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Old 10-17-2002, 09:21 PM   #1
Elizabeth Schott Elizabeth Schott is offline
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Figure size?

I did a search of the posts and didn't find a reference to what I am asking. But I was interested if there is a rule of thumb, tradition, preference etc. to the size of the person in a portrait? I believe I read somewhere that you should keep the head under life size. So if I am making my kids with a 7" head from chin to crown is that acceptable? I prefer to work larger than smaller.

I don't charge by size but by figure, i.e. head & shoulders, etc. So I thought the answer to this question may just be the simple thought that the person who has commissioned the portrait has a frame size in mind.
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Old 10-17-2002, 10:33 PM   #2
Chris Saper Chris Saper is offline
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Dear Beth,

I'm not sure how much of size preference has to do with a "rule of thumb", or just what painters personally prefer. I prefer to work so that the head is somewhere between 50% and 90% of life size. Life size heads (usually, but not always) for me take on an odd visual quality. Even in intimate conversation, you are not really seeing a life-sized head; so standing at a viewing postion to a canvas, you would be farther away, and the head would appear smaller. Smaller than 50% is just too small a work space for me, although I have seen many, many painters use a smaller scale beautifully.

I think I probably developed this comfort scale because I learned to paint portraits from life. One of my teachers, Phil Beck, taught me to place the head by splaying the fingers, in such a way that if you were to place them on your own head, thumb on chin, the longest fingertip would generally touch your hairline...and to use that distance as the full head starting point on your canvas.

With respect to more complete figure work, I always first determine the size of the head, then measure the other body landmarks in comparison to the size of the head.

From Sharon K's posts, I know that she uses a sense of "classic" proportion in determining size, and hopefully she will share more of this.

I'm not sure if this is what you are asking, but hope it is helpful.
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Old 10-19-2002, 12:18 AM   #3
Sharon Knettell Sharon Knettell is offline
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Classic proportions.

Unfortunately, since the eclipse of representational art by abstraction and other evils, a lot of very good artists have not learned these proportions. We are relying today on photographic proportion. These, when translated to painting and drawing, tend to make a figure look dumpy and graceless.

I was very fortunate to come across some amazing instruction manuals from "The Famous Artists School". They had contributing artists like Norman Rockwell, Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne, etc. These may not all be household names today, but they were the art stars of the 40's 50's and 60's. People had to really draw well in those days to be considered a top illustrator.

They had excellent diagrams on figure and head drawing which are now plastered all over my studio.

I have memorized the longitudinal measurments. They are based on an 8 head format. The standard figure is about 71/2 heads in length.

HEAD 1. The head itself, the neck is 1/3 the length of the head to the pit of the neck.
HEAD 2. The second head length is to the armpit.
HEAD 3. The third head is to the waist.
HEAD 4. The forth head is to the pubic bone just above the crotch.
HEAD 5. The fifth head is to mid thigh.
HEAD 6. The sixth head is to the bottom of the kneecap.
HEAD 7. The seventh head is to mid calf.
HEAd 8. The eigth head is to the bottom of the heel of weight bearing foot. For example, the weight bearing foot could be behind the front foot, that front leg would be extended longer than 8 heads.

Check out the measurments in Sargent's standing figures. These proportions give his work some of their stateliness.
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Old 10-19-2002, 10:32 AM   #4
Linda Ciallelo Linda Ciallelo is offline
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Sharon, that's very interesting, but I think Beth meant the size of the head in relationship to real life, rather than in relationship to the rest of the body. In other words if you are using 18" x 24" paper, and you fill it with just the head, you'd have pretty bizarre looking portrait. Of course some artists are doing that today. It brings to mind Andy Warhol prints. I think traditionally most portrait artists have kept the head at least a little smaller than real life, and of course kept the body in correct proportion to that. Children's body proportions are not the same as adults. Their heads are much bigger, in proportion to the body, than an adults would be. The younger the child the more dramatic the difference.
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Old 10-19-2002, 05:24 PM   #5
Stanka Kordic Stanka Kordic is offline
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Thanks for sharing the classic proportions 'rule'. I often wondered how those heads fell on the figure.. It will come in handy with my next job!


I agree with Chris that head size is a matter of preference. Many artists feel comfortable strictly working life-size, however I go both ways -- to suit my traditional clients and folks with more non-traditional taste.

I have to say, I much more enjoy going over life size. My canvases can go to 48" in length at times, and it gives me the opportunity to work with visible brush strokes, the palette knife, and lots of paint. Design is imperative working this way. Lots of thumbnails ahead of time, and client approval before you start.

I would suggest experimenting and seeing what you think is best.
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Old 10-21-2002, 06:34 PM   #6
Michael Georges Michael Georges is offline

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Giant Baby Heads

The only rule I set for myself on that account is that I try never to paint a child's head larger than 7 inches from hairline to chin. There is nothing more scary than an oversized baby head.
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Regular and consistent work from life will improve your portraits.
Drawing skills are the foundation of all an artist does.
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Old 11-01-2002, 07:17 PM   #7
Timothy C. Tyler Timothy C. Tyler is offline
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If one paints sight size (like JSS) then all heads will be smaller than life size.

Furthermore, if you map across (draw horizontal lines that precisely match the sitter) then you don't need formulas or a calculator. Too small and they are hard to work and convey the sitter.
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Old 11-01-2002, 08:16 PM   #8
Sharon Knettell Sharon Knettell is offline
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8 Heads

I seriously beg to differ!

Measure the head lengths in a standing Sargent painting or two. His figures are 8 heads. That is why his figures are so elegant. There is elongation, especially in the knee to the heel area.

If you can draw well, it is no problem to make the adjustment in a sight size painting. Also, if the canvas and the figure are placed side by side the figures would be life-sized, not in any way smaller.
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Old 11-01-2002, 10:29 PM   #9
Timothy C. Tyler Timothy C. Tyler is offline
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Two dozen books

Two dozen books have described Sargent's methods as recorded by sitters, students, friends and fellow painters. This is not an original concept of mine. If he had such a simple formula as making everyone 8 heads tall, it would be pretty easy to crank out a Sargent or two next week. Yet, we don't see many these days.

Majesty is not simple.
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Old 11-02-2002, 08:26 PM   #10
Sharon Knettell Sharon Knettell is offline
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Let the eight heads roll!

Tim, I was not suggesting that an 8 head format is the only method of achieving majesty or elegance. It is a useful technique in making figures graceful as opposed to dumpy. Try measuring some of Sargent's figures for yourself.

I am not sure what you are referencing when you talk about sight size, just Sargent? Sight size is (among others) a Boston School technique. You can control the size of the figure depending on the position of the model, same size if the canvas and the model are side by side, or smaller if the figure is further back. Sight size painting is obviously practiced a lot around here.
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