During Covid-19 lockdown there has been an even greater need to stretch one’s imagination in order to fuel creativity. While some have taken a closer look at their homes and lockdown companions as a source of inspiration, there has also been a rise in popularity in the Portrait via Zoom. Increasing numbers of artists are calling up potential sitters, or joining in portrait painting classes online in order to paint alongside and communicate with fellow artists, while painting live models from a computer screen. But is it worthwhile, creatively fulfilling and fun? These six artists say a resounding yes. Read on for their accounts and a list of life and portrait painting sessions you might like to sign up to.
Primarily I like to draw and paint from life as much as possible so when the lock down came into place I initially found things really difficult. After a week or so of struggling to produce much work, an artist I follow on Instagram shared some work he had produced via an online website who are running weekly online portrait sittings throughout the lockdown. I decided to try and use this lockdown period constructively and give it a go. I set myself a challenge that during this lockdown period I would attempt to spend roughly 45 minutes to an hour every day producing a portrait sketch to try and improve my observational and drawing skills. Whilst it isn’t quite the same as working from life, I have found it to be a highly enjoyable and rewarding experience.
The main challenge initially was the technology. Trying to draw from a small screen like a phone or tablet computer can be quite tricky and I found it infinitely better once I had worked out a way to cast my computer screen to my TV so I could view the model at pretty much life size. You don’t exactly get the same experience as having the model in the room and it can be difficult to get a feel for the persons character. As a practice tool though I have found it to be pretty good and I have noticed some improvement in my observational skills. The best thing about this way of working is the connections and feedback from other artists by sharing your work through social platforms like Instagram using a relevant hashtag. You can see work created by other artists of the same models and comment on each others work, so it’s like having an art class of hundreds of people to learn from and share work with.
Following on from this work I have also taken part in the weekly Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Week via their Facebook live feed and also worked on a few portraits via WhatsApp and Zoom. I started a portrait of my mum over Christmas and hadn’t had time to work on finishing it with them not living locally, but by using technology I have been able to finish it over a few weekends of the lockdown. Whilst it might not be the ideal way to work I have found using various social platforms a good alternative to my usual routine and one I would highly recommend to anyone struggling to produce art whilst in lockdown.
With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, I was surprised how quickly artists found ways to continue their teaching, painting and communicating virtually. Not long after stay-at-home orders were in place, I got together with a group of my artist friends on Zoom for a virtual happy hour. Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso, a talented artist in New Jersey, suggested that we organize a Zoom drawing session to support models who wouldn’t be able to work in person. A group of approximately 30 artists all chipped in $5 for a two-hour session. The model posed in front of his computer as a Zoom participant, and we were able to get some much-needed drawing practice!
What makes virtual portraiture beneficial is that despite working from a 2D image, you still use the same improvisational skills that you would use drawing from life. Unlike working from a photo, the model moves slightly making it challenging to adapt to changes in expression and gesture. Changes in light and position are variables that you experience working from life and help you become a skilled artist. One can also use a straight edge to measure the proportions in the model just as you would in person. However, artists need to be careful about distortion from the camera. It can unrealistically change the size of objects nearer to the lens.
The best part of working virtually is the opportunity to work with your peers. I enjoy the rituals that carry over to the virtual forum, from deciding on a dynamic pose and making sure the position doesn’t change to thanking the model at the end of the session. I also like the convenience of online painting sessions. One deterrence of painting from life is that it takes time to gather all your materials and commute to the location. With online sessions, it’s much easier to set up quickly from your home and fit it into a busy schedule.
Not only are there group sessions to paint from a model, but it is also possible to work on a portrait commission this way. The person commissioning the piece can work with the artist to set up an attractive pose. It may not be as ideal as working from life, but it is another way to use technology during this time.
Many schools are offering free or affordable portrait-painting sessions online now. I love how easy it is to participate no matter where you are located. When the lockdown ends, I hope that online drawing sessions will continue to be an option. Before the pandemic, I only painted from a model occasionally, and now, I am thrilled to have the chance a few times a week.
I recently painted my first few portraits via live streaming on the internet (in this case through Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Week on Facebook). I was one of nearly two thousand artists that painted along with the program from their homes in lockdown. I think we all really enjoyed the sense of community working in this way.
Most of the portrait commissions I do are from photo references, so the bonus of having live footage really added to the process. You get a better feel for the person physically and their personality. It is a modern convenient way to paint portraits and one I would recommend. We’re all using Zoom/FaceTime etc. to stay connected in these strange times and this is another creative use for it.
I was impressed watching the artist Jonathan Yeo painting portraits via FaceTime and streaming it on Instagram… talented and techie!
My preference would still be to work from life where you have more control of lighting and where you can get up close if needs be to see all the subtleties of tone in the face, but the digital experience comes close enough for me.
My tips for working this way are:
- Have all your paints etc. set up. Perhaps have some paint already mixed if you tend to use a lot of paint.
- I would recommend using two screens.
– I use my iPad on an extendable arm attached to my easel and my phone. I took a few screenshots at the beginning with my phone and watched the livestream on my iPad. This works well for reference if you have any tech problems or a fidgety sitter!
I think I would paint via FaceTime post lockdown, it’s just nice to be in the comfort of your own studio and I think the combination of a FaceTime sitting and then finishing the painting from photos in your own time could work well for me.
Being a portrait painter who prefers to work from life, lockdown has required creative thinking and a certain compromise. With the ease of using online video platforms on the internet I have found a new way of working that has pleasantly surprised me.
My work in the past has involved working mostly from life, backed up with sketches and photo reference. I have always found that JUST working from photos doesn’t have the same appeal or gives me enough information as meeting and drawing a person in the flesh.
The first weeks of lockdown were spent using photographic reference as a form of study and practice, but it was watching Jonathan Yeo’s live YouTube portrait painting demos that was a ‘light bulb moment’ about using the internet to paint a ‘live’ sitter.
This came just at a time when I received a new portrait commission and so gave it a go and it’s working really well. I was able to chat to the sitter, watch them move, see their environment, get a sense of who they are and gather all the necessary background needed for a good portrait including sketches and screen shots. To form some sort of relationship between painter and sitter for me is fairly critical… although I do realise that sometimes it really isn’t possible.
Having been an attendee and a facilitator of numerous life drawing and portrait sessions over the years I have also missed that wonderful camaraderie found in a life room when everyone is working together. As of yet I have not attended any Zoom classes but have been painting along to the Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Week sessions every Sunday. It’s a great format as that studio camaraderie that I’ve been missing is right there. You get to really ‘meet’ the sitter with regular Q&A chat going on as well as great working tips from the artist painting along plus the knowledge that artists from all over the world are right there with you. There is a real buzz about the session and it’s great to feel part of an artistic global community.
An added bonus of the lockdown are the numerous learning resources that have suddenly become so available. I have already undertaken a few live demos and Q&A sessions with high calibre artists without having to travel to all parts of the UK. I have taken something very useful from each one.
The Zoom demo allowed me to actually meet and interact with the artist as the session progressed. The only downside was the quality of the streaming which at times was quite blurred. The live demos via YouTube were beautifully clear, but this may be due to better lighting and camera equipment. The only disadvantage of this format is that any direct questions are asked via a live chat feed so may not get answered – but I didn’t find this too much of a problem.
All in all, I have found that old adage ’necessity is the mother of invention’ has really pushed me into a new and exciting way of working as a portrait artist. Once we re-enter a world where we can meet up face-to-face and have ‘live’ portrait sessions, I’m sure that will still be my preferred way of working. However, I am also sure that I will take some of these new methods of working with me and continue to use them alongside live sittings.
I also run an art school: https://www.drawingroom.online
I’m an advocate of life drawing/painting for its immediacy, the camaraderie with the other artists, the beautiful tension that the artist feels attempting to capture that most wondrous and multi-faceted subject of the human face. Many of us now confined in our homes, our paintbrushes, pens, pencils, pastels, seeking muses and inspiration, are discovering that the internet is offering amazing options through such things as Zoom, livestream, etc. Personally I have not stopped creating because of this plethora of offerings. For example, this month I am actively enjoying Sky Arts’ Portrait of the Year program each Sunday where former years’ winners give us an over-the-shoulder look into their creative processes as they paint their celebrity sitter. The screen’s side column fills with questions, encouragement, kindnesses from other artists around the world.
In addition, individual master artists (@nataliafabia @andrewtischler @alonsaguevara) are opening their studios to us to create and learn along with them. To maximise my time, I treat each session I participate in exactly as I would my time in the studio with a live model. I have several different sized canvasses prepared, my basic palette laid out, my hubby made aware. I take some quick screenshots of the model because I know I will not finish in the time allotted. In charcoal the features are sketched and then the darks blocked in with a transparent wash. Sometimes I have time to begin my initial colour strokes. It is exciting to be able to learn and create alongside these very accomplished artists and to listen to them as they struggle and seek to find solutions to the problems we all deal with in portraiture. This is a difficult time we are all going through. How fortunate and important it is to have art in this world.
I have found painting models, friends and family on Zoom to be an interesting challenge. Originally, I started the project to combat the isolation I am finding myself in during lockdown in NYC. But, as I got more involved in the paintings, I started to appreciate the abstract grid format of the zoom screen and began including the highly saturated rectangle of colour found on the ‘screen share’ button. I loved the grid of the rectangle designated by the Zoom format. This has became a compositional challenge that keeps me engaged in the work.
Zoom does not provide particularly high resolution on its screens. I find this to be an interesting limitation that actually lends itself well to my somewhat open and gestural painting style. I have 2 main modes of working. I will often take screenshots of friends and family (with their consent). This allows me to work for a long time on one still image. I also paint from “live” portrait and nude figure sessions. I am also part of a bi-weekly portrait painting group that meets to paint the same model who sits in real time as part of a livestream on Zoom . It is organised by Liz Adams (@lizthebeetle). There is a meditative quality to painting the same person so regularly.
I find the subtle movements that happen on a livestream to be similar to the subtle movements of working from life. I have noticed this phenomenon in the figure drawing class I teach at Adelphi University. It has also been running on Zoom with models – mostly doing clothed poses. The students are grateful for the access to real time interactions with models.
As for technique, I like having the ability to take linear measurements on a computer screen while painting, I find this useful and more direct than measuring form. I also find the way the computer monitor simplifies colours into groupings of similar tones and hues useful for quick interpretations in colour when painting. It does some of the simplifying and abstract colour organising that we painters often do. It can have a similar effect as the act of squinting our eyes to simplify values when we paint from life.
I am currently working on a series of small, equally sized paintings that will function as a larger grid of paintings, and reflect this zoom format.
Online Figure and Portrait Resources
Live and free on Sundays for the next 4 Sundays, 10am – 2pm and a recording is available throughout the week.
Sessions on Sunday afternoons.
On Saturday 23rd May and Tuesday 26th May with London Drawing Founder Anne Noble-Partridge.
On Mondays and Wednesdays.
On Tuesday 26th May.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Classes and Workshops available via Zoom, click link for further information.
Currently fully booked but you can sign up to keep up to date with future sessions.
A number of online Portrait Painting demonstrations with Tim Benson and Andrew James are available to book places on in May and June.
Header image: by Brooks Frederick, oil on clayboard panel, 40.6 x 50.8 cm