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How the hell do you compose a face?

In an earlier blogpost I talked about Titian’s great skills of composition. Here I want to show that even when he paints a face he is composing, trying like crazy to create a feeling of rightness, of harmony. 
 
Most people would say a portrait is good if it looks like the person, and the closer it looks like the person, the better it is. Hmm. On the left is a convincingly accurate painting of a little old lady, which I found on the internet. It is copied from a newspaper photo. On the right is a detail of this portrait by Titian. 
 
Although the first is an accurate depiction, carefully painted, there are a number of reasons why we see the Titian as a more polished performance. One striking reason is Titian’s use of glazes, which gives his portrait luminous depths, while the other has a chalkiness due to the overuse of white – almost a hallmark of the amateur painter. “White in the shadows is the death of a painting” as Rubens once said. But the main reason we feel the Titian to be a “better” painting,  I think,  is because he has composed it.
 
What does composition mean? With Titian it means dividing his pictures into clear shapes, which then rhyme, echo and flow into each other. He creates clear shapes by two means – by having strong contrasts of light and dark; and by making sure that that demarcation between light and dark, that line, is always smooth and clean – it is never wobbly or uncertain. 
 
When faced with an ungainly shape, Titian will do whatever he can to make something crystal clear out of it. Look at the right side of the face in this portrait. He has put it into shadow, making the straight line of the nose the dominating outline. It’s a clever idea and it’s something Titian does a lot. He then rhymes this line beautifully with the diagonal hairlines on both sides of the face, as well as the right side of the forehead. The big diagonal of hair along his forehead rhymes with the eyebrow curling off his nose and the line of moustache underneath it. It also seems to flow into the curling semi-circle of his hair at the back of his head on the left. It’s difficult to see in the small image above but the edge of the dark curve under his chin is not beard but the bottom of his curled hair. This curve keeps sliding, unbroken, up along his beardline and the crease of his neck. Have a look at the full portrait again and you will see more of these rhymes and rhythms. It is an education.
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