In working with portraits, necks are a notorious challenge to most artists. There is a tendency to simplify the division between the head and neck with a simple line. And this line, if not placed EXACTLY right, and if not the EXACT shape, can make your entire image look awkward and unrealistic.
Why are we tempted to do this?
Because our brains tell us to!
When you were a kid and were drawing people, you separated the head (which was an oval) from the neck (which was two parallel lines) and this represented the head and neck. Good enough for a kid. Much better than scribbles. Good symbolic representation of a head and neck, in fact it is a pretty universal representation.
But when you make the move to realism you must let go of symbolism. You need to begin not only seeing, but understanding the structure of your subject matter. This is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact it is fun and exciting. It will open up your eyes to the magic that is around you.
I guess this is why I love art so very much. It invites me to explore and rewards me for my curiosity. So in this article I will share with you some interesting ways to look at chins and necks. And despite the fact that we are discussing chins and necks, it is my hope that this will help you become aware of other places these same situations occur so that you strengthen not only your burnings but your powers of observation.
Shapes and Values
Necks are areas of transition from one plane to another. But unlike a box, there are no sharp corners. Instead we are dealing with convex and concave surfaces that undulate sometimes gently and sometimes harshly, casting shadows that represent their form.
In order to break down this vast amount of visual information we need a way to separate and categorize what we see. The simplest way to do this is to separate your values (I use 5 or 7, going from black to unburned wood as my white).
When you look at your reference how can you separate this chin and neck area into values and shapes throughout the transition?
It helps to make a photocopy of your reference. A photocopy machine will shorten the range of values you see on a photograph. Going from color to black and white shortens it even more.
In workshops I explain to my students a technique that I call “generational simplification”. This means that each time I make a photocopy (one generation) from a copy (another generation) I cut down on the amount of detail that is left behind. Each copy of a copy simplifies the image. After a few copies I can begin to really see the Shapes of each Value. I will lose some detail but I also simplify the information enough that I can begin to really see and define what is there.
At this time you will begin to notice reflected light on the chin, you will see which areas are dark, medium dark, medium, light medium, etc. By over-simplifying you create a map of values to guide you. This is how I learned to paint portraits in oil back in the day (I began my art career as an oil painter specializing in realistic human portraiture).
This will serve as a starting point, as you work you will blend these areas together so they no longer look like a topographical map but like skin. But the important part of handling the transition from chin to neck will have been resolved.
Eventually you will learn to see these subtleties naturally, but at the beginning it is helpful to map it out. I hope this little technique of “generational simplification” helps you make sense out of this critical area and assists you in elevating your burnings to a higher degree of realism.