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Monday, August 29, 2016

Painting Babies

Ahh, she looks just like her dad...unfortunately.
Acrylic portrait by Ian Bodnaryk.
Beautiful Eyes, Frances Hook,
baby artist for Northern Tissues
during the 1950s and 1960s.
There's probably not a single portrait artist working today that hasn't been called upon, at least once, to paint a portrait of a baby. By that I mean a child younger than twelve months. And what artist-mother of a newborn can resist the urge to at least sketch her nine-month labor of love. I know, labor doesn't last nine months, it just seems that way at the time. In any case, each artist, male or female, who undertakes such an effort quickly discovers that painting babies is unlike any other subject in the world. Drawing them from life is largely out of the question. They don't hold still unless they're asleep; which is why you see so many portraits of the little darlings with their big, beautiful, dark eyes closed. What a waste! Even with the aid of a competent photographer, the whole experience, while perhaps fun, can also be exasperating and nearly as time-consuming as drawing the infant from life. And if all that weren't enough, the proportional instincts the portrait artist commonly employs become simply irrelevant when the subject still wears diapers.
Watching Paint Dry (left), Sandra Busby, and the likely results of
doing so (right).
Whether working from one or more photos, or from life, asleep or otherwise, an artist has little or no chance of rendering an attractive baby portrait without learning to draw one first (preferably several). For the proverbial "baby-face," the artist must learn to think in circles. That is to say, whether drawing in profile, three-quarter, or straight-on front views, the predominant shape is the circle. If you're in the habit of starting a face by drawing the features, even then, when wide open, a baby's eyes are often quite circular, as is, of course the whole head. As for the proportions and alignment of the facial features, think in terms of halves, as seen in the charts below.
As if infant proportions weren't challenging enough, keep in mind
they change slightly virtually every month as the child grows older.
The lower drawings would apply to a baby six months or older.
It's likely that no other artist who ever lived knew as much about painting babies as did the great Raphael di Sanzio. Today, some thirty-four Madonna and Child paintings from Raphael's all-too-brief career have survived, mostly painted between 1500 and 1514 (he died in 1520). One might refer to them as his "bread and butter" work; and to push the analogy to the breaking point, he seems to have certainly known "which side his bread was buttered on." Also, as you might note in looking down over the details of each Christ-child below, it seems he learned to paint babies the hard way--by painting a lot of them. I've included approximate dates for each example. You can almost chart the course of his progress down through the years.
One has to admire a painter of babies who lacks the option of
working from photos. Note, the first two at the top are almost comical
as the artist struggles to learn the "rules" of painting babies. Compare
the to the ones toward the bottom from about ten years later.
Baby-face, Georgia
Just as babies come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and styles, the same can be said for the paintings and portraits resulting from their cute, cuddly little faces. Some artists paint babies life-size or smaller. Others paint them so large, many a young mother might wince and say "ouch" in seeing them. The style in which babies are rendered depends some-what on two factors, the preexisting style of the artist and that artist's gender. Just as mothers gently em-brace their young, usually their painting style reflects such instinctive nurturing. Fathers, on the other hand, like to play and "rough-house" with their progeny, thus their "hand-ling" of babies with paint on canvas often seems quite similar. Compare the pristinely delicate handling of Georgia (above-right, whom I assume is a woman) with that of Derek Russell (below). The difference is like that of silk and sandpaper.

Babies by Derek Russell.
"Aw, come on, Dad, a little more red on my nose."
Personally, I would advise anyone painting babies, from whatever source, to use oils, even though I customarily paint in acrylics. Very often, when painting portraits, regardless of the age of my subjects, I paint all but the flesh tones in acrylics, then switch back to oils (my original painting medium) for the flesh tone, allowing me to take days rather minutes in trying to get them just right. I was somewhat dismayed at the fluid ease with which Janusz Migasiuk handles his paints in the time-lapse video below. I was even more dismayed at the results of the highly experienced Crystal Cook in painting a baby in acrylic (bottom). Beyond that, I was nearly dumbfounded at the though of painting a baby in watercolor as seen in the work of Candice Bohannon Reyes (below that). I've painted a few baby portraits in my time, but the only one I could find at the moment was my The Stripper (clear down at the bottom) dating from around 1972.

Just click the triangle above to play.

Baby Mia, 2006, Candice Bohannon Reyes

Sadie, Crystal Cook

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Stripper, 1972, Jim Lane


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