We believe that it is essential to start from an examination of the portrait, intended as a genre, and the tools of detecting faces, used in millennia of painting. This will make the aspiring portrait painter or the scholar who knows stylistic problems without having been able to deepen the techniques, to focus perfectly on the problem. In the end we will offer, with extreme clarity, the technical solutions that are used today, such as how to transfer the image of a photograph on the canvas, without having to resort to complex instruments, but being able to take advantage of a simple copying machine or printer
Since ancient times, the portrait was the object of particular attention. It was used to remember – next to the statue carved from the funeral cast of the face – the faces of dead relatives or friends; it was a propaganda tool; a way to be remembered by those who were far away.
Funeral portraits of a very intense realism recalled the faces of the dead in the necropolis of Al Fayyum (in the links we propose a series of readings, useful to deepen the topic). The Romans, based on the results of the Greeks, had developed relevant methods both for detecting the physiognomy and for painting techniques of extraordinary effectiveness. Initially, to have an image faithful to the original, the Greeks, as Pliny the Elder tells, had followed the practice of placing the person to be shown in profile. It was not difficult to collect the silhouette of the face in this way. It was enough to place a parchment, a sheet or a light table against the wall and use a brush to trace the line of shadow cast by the body or face.
The portraits, especially if made in profile, also had a documentary function aimed also at the combination of marriages, at a distance, since, once the political advantages of the union of two powerful families were established, it was not possible to force the tastes of future spouses or of their parents. So we proceeded to this visual comparison, with an exchange of one or more portraits that, in some cases, led the future husband to take, for example, a sister of the one who had sent the image because she preferred it aesthetically.
Why a wedding portrait? Because the profile, taken with the shadow, is much closer to the truth of a frontal portrait or three quarters, especially in times, like that of Leonardo, in which the great portraitists – as Isabella d’Este complained – were not numerous .
So: how was the profile survey done? The sun struck the person, perfectly shadowing the shadow on the wall or on the support prepared by the painter. The artist was enough to follow the lines of the silhouette of the face that appeared very clean. Then it completed with the eye and with the color. And the game was done. To accomplish this, the first hours of the morning were awaited when the sun has now become detached from the horizon, but it is not yet high, so it could hit the figures almost perpendicularly. Or they waited for the late afternoon hours, when the declining sun had a limited height. This was also very good for picking up the shape of the head in a frontal or three-quarter portrait, but at that point other tools were required for the detection of the eyes, eyebrows, eyelids, nose and mouth so that the resemblance was absolute . For this reason, lenses, optical chambers, glass prisms similar to the so-called light chamber, plus a grid like the one presented in an engraving by Durer, were used to detect the face and the body.
Once the appearance was perfectly captured, the painters could tread a sheet to the glass and capture the color outlined with the brush or using the opposite side of the glass – the dry one – place in front of a window and trace the physiognomy collected on a piece of paper. Previously with the brush. When the lines of the face were on paper, we proceeded to the further transfer onto the canvas through small holes, from which to pass color
The painter David Hockney demonstrated with a study (reported in this volume), supported by a long and documented experimentation, that the artists, at least from the fifteenth century, starting from the Flemish, have also made use of lenses and optical cameras, in particular to transfer to the tables and, later, on the canvases the faces of the subjects to be portrayed. Hockney made it clear, as we see in the photograph below, that it had to be quite simple to make a person’s face perfectly, in a portrait, if the face had been imaged by the images produced by a lens.
There were also other less ‘technological’ methods for the transfer of lines, such as the use of compasses to establish and report the distances between nose, eyes, mouth, as well as their individual lengths or glasses placed in front of the subject, on which they were painted , with a dark color, all the main elements of the face. In the nineteenth century it was widely used, because it was the subject of industrial production – and is still on the market – the ‘glossy room’, an optical prism mounted on an extensible metal and wood rod, which can be secured to a work table through a vice (Have a look here: on amazon you can buy one). It was a handy tool, transportable, comfortable even if it requires a certain skill in tracing. (To find out more about the camera, click on our link, highlighted in blue
What always frightens, in the portraitist – unless he wants to make a portrait of the first and wants to capture more the soul of the effigy that his perfect physiognomy – is linked to the different relationships and distances between the facial elements, which characterize every single face. Approaching the eyes a few millimeters or slightly lengthening the nose, means losing the similarity and creating an effect of annoying estrangement in the effigy. For this reason the painters thought to fix the pivotal points of the face, through the systems we have indicated.
Another difficulty that meets the aspiring portraitist is linked to the chromatic composition of the brushstroke and, above all, to the amount of color he places on his face. In the traditional portrait, you always work with a veil of color, avoiding that you create a slippery paste, which prevents correct coloration. So the portrait conducted according to the canons of realism or hyperrealism requires a much lower amount of color than that used in other kinds of painting.
From the mode of detection of the facial lines to the transfer of the design on the canvas, up to the use of colors. Follow us step by step, you will become, in a short time, perfect portraitists. Like the great masters of the past.
We learn to easily detect the lines of the face and transfer them to the canvas and then go to the video where we can see the perfect preparation and drafting of the color. To learn how to transfer the lines of the read click on our internal link, below, highlighted in blue. In the chapter that opens, opening the link, we will see how to start from a photograph of the subject to be depicted, how to enlarge it and how to transfer the structural elements of the face on the sheet or on the canvas.