Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Working the whole composition

2009 . 11 . 16 - Comments / Commentaires (10)

- -—[version française]—- -

One of the the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about painting came from Alexandra Hirsch, an instructor at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. I was barely 16 and studying acrylics formally for the first time by taking Alex’s Continuing Education painting class. I was working on a self-portrait and having trouble with the background, an abstract color field. Alex approached my easel and recommended I take some of the color I had mixed for my cheek or my eye and put a dab of it here and there in the rest of the composition as a way of tying the whole together.


Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas board
14 x 18 inches

As you can see, the results were not all that spectacular at the time, but in the last 10 years or so I’ve figured out just what Alex meant. It’s safe to say that I still paint by her words. I make it a point to work the whole composition every time I put brush to canvas or panel.

how to paint a miniature portrait

This method comes naturally when working on miniatures, like this one which measures just 7 by 5 inches.

how to paint a miniature portrait

In a few brushstrokes, the entire composition is changed drastically.

how to paint a miniature portrait

It’s exciting and sometimes unnerving how quickly the painting evolves when there’s only a small surface to work…

how to paint a miniature portrait

...but it’s also a good reminder of why working the whole composition is essential even with bigger paintings.

how to paint a miniature portrait

Focusing on just one area of the painting at a time isolates it from the rest of the dynamic. It makes for a very disjointed or even mannered look.

how to paint a miniature portrait

Reworking the whole piece every time I touch it is sometimes scary, especially when I’m convinced that I’m on the right track like I was here.

how to paint a miniature portrait

But, by the time I got here…

how to paint a miniature portrait

...and even here…

how to paint a miniature portrait

...I was aware that certain aspects of the painting a few process shots back would never have worked out.

how to paint a miniature portrait

Working this way is a discipline of not-getting-too-attached.

how to paint a miniature portrait

It’s akin to the ceramicist who, to some degree, must kiss her-his pot goodbye when it goes into the kiln.

how to paint a miniature portrait

There’s always the possibility of a complete overhaul…

how to paint a miniature portrait

...or even a complete do-over!

how to paint a miniature portrait

Nothing is finished…

how to paint a miniature portrait


Gwenn Seemel's miniature self-portrait on panel

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on panel
7 x 5 inches
(detail below)

detail image of a miniature portrait on panel

...it’s finished!

- On starting and finishing
- A funny kind of family
- When does repeating oneself become a style?

CATEGORIES: - English - TOP POSTS - Practice - Process images -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

(10) Comments / Commentaires: Working the whole composition

-- lisa rindfleisch -- 2009 . 11 . 17 --

i never new you had a gap in your
two front teeth. great lesson. i
loved it.  l.

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-- Rob Robinson -- 2011 . 12 . 02 --

Great point, Gwenn. Enjoyed the series of photos; definitely a fun self-portrait.

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-- Allison -- 2012 . 06 . 05 --

AH! I love this, Gwenn! I love how you show the process of the painting in between your words. It looks really awesome.
The story about your professor is great, too. I definitely feel like there was a teacher I had back in college who really helped shape my art and gave me lessons about color and composition that I use all of the time. I can definitely relate to the way you work with color, and I can sympathize with trying not to get too attached to your work. Loved the comparison of the ceramicist to their clay, too.
Thanks for this post! I’m going to go tweet it and facebook it now. smile

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-- Chloe -- 2014 . 07 . 29 --

I agree 100% that a painting should be painted as a whole, and what I admit is that I struggle with this concept..I’ll have part of it planned out perfectly but the rest never quite seems to fit. In particular working on my ‘solutean’ style paintings this is a barrier that I hit often, so less than half the concepts ever make it to canvas…

Could I show you some examples and perhaps you could help me out? I think an insight would really help and you have a lot of colour and dynamic which I see in my own works too.

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 07 . 30 --

From what I can tell from your site, Chloe, you have a couple of different ways of working. Sometimes more painterly and sometimes more graphic with clear distinction between color areas. It’s going to be easier to work the whole composition with your more painterly output and I think you do that a lot. I’m not sure what you mean by your “solutean” paintings. Maybe you could point me to that work?

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-- Chloe -- 2014 . 07 . 30 --

Hi Gwenn, Really appreciate your feedback. I’m referring to the paintings under the endangered species collection here. http://www.canidaeart.com/#!gallery/ckiy

I would like to combine the graphic style with perhaps more dynamic backgrounds, perhaps a bit more of a composition…

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 08 . 04 --

It sounds like you know what you’re after, and, as far as I can tell, it seems like you’re doing what you describe with the painted dogs piece and the scimitar one too. Is that true? Do you feel like those are more what you’re looking to do?

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-- chloe -- 2014 . 08 . 05 --

Hi Gwenn,

Yes your right, however when it comes to adding greater complexity of figures or detailed backgrounds etc the composition seems to get lost.

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-- cathy hasty -- 2016 . 05 . 02 --

I have always struggled with “unity” in terms of composition and this is a great reminder.  Your work illustrates both unity in each piece and as a body of work.  I love it!

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-- Gwenn -- 2016 . 05 . 04 --

Thank you, Cathy! It’s funny how one little lesson so early on can shape an artist so fully…

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