It's Not in the Details

Noelle with a Black Dress by Ron Hicks, 2007, oil, 20 x 16. Collection Gallery 1261, Denver, Colorado.
Noelle with a Black Dress by Ron Hicks,
2007, oil, 20 x 16. Collection Gallery 1261,
Denver, Colorado.

I think photography has altered the way we judge the painted portrait. With the ability to capture a photographic likeness—from the details of a person’s features to the minute expressions on the face—came the idea that the more detail you can render, the better your portrait.  When it comes to oil painting, however, this isn’t always the case. Unless an artist is aiming for hyperrealism, chasing a photograph’s appearance with paint can lead to artwork that feels strained and contrived.

Colorado artist Ron Hicks strikes a strong balance between truly seeing his subject and executing a painting that goes beyond the details. The artist explained to me that the foundation of any portrait is created with four or five distinct shapes. This is because no two individual’s shapes, or the way the light falls on those shapes, are alike.

It’s a liberating idea, and gives us all a certain level of freedom to pursue portraiture in our own way. You can seek out those distinguishing shapes and then add your own “discovery,” of your subject, as Hicks calls it. It could be a mood or facial expression that catches your attention. Adding your response to a portrait’s shapes is what makes the work unique.

Hicks’ approach to portraiture strongly resonates with me, and I think it is probably inspiring to you, too. Stay tuned for more portrait painting tips and oil painting techniques that I'll bring you throughout 2014, and in the meantime consider all the resources in the North Light Shop that you might want to consider, with 25% off today in celebration of this holiday season. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

5 thoughts on “It's Not in the Details

  1. Since January 7, 1839 when Daguerre announced that he had invented a process using silver on a copper plate called the daguerreotype, paintings of portraits have competed with the printed photograph. Think of John Singer Sargent. With a few brilliant strokes he described an eye, satin and an attitude in his distinctive work. Today artists need to create works that describe ourselves as much as our subjects.

  2. Hello Courtney…undeniably photography has indeed altered the way we often judge all of art, not only the portrait. And I confess to being a huge fan of Ron Hicks, especially after the privilege of attending his class at WWM last month. As an artist, observing his process was a joy from beginning to end and my admiration for him has only increased.

    But also as an artist, I take issue with relegating detail to the field of hyperrealism. And watching the portrait work of WWM’s lecturer Anthony Rhyder only underscored this fact. The art of rendering slowly and clearly from life can be an act of such beauty, I believe there is absolutely still a place today for contemporary subjects of all mediums, done in a classical style. Art is a wonderfully wide world and there are many paths. So with that being said, this classical painter is still looking forward to Ron Hick’s new DVD.

  3. Thank you, Courtney!

    Am called Suncrone….yes, crone as in older woman….third stage of a woman’s life. Am finally determined to learn to draw and then to paint in colored pencil.

    I joined this forum specifically to say that, although already armed with new digital camera to use in gathering subject matter, I was brought up short by your article “It’s Not in the Details”
    Although I love photography, I have to agree completely with you that so much of today’s art has slid too far into the zone of absolute realism.

    Some lucky something put your article in my face and I thank you for it.
    You chose a magnificent portrait, “Noelle with a Black Dress”…Ron Hicks…to make your point. SO much emotion would have been lost with a photographic likeness of this brooding lady.

    Well, just wanted to say.
    Suncrone (who is now going to check out the rest of this fascinating site!:))

  4. There are many versions of realism, and to excoriate those who enjoy bringing a picture to perfect or near-perfect likeness is rather small-minded. I believe artists should paint the way they wish and enjoy. There is more than enough room for all sorts of styles. I personally don’t enjoy pictures that need an explanation, e.g., many abstracts, but I know that many people enjoy them. I also don’t understand pictures so loose that they are done in a matter of minutes, but I allow there may be some talent in that. I would expect the same from other artists, and especially from an artists network. Yes, I paint very realistically…