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Zoom Critiques by Susan Lyon

Muriel Christensen, Portrait of Woman with Braid

Original: Muriel Christensen, Portrait of Woman with Braid

I was really impressed with the colors and expression Muriel captured from life at the Palette and Chisel Club under north light. Her drawing is quite good! But I noticed that in the photo of the model, the farther eye is slightly lower than the closer eye—but in her painting, the eyes are exactly level. We talked about how models can gradually settle into the pose over time and slightly tilt their head, but because Muriel was sitting lower than the model, the perspective is creating the illusion of a tilt (just as with a street scene where the tops of the buildings slant downward toward a vanishing point). Holding your brush up horizontally across the model’s eyes is always my first step when starting a portrait to determine this angle. Since the lips are lower, their angle is closer to level. Trust the angles, not what you think you know.

Muriel marvelously captured the essential five darks of the face (eye sockets, under the nose, under the top lip, under the bottom lip, and under the chin). When we paint from life—and especially under soft north light—it can be difficult to detect exactly where that shadow starts. I suggested defining the outside edge of the shadow shape along the side of the face by pushing the halftones closer to the lights and darkening the zigzag shadow under her cheek bone to define the boundary of the light plane and shadow plane. Last, we considered the hierarchy of highlights, with the strongest above her right eyebrow—which is the closest shape to the light—and then descending in intensity and sharpness as the shapes get farther from the light source.

After Critique: Muriel Christensen, Portrait of Woman with Braid

Carlos Martinez, Drawing of a Woman

Original: Carlos Martinez, Drawing of a Woman

I love Carlos’s soft touch with his pastels! He takes his time building the values without going too dark too fast. He captures the hierarchy of light nicely. The few touches I suggested were softening edges to make a light plane without white pencil. Halftones should be very subtle, and the slightest tone will suggest a change in direction. I talked with him about the challenge of using photographs of professional models where the photographer has manipulated the photo to increase contrast and falsely lighten the whites of the eyes for drama and the suggestion of youth. This might work in a stylized photo, but can often ring false in a drawing or painting. In such cases, we must rely on our understanding of light and the planes of the face.

I suggested Carlos look at his drawing and reference upside down, which helps our minds see shapes more clearly. The slight three-quarter turn of her face will show up more readily upside down (since our brains want us to draw faces straight on). Some artists use a mirror to see such things, but I prefer turning them upside down.

I think his modeling ability is excellent, and my suggestions were mainly about toning down the contrast in the eye sockets. When we work on one area for a while, it’s difficult to see the balance of the whole face. The small highlights on the lower eye lids and tear ducts should be diminished so they don’t bring the eyes forward. It’s important to show the full shape of the lower lid and the full size of the eyes (people with big eyes will often have a more pronounced shape). Softening the edges in the eye socket will make the eye look more realistic. The next thing we talked about was suggesting the diamond shape of the cheek plane with a very light value going down at an angle along the front of the cheek. The last touch was softening the edges around the hair—especially at the top of the head to keep that contrasty edge from competing with the center of attention, which is usually the triangle of the eyes and nose on a front-on portrait.

After Critique: Carlos Martinez, Drawing of a Woman

Meghan McCall, Son

Original: Meghan McCall, Son

This is a beautiful drawing of Meghan’s son. She has such a gentle touch with charcoal! Anyone can see this artist is darn good and, to be honest, it works perfectly well as is. Still, she was frustrated with it, so I thought about how changing a few minor things could increase its dramatic impact. She didn’t need any drawing changes at all, but darkening the hood and softening the eyes accentuated the soft outdoor-light effect. Even though this little boy has brown eyes, darkening the eye lashes too much risks a mascara look. It’s tricky getting that shape dark enough, but not too contrast-y.

The other small tweak I suggested was lightening the hair on top where the light source is strongest—and de-emphasizing the halftones on the sides of the nose to keep them firmly anchored in the light pattern. I felt the combination of darkening the hood to frame his face, and then lightening the halftones within the face, creates a more dramatic light-dark design for the angelic mood Meghan captured.

After Critique: Meghan McCall, Son

Mary Martin, Portrait of the Women with Blonde Hair

Original: Mary Martin, Portrait of the Women with Blonde Hair

I love how Mary paints and draws at the same time—from a live model! My main suggestion was softening and darkening the side of the face in the shadow. (Keep in mind, when I work on images in Photoshop for critiques, the changes look softer, but I’m mainly talking about values. I love all of Mary’s colors and juicy brush work, and I don’t want her to smooth them out! Mary paints with a freedom that most of us strive for.)

My second suggestion was a stronger dark on the inside of the nose and the eyebrow (on the eye closest to us). She probably blocked in a good starting value, but as she blocked in more darks, it looked too light. This happens—our first strokes look dark enough on the light canvas, but then need adjusting as we go on. Keep squinting and comparing and stepping back to see the whole throughout the entire painting!

To make the left side of the face recede, I slightly darkened and softened the eye in the shadow, put a darker halftone between the hair and the skin along the left side, and strengthened the planes of the bone turning into the eye socket on the right. Where planes of the face reveal bone underneath, you usually have a sharper edge.

After Critique: Mary Martin, Portrait of the Women with Blonde Hair

Bety Paulin, Self Portrait Drawing

Original: Bety Paulin, Self Portrait Drawing

Bety is very talented, eager to learn, and soaks up every bit of information! I wanted to talk about this drawing because the suggestions I made to her are universal. Every artist gets the halftones too dark—we can’t help it! This is especially important when trying to capture subjects that require a very soft, sensitive feel. I constantly put in halftones, then take them out, then put more in, then take them out again—it’s a Ferris wheel going round and round. I constantly remind myself that halftones are in the light!

As we soften our shadow edges, the halftone values often drift too dark, as has happened with this drawing. All I did was lighten the value of those turning planes into the larger light pattern which brightens her face and changes her expression without changing the drawing. I also softened and lightened her more distant eyebrow to help it turn.

She has dramatic features, and the lighting accentuates the contrast, but we must consider the hierarchy of values. The darks in the mouth are less important than the eyes, so I lightened them even though they look equally dark in the photograph. I also softened the lower eyelashes (outlining the eyes with a dark line artificially ages the face). Toning down the smile lines keeps these halftones in the light and is more natural and flattering. The last thing was toning down the neck and the chest to keep the focus on the face.

After Critique: Bety Paulin, Self Portrait Drawing

If you would like Susan to offer an advanced, personal critique your work, this service can be found on her Patreon page at

Susan Lyon, inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keefe, enrolled in the American Academy of Art in Chicago to study painting. She first exhibited work with the historic Palette and Chisel group and at the age of twenty-three, she became the youngest winner of their Gold Medal. Working primarily in the mediums of oil and charcoal, her focus of her work is to represent common still life objects in challenging and original ways. Currently residing in North Carolina with fellow artist and husband, Scott Burdick, Susan Lyon seeks to create art that engages the viewer and “makes them smile”.

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