Playing with Knives

This week I am going to catch you up on the last three weeks of my class in painting the contemporary portrait.  (At the NH Institute of Art, with Cameron Bennett)  I have talked about this class before, but we didn’t have a live model then.  Now we do.  In fact, for the last two classes we have had two models to choose from–Rebecca and Randy.

This would be my fourth portrait of Rebecca over the past couple of years, but the first completely in profile.  Not exactly my choice–in my absence (Florida), a makeup class was scheduled.  The day before I flew South,  we had had a snowstorm here in NH and strangely, that class got cancelled.  (Strangely, because it wasn’t all that much of a snowstorm but it was almost the only one we got all winter, and a big deal was made of it.)  My Florida trip, so carefully planned to coincide with the Institute’s vacation week, cost me a class after all, and when I showed up the following week (in time for class despite a flight cancellation and rerouting to Boston), it was to find all the prime spots around the model had been claimed the week before.Each class is three hours long.  Three hours on a portrait of a live model is not very long at all.  A total of 4 classes had been scheduled for Rebecca’s pose.

Because the idea of this course is to do something outside the box (you know, “contemporary?”), I decided to try  using only palette knives.  I took one picture on my phone before all the canvas was covered:

WIP No. 1

At the end of that first session of three hours, I took home this version of Rebecca’s profile:

I was happy with the freshmess, the vivid red, the clear skin tone, the sharp edges.  I thought I was finished, except for a few minor details.  Eye too high, for example.  The likeness needed to be improved a little–Cameron suggested exaggerating the size of her eyes and mouth, then carving back on them in order to get closer to accurate.  He also complained about the harshness of the shadow on her neck.  I expected to be able to fix those items in perhaps an hour, then be on my way to something new.

Becky, WIP No. 3

Notice the earring?  I don’t think she was wearing it the week before, but now that she was, I had to bring it in, with its delicious shadow.  In this version, her lips are exaggerated.  I spent that entire 3-hour class bringing the painting to this point. Before the next class I would carve back on the lips, but not the eyes :

Becky, No. 4. Final?

Above is the portrait as I presented it  for critique at our last class.  I wondered if perhaps I had overworked the painting as compared to the underdone 3-hour version.   Nobody seemed to endorse that thought, but as a result of the critique,  I do intend to do something about the background on the right side–it is too flat and dull.

The critique having used up our first hour of class, we had only two hours left to work on actual painting.  I got a spot in front of Randy, our other model, and went to work, knives flying.  Cameron came around and suggested that I take photos as I progressed over the two hours:


There’s no white canvas showing because I slathered paint all over the canvas before starting to carve out the figure.  That was my new out-of-the-box experiment for this week.  Cameron saw what I was doing, and advised me to start the figure by scraping away the excess paint.  Otherwise I was going to be in for a big headache, trying to paint over thick, wet paint base.  I might have come to that conclusion myself, perhaps the hard way.  (Doing it wrong first.)


Here I was just trying to get biggest stuff (features) in the general proximity of where they should be.  Ear, nose, chin, neck.


Getting close.  Eyes too close together.


This, my final version (I think). shows his mouth finished and his right eye moved to the left.  See–I even signed it over there on the left.  My model claimed that he liked it.  Nose is too long, however.   Nose length is something I have trouble with–always too long.  If I were going  for the best possible likeness, and had more than two hours, I hope I would have scraped out half the face and started over with a smaller nose.  Which half?  Tough choice.

Likenesses notwithstanding, Cameron likes this portrait of Randy better than my portrait of Rebecca.  My granddaughter, however, displayed some funk, complaining that she could not see the features.  Obviously too young to see outside the box.  (Don’t worry–she won’t see this–she doesn’t read my blog.)

I’m happy about both paintings, but I do think I am happier with Randy.  Perhaps that is just the power of Cameron’s suggestion.

What is it about painting with the palette knife that appeals to me?  Mostly, it keeps me from getting bogged down in details. Because as much as I love the details, I love more to see how the merest suggestion of form is enough for the brain (well, most brains) to translate into form.  It’s magic.  Details of a different magnitude are still vitally important–if a single stroke of light can create the impression of an eyelid, so can such a stroke in the wrong place create a lantern jaw.  Done that.

Aline Lotter is currently exhibiting:

at the Gallery at 100 Market Street in Portsmouth; at the Sage Gallery in Manchester; at the Hatfield Gallery in Manchester; at the Bartlett Inn in Bartlett; at the Red Jacket Inn in North Conway; and at her studio by appointment.

Link to website:

4 responses to “Playing with Knives

  1. Your #3 painting of Becky is realyl really good. I love the white highlights on her face-they make the face glisten. The male portrait seems unfinished, but perhaps that’s what you intended. How far you’ve come!!


  2. I think the only difference between Becky 3 and Becky 4, besides the lips, is in the photography. Photos are not perfect replicas of the artwork (thanks be to God), so each is imperfect in its own way. I need to show you the original and see what you think.


  3. Great “knife” work! I know how difficult it can be to get the details for a portrait right, since that is how I painted for many years exclusively. The nice part is, if done right you get a clean impression of the subject assuming you wipe your knife off after every stroke. Try it on your next landscape and you may be surprise at the result.