Learn from Michelle

Consider Your Audience

One of the things I’ve always tried to do when I teach painting is to teach my students to consider their audience as they paint… especially if the audience is PPA judges.

Let’s face it — print competition is a game that I know how to play well.  So this year, I decided to become an example by NOT following my own advice.

I set out to paint like a painter. 😱

I took my inspiration from this painting by Phillip de Laszlo…

I just love the way Laszlo uses gestural brushstrokes in his work. I really wanted to pretty faithfully recreate this image, but with more modern clothing.  This was no simple task in a digital format! Those gestural brushstrokes are actually incredibly complex to recreate — much more complex than most people realize.  (Don’t believe me?  Give it a try!)

I chose Houston, TX photographer Francie Stonestreet’s son as the subject.  It took a bit of composite work to get him positioned correctly, and then I began to paint trying to recreate Laszlo’s masterful brushwork in a way that suited the new subject.

Here are some work-in-progress, progression images...

Now, I’m no Phillip de Laszlo, y’all, but I think I did pretty well capturing the spirit of his work here.

I did make a few caveats knowing my audience.  For example, I darkened the canvas a LOT more than Laszlo did.  But when it came to painting, I didn’t “pixel mush” as I typically would for print competition. 

I painted

::gasp:: 😱


I spent a lot of time adding color to my highlights and shadows and letting the bare canvas/grounds shine through in many places. 

It is as faithful a recreation of Laszlo as I’m capable of. 

And yes, there are some small brush marks on the face — as there would be with ANY actual painted piece. However, those brush strokes didn’t alter the facial structure in any way.

I point this out due to one of the comments made during judging.  The painting initially scored 80 but was being challenged down to 77…

“On the forehead — I think in order to be in the merit category you have to be a little more thorough with your brush strokes and smooth that out because you shouldn’t leave those marks. Obviously they weren’t there on the before print so it’s not a birthmark or a problem with the skin.”

I was attempting to style my brushstrokes after those of famous master painters. Honestly — I’m not even in the ballpark.

If you examine paintings created by John Singer Sargent, you’ll see that he often used visual brushstrokes on faces.  I suppose nobody ever told him he really should smooth that out unless there was a birthmark or a problem with the skin. 🤷‍♀️

Or perhaps we should consider Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  He also is one of our most renowned painters, and he — like Sargent — left visible brushstrokes on faces.

Take a look at Rembrandt’s work as well.  You’ll find brushstrokes on many of his faces too.

It is absolutely normal, and quite desirable to have a bit of brushwork visible on faces when painting digitally.  By doing so, we as digital artists, are more accurately reflecting the organic medium.  The fact that the work of Sargent, Renoir, and Rembrandt hangs in museums all over the world should tell us this, but it’s only something you could know if you’ve studied about the topic.

“My original concern, honestly, I thought the cheeks were too red and that looked a little funny but then I looked at the source image and his cheeks are really red so I’m guessing mom demanded that that be left on there.”

“Mom demanded that be left on there” implies that I, as the artist, should have made the choice to change his cheeks because I entered it into competition.

As a painter — my job is to recreate the likeness of my subject faithfully.  Just as John Singer Sargent did in this painting of Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, if the cheeks are red, you paint them red, otherwise, the subject doesn’t look like themselves. 

I am guilty of saying that all is fair in love, war, and print competition.  I have often altered my subject’s appearance to conform to PPA ideals in order to score well.  I have said to new competitors, “You did everything right, but this subject isn’t a good choice for print competition,” because I knew the subject themselves would cost the maker the merit.  It makes me feel terrible, but I’ve rationalized it as part of “playing the game”. 

Any time I find myself rationalizing when I look back, I always realize I have been on the wrong side of doing the right thing. #guiltyAsCharged

WHY does it have to be like this?

The human form is beautiful.  Not just the very narrow definition the media gives us of “beauty”.  ALL humans — in every shape, form, and color — are beautiful. 

Let’s celebrate the unique beauty we all have, including red cheeks, and maybe a little too much junk in the trunk, instead of perpetuating the narrow definition of ideal.  Let’s get back to minor adjustments instead of the digital plastic surgery that has somehow become the norm.  We owe it to our kids — especially our daughters — to show them a slightly polished form of reality rather than the unachievable-without-surgery fantasy that has become mainstream.  #Soapbox

I don’t expect every PPA judge to be familiar with painting style choices.  But choosing a style that revealed bare canvas was a conscious decision for me as the artist.  It is a VERY common thing in the art world and yet…

“I do not like the treatment around the exterior. The lighter beige I find really distracting”

“The value of the bottom should have been brought down 2 stops…”

Laszlo was well known for this technique…

Rembrandt also used this technique from time to time…

As did Renoir…

Degas used this technique very often in his work. 

Please take notice — these are not studies as some may presume.  These are signed pieces which indicates that the artists viewed them as completed works.

This is a common practice by oil painters even today, as seen in this contemporary painting by Richard Schmid. 

There are scads of paintings in this style hanging in museums all over the world. Leaving bare canvas or the underpainting/grounds visible is a normal, and yes, even a desirable trait in painted works.  It’s a technique that has been used by artists throughout history.

One final comment from the judges…

“… across the forehead — the skin tones applied — I can forgive the ones around his mouth — it’s almost like a 5 o’clock shadow — but across his forehead I find it distressing.”

Again with the forehead. 🤦‍♀️ I just can’t figure it out.  Everything about that forehead looks completely appropriately painted to me in a very realistic style.

But since color seems to be the issue, let’s consider this painting by Robert Reid which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Should we ask them to remove it from their collection?  I mean, look at those skin tones!  She has green and blue skin.  NOBODY has green and blue skin!  How can this painting possibly be considered “good enough” to hang in a museum?  #sarcasm

How about this painting by Degas?  The dancer on the left has green highlights on her face and the one on the right has blue.

To give a bit more realistic example, please notice the color variety and brushstrokes in this face painted by Renoir.  Her entire face has varying skin tones as well as exceptional brushwork (with visible brushstrokes 😱).

Another beautiful work by Renoir.  Y’all this hangs in the Louvre!  Her face is BLUE!  How can this be in a museum if it is “wrong”?

Yet another Renoir (can you tell I enjoy his brushwork? lol)

Notice how the skin tone changes from the face to the chest to the hands.  Painters know that skin tone DOES change based on the vessels underneath the skin and the light.  Cheeks and hands are typically more rosy in appearance, around the mouth tend to be a bit more toward the green/blue (NOT literally but in perspective to the cheeks).  The forehead tends to gravitate toward the yellows (again, NOT literal yellow).  This is commonly known as the color zones of the face. 

It’s a thing, y’all.  Google it 😜

Why would I do something so crazy as entering a painting knowing it likely wouldn’t score well?

I did it to prove something I’ve known for years — you can’t judge what you don’t understand.

I’m not trying to be unkind — actually quite the opposite.  I’m trying to explain the seemingly ignorant comments judges make that baffle those with painting experience.

A large portion of the PPA judges don’t understand painting.  It’s not their genre, even though it’s allowed in competition. They’re never going to score it like a painter would.  They’re never going to see the difficulty in certain styles. They’ll never understand how hard it is to recreate the look of the masters in a digital medium.

Yes, it’s maddening to see a filter or an “auto painting” score high and a hand-painted work totally tank.  I get that.

But don’t blame the judges because it’s not their fault. 

They have no idea what they’re looking at.

It’s not their genre.

They’re photographers, not painters.  Expecting them to judge painted works as a painter would isn’t fair.  We’re asking them to do something that they’re just not equipped to do.

They can’t be expected to be an expert in a field that they’ve never worked in.

Painting has a set of rules all its own.  Without experience, and/or some serious study, no one could be expected to know what those rules are and how to judge painting like a painter would. 

Certainly - no one is born knowing how to paint like a master.

 (Does one EVER master painting?!)

So when you paint — you really need to know your audience.

If your audience is PPA judges and you want to score high — stick with pixel mushing!

If your audience is clients — especially art savvy ones — paint like a painter!  Otherwise, those with any understanding of the painting genre will never give your work a second glance.

So what was the final score on my image?  



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