Part 3, project 2, exercise 4: Looking at faces – conveying character

Updated on 11 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and changes to content).

17 August 2016. This exercise should be my home territory as a caricaturist, but I do not want to take the obvious route here. A normal caricature does not usually aim at conveying character by a careful choice of painting materials and techniques. Most people working in this field tend to develop a recognizable style with an unchanging set of methods, many stay with watercolours and/or ink as I have done for a while now (Lacher-Bryk, 2017) or opt for computer-aided drawing. The latter are now often preferred by the media, because they tend to look neat and clean and the reproducing of colour is more straightforward. I think that this is not my way, I feel uncomfortable with the computer between me and my developing work. But also, one of my main goals in studying with the OCA is to acquire the skills required to create large scale satirical paintings. This is a field of painting with a short history and only few artists, where William Hogarth (1697-1764, UK) is my favourite for his keen talent of observation and courage to tackle controversial subjects at his time in history (see e.g. “The Humours of an Election”, c. 1755). I have not been able to find many comparable approaches. Throughout the history of painting most works labelled satirical are not what I am planning to do, since – very likely for the good reason of the painter wanting to keep his head on his neck – the satire is usually hidden behind symbols almost impossible to interpret correctly by the everyday viewer without professional guidance. In contemporary art of Germany and Austria we have now a relatively young tradition of high quality satirical painting. My absolute favourites from Austria are Horst Haitzinger (*1939) and Gerhard Haderer (*1951, see e.g. Karikaturmuseum Krems (2016)), and Ernst Kahl (Galerie Richter, n.d.)) from Germany for their talent and wonderful intelligence. The Salzburg Museum der Moderne has just opened an exhibition on satirical drawings over the last 200 years (Salzburg Museum der Moderne, 2016). Hopefully I will find the time to go and see it.

So, what is in the task of “conveying character”? It most certainly is not about capturing some fleeting expression on a face, but about carefully studying the character of a person and pick an expression which reveals that part of a character I need to convey the message of my painting. If the painting is a portrait only without surroundings to help the viewer interpret the facial expression, it is important to be quite familiar with the personality and habits of the portrayed person. This is the reason why most portrait caricaturists pick world famous persons as their subjects and which is what I need to do here for the same reason.

18 August 2016. A few days ago I made a caricature of Donald Trump, whose campaign has been given me a constant headache (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Donald Trump

His personality and intentions are an utter mystery to me and so I decided that I would stay with the subject for this exercise. Looking at his life, the least one can say about him is that he is a colourful character, which translates into “schillernde Persönlichkeit” in German, an expression well suited to transport a marked ambivalence. “Schillernd” means “iridescent” and this connects directly with mother-of-pearl. What I would like to try out in this portrait exercise is to find a way to capture this pearly iridescence with paint and see whether this, together with creating a likeness, can be interpreted by a viewer in the intended way.

Next I had a look at hints on how to paint iridescence. What I found was, to summarize, that this goal is futile, since iridescence is a structural property (Remsen, 2013). I should have known better, since in my museum work I came across this subject more than once, but in this exercise I am not after a technique allowing me to imitate iridescence by buying pearl effect paint, mixing in mica (Art Apprentice Online, 2011) and such like. My aim is to create an impression close enough to allow viewers a correct interpretation of my intentions. My first exercise was thus one aimed at analysing the systematics behind iridescence. To this end I looked for photographs of Paua (abalone, Haliotis iris) shells and a scientific explanation for their properties (Tan et al., 2004): The nacre is made up of stacks of thin crystalline calcium carbonate platelets, on which interference and diffraction occur to produce the rainbow-like unfolding of the spectrum.

In a first attempt at copying part of the shell I noticed a regular succession of colours despite the seemingly random “waves” (Fig. 2-3):

Figure 2. Sketchbook – examining the properties of Paua iridescence
Figure 3. A first attempt at imitating colour succession

The Paua pattern is however far too strong to be used in a portrait. So I went to look up  materials such as artificial iridescent fabrics, all of which work by applying the principles of thin layer interference and diffraction (not to be confused with the sheen in silk, which is made by using two different colours in weaving) (Fig. 4 below) In all of them the spectrum of colours is identical and follows the folds in a predictable manner. I chose a one of these for comparison and then tried to apply the principles on a printout of Donald Trump’s face, using watercolour pencils (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Sketchbook – Iridescence in fabric and the visible spectrum

The colour sequence was as follows: White in direct reflection, then with a fold bending away from the vertical first violet, followed by blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Following this principle I first identified on a printed photo the parts of Trump’s face perpendicular to my line of view and coloured them white because of the direct reflection from these areas. With increasing angle between my line of view and part of the face I changed the colours in rainbow-fashion to end up with dark red. I am not sure, whether my interpretation is correct in all places, but it gives the face the appearance I am after (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. Sketchbook – Applying the principles of iridescence to Donald Trump’s face

With the above drawing as a reference I decided to try and paint Trump’s portrait with a pearly appearance. Since the above colours are still far too bright for my intentions, I needed to find out first whether a layer of fresh acrylic painting medium would make a good surface for paint to float on.

21 August 2016. The experiments with the acrylic medium went a lot better than thought and so the finished painting is forming in my mind. I am going to paint the portrait in the shape of an actual pearl in situ, while still in its mussel. A pearl forms to coat and render harmless any noxious objects inside a mussel and so the ambiguous analogy with the Republican Party as the mussel and Trump as its pearl seems rather nice.

Here are my experiments with the acrylic medium: On a white background layer I put a rather thick layer of acrylic medium, on which I first “floated” streaks of paint (two bottom images). Since these were still too bright, I diluted them down to near transparent and in a new field mixed the streaks carefully with the painting medium laid down in circles, one with a thin film of medium (top left), one with a thick layer (top right). This way I produced an effect near enough a pearly sheen without the aid of iridescent paint. What my scanner unfortunately fails to reproduce is the shimmering surface in the top righthand image (Fig. 6):

Figure 6. Sketchbook – Using acrylic painting medium to “float” paint

With the above results in mind I prepared my canvas, an 80 x 40 cm painting carton. This I covered with a cloudy background layer mixed loosely of Paynes grey and a yellow-pink mussel flesh colour. When dry I added a layer of white off centre, where the pearl was going to sit (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. Prepared background

On the white I loosely sketched Trump’s face with dilute paint, then started the experiment with floating paint on the acrylic medium (Fig. 8). Since the adding of paint to the acrylic medium is something which has to be watched closely and corrected while drying, I decided that I would work my way forward in small steps rather than painting the face in one go. At first I was far too hesitant and this is obvious on the forehead and the area around the eyes. It was far more difficult to achieve a pearly sheen that way and also I had not anticipated that the flowing effect would not be as smooth on the canvas as it had been on the paper in my sketchbook. When I had developed some more confidence, it was easier to float the paint, but then it became difficult to control the colours. I ended up with the brightness I had set out to avoid. Only with some more experience, on Trump’s hair, the effect started to show. Then however the acrylic medium began to form bubbles for no obvious reason (top righthand corner).

Figure 8. Painting Donald Trump’s face using the “floating” technique

Here is a side view of the face to give an idea of the shiny surface (Fig. 9):

Figure 9. Side view of painting in progress

23 August 2016. I left this layer to dry completely, then covered the whole drawing plus the rest of the “pearl” with a very dilute mix of acrylic medium and the set of colours used to paint the face.

24 August 2016. The covering with dilute mixes of acrylic medium and paint I repeated about five times. Then I changed the background of the painting to resemble roughly the view out of a half-open giant clam. Here is the finished painting and some details (Fig. 10-13):

Figure 10. Finished painting
Figure 11. Detail of the inside of Trump’s shell

I am quite happy about the pearl-like quality of the portrait, although the person would very likely not be recognizable as Donald Trump any more, and the contrast to the normal background painting. It was very difficult to take a photo representing the real colours on the pearl. When taking the photos of the following details I changed the exposure in order to allow the structure of the paint to show up:

Figure 12. Detail of Trump’s face (1)
Figure 13. Detail of Trump’s face (2)

I am not sure what to think of the result. On the one hand the process of developing the idea and technique was great fun and the finished painting was better than I had feared at the start. On the other hand the message I originally want to transport is intimately connected with an instant recognition of the portrayed person, a goal which became less important while painting. But then again it could apply to no one in particular, because the facial expression I was after, one of barely hidden contempt, is very much there.


Art Apprentice Online (2011) Acrylic Painting Techniques – Mixing Iridescent Acrylic Colors [online]. Art Apprentice Online. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Galerie Richter (n.d.) Ernst Kahl [online]. Galerie Richter, Lütjenburg. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Hogarth, W. (c.1755) Humours of an Election [engraving print on paper] [online]. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Karikaturmuseum Krems (2016) Gerhard Haderer. Think Big! [online]. Karikaturmuseum, Krems. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2016) Political Caricatures [image gallery] [online]. Andrea Lacher-Bryk, Hallein. Available at: [Accessed 11 March 2017]

Remsen, S. (2013) Structural Colour: Why You Can’t Paint Iridescence [blog] [online]. Prospecting Patterns, Boston. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Salzburg Museum der Moderne (2016) Bildwitz und Zeitkritik [online]. Salzburg Museum der Moderne. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]

Tan, T.L., Wong, D. and Lee, P. (2004) Iridescence of a shell of mollusk Haliotis Glabra [online]. Optics Express, Vol. 12, Issue 20, pp. 4847-4854. Available at: [Accessed 17 August 2016]


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