Oil Painting: Herrick Portrait Demo From Start to Finish

7 May 2008

Follow Garth Herrick's entire demonstration from start to finish.

Meeting the Client

This came through an agent, a local representative of Portrait Source [a portrait broker]. I think the client found me in the agent’s portfolio. The couple that commissioned this had so many options for good settings where they live, and they were worried that it would take them a long time to agree on what they wanted. The agency representative set up an appointment in June—I met her in the client’s driveway, we went in, and she introduced me. The meeting was very friendly, and the client was very receptive. We immediately started taking pictures.

Settling on a Pose and Taking the Reference Photos

Garth Herrick oil portrait

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait

There were so many good choices for settings! It was amazing that we so quickly narrowed the pose down to the kids sitting and standing on the rock, considering that all areas of their place were just spectacular. The kids gravitated toward that particular rock. The client’s original idea was to have them sitting in a porch swing—that was nice, but it didn’t really inspire me, especially there was a blank stucco wall behind the swing. I wanted more contrast with the kids’ white clothes. The dark evergreen foliage behind the rocks was more interesting. I took a lot of pictures that day, and met with the clients to review the photos on my computer. We decided that we wanted to take some more photos. It was sunnier the second time, so the weather conditions became more of a challenge.

Once I settled on the reference photos, I spent a few days combining them into a composite image in the software program Photoshop. All of the photos used in the composite image were taken on the second day because of the different lighting conditions on that day. I mostly worked in Photoshop the day after I took the photos, but I kept rethinking things and fine-tuning the image. Although the client approved my first version, I kept tweaking, and they approved each subsequent version.

The Underdrawing

I don’t do a drawing—I do most of my thinking with the camera and Photoshop, and then I just jump right into things. It would be nice to work out colors and composition, but I tend to be impatient.

Garth Herrick oil portrait

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait

I tone my 80”-x-52” preprimed canvas by rubbing it down with a combination of colors—using paint scraped off my palette—to create a green-gray neutral base. (I do things differently every time I start a project.) I start to block in the portrait with thin washes of green umber, referring to the photo on my 30-inch computer monitor. This imprimatura is dark—about the same value as a Kodak Gray Card—but given the sun-dappled nature of the image being painted, this middle value seems like a good place to start.

I begin with the heads, indicating them with lines and washes. At this stage I just want to map out the composition. I mark positions with a tape measure, using the brush like a marking tool—everything is eyeballed. I find a junction of a couple lines or shapes and mark that spot. Then I draw the shapes radiating from that point.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait

Blocking In the Portraits

I was just trying to find my way with this painting—locating bigger shapes and anchoring positions and major color notes. I wanted to avoid too many spots of disparate colors—completing an idea like the boy's legs is often better and more encouraging.

The painting seemed analogous to a fiendish Sudoku puzzle! It was a tightrope walk between keeping the surface alive and vital and reining it all in to keep some color and value control. Value control was a priority when mixing these first tentative colors so that the forms begin to emerge. I added a few color notes in the background to break out of the completely monochromatic mode. I needed to start anticipating ways of placing the colors. It was part of my impatience—I wanted to wake it up somehow.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait

The Older Girl

She was a bit of a challenge because I was sorting out her likeness from multiple reference photos. I wasn’t sure of her expression—in general, I try to avoid toothy smiles, but it didn’t seem to work to have her with a closed mouth. I struggled with her for a little while deciding which way to go. In the first image, those dark marks on her right arm indicated that I was figuring out how the shadow from her hair should be placed. I tried to anticipate the right combination of value and color from the beginning, but I was wrong and had to make changes later on.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait

The Boy's Shorts and Face

I tackled the boy's shorts, organizing the color changes in reflections and shadows. Although the kids were wearing white or off-white clothes, they are a kaleidoscope collection of various colors in this environment. There was a golden glow of light coming from one side of the kids and a cooler color light shining from the other side. It seemed a little shocking at first to put that golden color on the shorts. I ended up painting yellow over that, but it was a good guide for me—the gold color influenced what I painted on top. I just scumbled or feathered over the foundation I laid down. Then I began to work on the boy's face—I couldn’t reach it without the stepladder. At first I was shy about putting too many disjointed color spots in his face, but sometimes that is the only way to get where you need to go. There were so many different colors and values that had to be organized, and I had to decide if it was better to develop something monochromatically or through colors. I was sneaking up on some of the highlights here. They looked intense enough at first, but the more I developed other things, the more I realized I needed to go further.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait

Background and Adjustments

I needed to address the background foliage to establish a context for the portraits. Things were looking a little dark in the background, so I removed some paint that was just applied with some newspaper sheets. The background needed to appear more open. I corrected the head of the little standing girl. The more the painting came together, the more I realized that I measured her eyes wrong—they needed to move up a little, and the nose needed to be bigger. It was a little painful at first, but in the end it all came together very well. It was a little embarrassing that I had to shift everything about a quarter of an inch. Next, I developed the trees more with a few suggestions of speckled light. I'll make the background more detailed when it’s warranted.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait


Further Work on Faces

The little girl was close to where I wanted her to be, but the older girl seemed a little too dark. I needed to add a white glaze over her just to send it in the right direction, and then I painted over the glaze. The boy’s hair looked extremely bright, and the face needed to be adjusted to complement this hair. I needed to trim his hair too. I traced some red lines onto his shirt—from my reference photo—to correct the drawing. I wasn’t proud of that, but it was something that I had to sort out because there were just too many niggling errors there. I attached my palette to my canvas—I got the idea from David Kassan, who positioned a vertical palette next to his painting. Attaching the palette to my canvas was a practical thing for me because I was on my stepladder and needed my hands free to work and to keep my balance. I was constantly reinventing and adjusting my approaches because of the scale of the canvas—I had to think outside of the box a little bit.

Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait Garth Herrick oil portrait
Garth Herrick oil portrait

Working on Other Portraits

The client has been great—they were more concerned with getting the best painting than getting the finished piece at a particular time. But because the painting was taking up a lot of space in my studio and uses my best easel, I am very motivated to keep it moving along. In between painting sessions on this piece, I have to complete other commissions. For example, I just completed this painting of a Federal judge, the late honorable Clifford Scott Green.

A College President

I often have to interrupt one commission to finish another. Recently, I had to put aside Of Scions and Sunlight to complete this portrait of a college president. I toned the 43”-x-37” canvas with brown ochre light, which is a lot more golden in a transparent state—almost too much.

Garth Herrick portrait demonstration Garth Herrick portrait demonstration Garth Herrick portrait demonstration

As you can see, I was not happy with my first attempt at painting the head, so I simply flipped the canvas and started again. The better start gave me the confidence to proceed. The separate elements of the composition fell into place and became more dimensional in their interrelationships as I covered the golden ground color, piece by piece. Often as I continue to close up passages over the ground, I see where I need to revise and further develop what has already been indicated in paint. There is a quite a lot to do, and the unveiling is coming up quickly. Of Scions and Sunlight will have to wait!

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Copying a Notable Portrait

Another diversion—I'm in the process of copying an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of an 18th century Philadelphian, an early federal judge named the Honorable William Lewis. He served just one year—1791—then he went back into private practice so he could make a better living.

The Historical Society of the United States District Court has commissioned this copy for their collection.  They directed me to another copy of the original, painted in the 1960s, as a reference. It is indeed a fine copy, but I desired to see the original if at all possible.  After considerable sleuthing, and through a string of private contacts, the original was located, and its owner was delighted about the additional copy commission.  I was allowed to study the original for one hour one morning to make several digital reference photographs, take measurements, and very importantly, do a quick oil study sketch to basically match up some colors and values.  I would be lost without that sketch.

Herrick oil portrait demo

Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo

Lightening the Key

I need to lighten the boy's face and shirt, and that means everything needs to be keyed up higher in the same way. It is a frustrating but necessary adjustment.

Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo

Light on the Ground

I have been adding to the light mass on the ground below the kids. This may be overstated right now, but I can readjust this later.

Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo
Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo

I also keyed up the light in the middle girl's face.

Herrick oil portrait demo Herrick oil portrait demo

About the Artist
Garth Herrick was a semifinalist in the Smithsonian Institution’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and was awarded a certificate of excellence by the Portrait Society of America at their 2006 International Portrait Competition. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he received the William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship, the Stewardson Prize, and the Thouron Prize. Herrick’s commissions include portraits of eight notable federal judges, a governor, a mayor and numerous cultural, educational, and business leaders. His work hangs in a number of public, corporate, and private collections. View his work at www.garthherrick.com.

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artbykj@hotmail.com wrote
on 21 May 2008 8:46 PM