear.

This is the Chuck Close painting I printed off to show J. W.  He was fascinated by the intricate patterns in each small square and also by the fact that if he stood as far from the picture as he could , the face was visible but the little patterns were not.

I also showed him a portion of his own eye in a greatly enlarged form so he could see the individual pixels and how they varied in color.  So glad I have a computer so I could show him this.  If you click on the photo below, you can see the pixels much better.

This was J. W.'s introduction to acrylics and mixing colors as well as to Chuck Close. I knew this project might become so tedious he wouldn't want to finish it so I had him try the technique on an 9 X 12  inch sheet of 140 watercolor paper. I prepared it for him by marking it off in 1/2 inch squares, again because I thought he might find setting up the page tedious.

He decided to paint a large letter "J" for his practice piece.

The next week he added the background and played around with painting a few designs in the squares.

He was still eager to try his self-portrait.

Using the poster option on our printer, I doubled the size of his portrait.  This made it 11 X 15, larger than life.  You can see the tape which I used to tape the two 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of copier paper together.

Week 1.  He liked the idea of using the T Square to draw the 1/2 inch squares and drew them in so quickly I was surprised.  He used 140 weight watercolor paper.  It was heavy enough to use with acrylics and it was lightweight enough so the photo showed through when the lightbox was turned on.

He traced around his features and was ready to start painting.

I told him to start with his mouth and then his eyes.  The facial features on Chuck Close's paintings are an integral part of the whole, not painted on after he has filled in the squares.

He immediately decided to put some small shapes on the lips.

From this point onward, he worked on the painting for forty-five minutes or an hour each time he came and spent the rest of the time experimenting with the effects he could get using acrylic paints on  various types of acrylic papers.  This helped keep him from becoming bored or discouraged about his progress on his big painting.

Week 2.  He spent a lot of time learning to mix a flesh color.  As I recall, he used orange, white, and burnt sienna.  I think he also used a bit of red and blue.  He mixed enough paint so he would have it for the following weeks and stored it in a recycled plastic vegetable container from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Week 3.  I showed him his photo in grayscale.  Computers are a real asset for seeing values in a photograph.

He mixed another flesh color because he noticed that the flesh in the photo varied in value.  Again, he spent a lot of time adjusting the color.  We talked about the area around the eyes appearing darker because that area is shadowed by the brow.

This must have been about the time I received the Chuck Close book  I ordered from Amazon.

Chuck Close Face Book, an Abrams Book for Young Readers, is a marvelous book.  It was a tremendous help as I guided J. W. through the rest of his project.  I still haven't read the book from front to back but each time I open the book I come across a new interesting comment or idea .  How Chuck Close works is described by  answering questions from  student artists.

One quote from Chuck Close that I will long remember is, "I think problem solving is highly overrated.  Problem creation is much more interesting."

For the rest of the story of J. W.'s steps in creating his self-portrait, see  Painting a Portrait Using Ideas from Chuck Close Paintings --Part 2


  1. Very interesting you have something in the works along this line too? Hope you are enjoying the Fall weather! :)

  2. I did a partial piece when I was trying to decide where I should have J. W. start. A lot of the lesson plans on the Internet did a lot with the little designs in each square but then painted the eyes, nose, and mouth on top of the designs instead of having them being part of the design. I hoped J. W. could make his a little more Chuck Close like. Painting a picture in this style myself sounds interesting. Maybe I will. I will post it if I do.