Susan Blackwood, an instructor at the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE) and the subject of an upcoming feature story in PleinAir magazine, will paint PleinAir publisher Eric Rhoads today on the main stage at PACE. During her demo, she will discuss portrait painting, including one of her key tips. 

“Eric has a great face, but he’s pretty well known, so it’s going to have to be accurate,” Blackwood says with a laugh. Rhoads is a high-energy person, and he will be sitting in the middle of one of his favorite projects — PACE. So how is he going to sit still?

“A figure moves,” Blackwood says. “When the face relaxes and the eyes settle on a point to look at, the muscles around the eye change. There’s a drift of the chin. A fraction of an inch and — boom — all the light is different. But really, it isn’t until you start tightening it down that you need to get the model back to where you need him or her to be. The key to accuracy in an alla prima portrait is to start with a wash and quickly and accurately wipe out the lights [she uses a Q-tip to draw, and a paper towel for bigger areas], then go in with darks. Then the light areas have had a chance to set up and dry a little bit, so you can bring in the light tones of the flesh.”

At every point, it is crucial to measure. “At first it’s just a block-in, and I will be adjusting, pushing and pulling,” says Blackwood. “You will hear a ‘Hooray!’ if I get the proportions right.” Blackwood starts with the largest (nearest) eye, then proceeds to the bridge of the nose, then the other eye. She uses landmarks to measure, but the Montana artist has a key tip for those tackling portraiture. “The trickiest places are the negative spaces on the face. That has to be measured along with everything else. From the eye to the mouth is a shape and it’s different on different people. From the top of the eye to the eyebrow is very specific to individuals.”

For her demo portrait of Rhoads, Blackwood will have 90 minutes.


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