Drawing And Painting The Figure From Life with Garth

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Mayor Edward G. Rendell, Philadelphia City Hall
Oilon linen, 50” x 38”, 2002

Garth has a nice demeanor as well as a unique painting and teaching style.  When speaking to students he is very encouraging as he demonstrates different techniques to conquer every problem.  He is very good with perspective, both in painting and in life.

Garth explains his modern approach to oil painting this way.  First, he starts with reference photographs, which are aggregated and fine-tuned in Photoshop.  As Garth admits, he does “most of [his] thinking with the camera and Photoshop.  ”Without even drawing, Garth, then, jumps into painting with oil, beginning with a neutral foundation and adding layers based on the conditions decided in his digital rendering.  This is only one of a dozen different approaches Garth has in his arsenal to start a painting.   All of his measurements are eyeballed; scale adjustments are made as he gets to different components of the portrait.  The portrait is entirely created on the computer, but does not come to life until it has been transcribed into the oil painting.

It was this latter, crucial part of the process that we were learning in class, how to make our portraits of real-life figures seem life-like.  Garth’s attitude about our paintings was similar to his own:  he encouraged us not to be afraid and to just go for it.  His biggest tip:  Relax.  He recommended we make big, broad strokes with larger paint brushes.  He also reminded me to use the different shapes of the painting to get a better sense of scale and make the portrait more real.  For example, if you look at someone’s head, you can use the size or shape as a metric for other parts of the portrait.  Maybe the model’s arm is one and a half heads long.  Seeing the relationships between the different parts of the portrait makes it easier to make one coherent image of these parts.

With Garth’s encouragement and advice, I almost finished the large painting of the last model.  This is something I never even came close to in the past.  I felt like I was really able to understand my subject.  Between all of my teachers, I am starting to get less confused.

Shelli Alford is an artist and author, who enjoys learning from master oil painters from around the world and reviewing their classes, workshops and demonstrations.

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