Of Painting Portraits, as Read by a Beginner

By Cindy McKee

Painting Portraits by Anthony ConnollyFor a brief time as a teenager and young adult, I dabbled in drawing and painting. Decades later, I’m returning to art. Ignorant, but not so ignorant as to believe there is such an artist as a completely isolated ‘self-taught artist’. I know I need to learn from good artists with solid skills. A book that shows, step by step, a particular artist’s painting process is close to an apprenticeship in that artist’s studio. When I opened Painting Portraits by Anthony Connolly, I got to peek over the shoulder of the painter as he painted.

Apparently, he photographed all stages in the painting of several portraits, writing an explanation of what he was doing during each stage, to build this book. I count five over-the-shoulder painting experiences, plus one during a drawing. The written explanations of each step took me out of spectatorship and put me into the mind of Mr. Connolly as he painted. Please understand how useful that is to someone who doesn’t attend an art class. Water to the dehydrated!

Into the beginning of the book, Mr. Connolly placed some examples of portraiture, some historical and well-known, some not so well-known, together with his thoughts on portrait making, art and craftsmanship. I do believe that he respects a high level of skill as much as I. At the same time, I’m positive he’s alluding to disappointment in some of what passes as art these days. Right away, that established a feeling of kinship between this reader and the author.

A happy apprentice moment was seeing the materials he uses and reading his reasons for using them. This is useful information. And in a few pages, I got to see those materials in action, as he used them.

Anthony Connolly likes to create an underpainting, then use glazes to adjust color, add and refine details, create or enhance highlights and shadows. He talks about the glazes as he applies them. It was difficult for me to figure out just what he was accomplishing sometimes with a glaze. I kept going from the photo to the description and back, trying to understand just how he was manipulating the glaze. I almost apologized to the book for overworking it team collaboration software. “You must be exhausted, dear book. I should let you rest.”

But before it rested, the dear book gave me a moment of joy. The painter included his corrections – that is, his mistakes! To know that even an experienced artist has to adjust his drawing of someone, that he doesn’t just look at someone, look down at the canvas or paper and sketch out an entirely accurate likeness – that means there is hope for me. I may not be a moron for redrawing a hand 30 times.

Interestingly, he decided to include brief lookthroughs of the working styles of four other portrait painters: Alastair Adams, Andrew Festing, Andrew James and James Lloyd. They have very different styles and methods. That chapter is a concrete affirmation (possibly, an unassuming admission) that there is no one right way to achieve outstanding results.

Connolly also felt the need to include a chapter about the value of copying great artists. I see that as common sense, but apparently some art schools do not. According to this chapter, the practice seems out of vogue. Maybe the schools are worried about being sued for encouraging the creation of derivative works. For whatever reason, it’s a sorry state of affairs when students are no longer told to “copy from some good master”.

The author/artist neglected neither the giving nor following of that advice.

Portraiture took a hit when photography became commonly accessible. That is discussed in several places in Painting Portraits, of course. But take a look at the portraits throughout the book. Just look at the one on the cover. The use of colors, the brushwork, the luminous quality – that’s what sets portraiture apart from photography, firmly and beautifully.

I reached the back cover too soon, some questions still unanswered. But lo and behold. ‘Further Reading’. I suppose he listed his recommendations of other books. Yet another reason to thank this author.