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How to paint a portrait

by Barb Boose No Comments

To capture someone’s face on canvas, trust your eyes. “Most of us look at things and see not what they look like, but what we think they’re supposed to look like,” says Gary Hoff, D.O., FACOI, FACC, chair of DMU’s medical humanities and bioethics department.

Carefully observing one’s subject is key in painting and drawing. Hoff knows: In addition to his careers in cardiology and academia, he’s shown and sold his works in one-man shows, group shows and art festivals. Several of his paintings are displayed on campus. He has an online gallery, Heartland Studio. Last year, he joined with staff of the Des Moines Art Center to offer DMU students an elective course on introductory figure drawing.

“The purpose of the course is not just to teach them to draw, but to get them to observe critically,” he says. “Studies have shown medical students exposed to this sort of program do better in their diagnostic skills.”

Hoff paints or draws 20 to 30 hours per week. He does landscapes and scenes, but his favorite subject is people. His advice:

  • Drawing is all about lines; painting is all about patches of color. When painting a portrait, don’t draw a line for the person’s head; rather, consider the colors of the person’s face, hair and clothing.
  • In portraiture, the artist “has to do more than just represent someone – you have to say something about the person,” Hoff says. That might be done through the subject’s eyes, expression, stance or the setting.
  • Put in the time. “If you look at a book on how to paint, it makes it look so simple,” Hoff says. “What it won’t show you is the middle where the artist is tearing his hair out and kicking the wall. Overcoming that struggle is the reward.”
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