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]


Research point: Genre painting

Updated on 2 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

5 June 2016. Feeling that I rather want to paint my own interior I embarked on some research regarding the painting of (external) rooms through the times, staring with the Dutch realist genre painters. In order to connect with my own mood I chose examples, where I believe I could read a connection between outer and inner spaces from a painting.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, genre painting deals with the realistic analysis of everyday life and is devoid of imagination, idealisation or a narrative . The period lasted from roughly 1500 until 1960. Its beginnings coincided with the Reformation, the decline of the importance of religious art and concomitant rise of private art lovers and customers (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010; Collins, n.d.(a)).
A famous early genre painter was the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys (1466-1530, Belgium), with his intriguing work “The Money Lender and His Wife” (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Quentin Matsys: “The Money Lender and His Wife”, 1514, oil on panel. Source: Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Matsys was well known for his exuberant realism in his depiction of the physical appearance and mental state of the people he portrayed in their surroundings, which made him one of the early caricaturists and thus of great interest to me. The above painting is full of religious and moral symbolism (Bloom, 2007). For the purpose of this exercise, however, we are supposed not to analyse the ideas behind a painting, but the technical aspects employed to let the viewer connect with the experience made by the portrayed persons. Most obvious in this task is the enormous detail in all parts of the painting, making the viewer a keen observer by sitting at the table with the couple. At the same time, the painter includes every possible support to the viewer as to the possible meaning of the painting. It is obvious that the couple are in a way concerned with the buying or selling of valuable items, since the man on the left appears to not only to guess at the value of the item he is holding in his left hand, but at the same time to practically “feel” the balancing vlaue of the coin in his right hand. It is very likely that a contemporary viewer will have felt more at home with the furnishings of the time, in particular they would have been able to read from it much more of the social status of the depicted couple. From my own perspective, if I did not know the title of the painting, I might be tempted to suspect, from the quietly worried look on the lady’s face, that financial problems are forcing a wealthy couple to sell some of their belongings.

Particularly appealing to me from a technical aspect is also the work of Baroque painter Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678, Netherlands) (Fig. 2). Linear perspective is masterly applied by him, so that the viewer feels an impulse to enter the spaces prepared for him. In the painting below, the artist includes many items on the way, some of which only partly visible, which make it easy and interesting to follow the sequence of rooms through the various doorways. Although clearly a genre painting, there is still a narrative. A cage is hanging from the archway, from which a parrot is about to leave (pointing towards a wealthy household, since the owning of exotic animals would not have been a regular sight at the time). The dog seems to be unsure whether he should be welcoming the visitor (the viewer?), more so than the cat with its arched back and the people sitting in the next room, who do not seem to pay any attention whatsoever to the newcomer. It also seems obvious that the people are not expecting visitors, since a dust mop has not been cleared away and something or other has not been picked up from the stairs. Shadows, running into the scenery in the first room, block the visitor’s step in the next room, and thus force the eye to follow a designed path. The room right at the back seems somewhat unconnected, also by design. In my impression it appears to suggest, even with the door open and warm, welcoming colours employed, that it is out of bounds for the visitor.

Figure 2. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten: “View of a Corridor”, 1662, oil on canvas. Source: Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675, Netherlands), on the other hand, draws the viewer into the painting below, “Officer and Laughing Girl” (Fig. 3), among other techniques, by his masterly transportation of a feeling of intimacy (Liedke, 2003; Collins, n.d.(b)). To me, the position of the soldier in the shade and his body posture suggest that he would not appreciate additional people at the table (technically, the placing of an object in the left or right foreground to create depth is known as “repoussoir” (Sloofman (2009)). The girl, on the other hand, appears to connect with the soldier only at a first glance. When examining her face more closely, her eyes look past the soldier and her smile does not appear totally honest. In my opinion, she feels uncomfortable in the soldier’s presence, which makes her hold onto the glass in her hand, and the (negative) space left between the two makes a viewer like me want to step into the encounter to save the girl some embarassment. I may be totally wrong, however.

Figure 3. Johannes Vermeer: “Officer and Laughing Girl”, 1657-58, oil painting. Source: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

18th century Rococo painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779, France) followed the tradition, but chose mundane, seemingly simple subjects. In the painting below (Fig. 4), the scenery seems a bit depressing. It appears that the lady’s everyday occupation includes an exhausting amount of peeling turnips. The viewer is drawn into the scene not least by a feeling of sympathy for the lady’s fate. Since she is very obviously not concentrating on her work, the artist provides the viewer with an opportunity to speculate about the reason. The meat cleaver on the chopping block (very cleverly highlighted by a tiny sport of white) is a very rough object to inlcude in a domestic scene. I suspect that it may be an allusion to war and thus it may not be difficult to guess at the thoughts of the woman. Technically, the painter made it very easy for the viewer to enter the scene via an open stretch of floor without real or symbolic obstructions.

Figure 4. Jean Siméon Chardin: “Woman Peeling Turnips”, c.1738, oil on canvas. Source: Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
For reasons of personal interest in caricature, I again include William Hogarth (1667-1764, England) (8), who became famous for his satirical view on the world (Benenson, 2010). Below a detail from his painting “The Gate of Calais” (Fig. 5). While part of a much larger scene, this detail carries all attributes of a genre painting. To me there appear to be several routes into this part of the painting, the strongest probably the giant lump of meat next to the horrible friar’s face, together with his greedy hands – the shape of which is probably replicated in the pointed ends of the portcullis, though which the head of a procession is visible.

Figure 5. William Hogarth: “O, The Roast Beef of Old England”, 1748, oil on canvas (detail). Source: William Hogarth (1667-1764) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Moving into the 19th century, I became aware of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) (Galitz, 2009), the leading realist painter in France at that time, and his painting “The Grain Sifters” (1854, Fig. 5). To me, the scene appears to be overly dramatic for the subject, while providing no way into the space for the viewer. To me, the girl in the red dress seems to carry a message on her back, reading: “We are not interested, leave us alone. We hate the work we do and we do not want you to see us doing it.” Which may be in line with Courbet’s interest in the working conditions of the poor.

Figure 5. Gustave Courbet: “The Grain Sifters”, 1854, oil on canvas. Source: Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Funnily enough, the style and subjects of genre painters seemed to be relatively resistant to major change and radical influence far into the 20th century. Max Liebermann (1847-1935) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011), for example, had no different view on domestic scenes than his colleagues in past centuries. August Macke (1887-1914) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005), during his incredibly short career to be ended by war, adapted his style somewhat to a mix of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, but in my opinion a funny out-of-place feeling of the subject remains (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. August Macke: “Two Girls”, 1913, oil on canvas. Source: August Macke (1887-1914) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe the defined limitedness of the subject does not allow a step to be made away from the traditional. Today, interestingly, any realistic portrayal of domestic life appears somewhat heroic, see e.g. the work of US artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978, USA) (Collins, n.d.(c)), one of the last representatives of genre painting, known as social realism (The Art Story, n.d.) during the early 20th century, before it finally died away.


Benenson, S. E. (2010) William Hogarth [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Bloom, J. An Inventory of Polarities: Quentin Metsys’s The Money Lender and His Wife [blog] [online]. John Bloom, San Francisco. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Chardin, J. B. (1738) Woman Peeling Turnips [oil on canvas] [online]. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Courbet, C. (1855) The Grain Sifters [oil on canvas] [online]. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(a)) Genre Painting [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(b)) Soldier and a Laughing Girl [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Collins, N. (n.d.(c)) Norman Rockwell [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Galitz, K. C. (2009) Gustave Courbet [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Hogarth, W. (1748) O, the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) [oil on canvas] [online]. Tate Britain. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Macke, A. (1913) Two Girls [oil on canvas] [online]. Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

Matsys, Q. (1514) The Money Lender and His Wife [oil on panel] [online]. Louvre, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

Sloofman, H. (2009) Art Technique of the Week [blog] [online]. The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.) Social Realism [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2005) August Macke [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010) Genre Painting [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011) Max Liebermann [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 2 March 2017]

van Hoogstraten, S.D. (1662) View of a Corridor [oil on canvas] [online]. National Trust, Dyrham Park. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]Vermeer, J. (c. 1657) Officer and Laughing Girl [oil on canvas] [online]. The Frick Collection, New York. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2016]