Chantel Lynn Barber’s passion for art began flourishing at age 11 when she was mentored under local San Diego artists. She continued to study art, largely self-taught, while living in Newport, Rhode Island and Keflavik, Iceland and El Paso, Texas. While enrolled in a college art course, a fellow student introduced her to acrylic paints, and she soon fell in love with the medium but found it to be dominated by abstract art. Her first love was portraiture for which she found little advice. As she dreamed of perfecting her skills as an acrylic portrait artist, Chantel continued to learn from professional oil painters and translated their teachings into acrylic techniques.
What does working in acrylics allow you to do as an artist?
Acrylic dries quickly, and that is a big plus for me!
Working in acrylics allows me to eliminate what I call “the fear factor” from the painting process. Perhaps other artists haven’t had to deal with this, but I suspect most have. It often surprises me when I meet master artists who share that they still wrestle with the inner negative voice.
Fear of failure has a way of either freezing us in place with brush in hand, or it keeps us muddling in an area of the painting that feels safe, making us avoid areas that actually need to be addressed. Basic questions can become intimidating: ‘How do I keep the painting feeling fresh and vibrant?’ or ‘The painting looks good right now, but what if this effect or that brushstroke ruins it?’
Acrylics’ fast drying time means that if a paint stroke doesn’t work, I am able to easily wipe it off without hurting the painting’s integrity, since the existing paint is already dry. For me, working in acrylics has removed the fear factor and has given me the freedom to experiment, and experimentation is how I always find techniques that excite me to keep creating!
What kind of acrylics do you use in your process? Why?
My favorite staple acrylics are professional grade heavy body. They give high pigment load which means more intense color and have a thick consistency for the techniques I employ using brushes and knives.
I use an open acrylic in the initial drawing stage because it allows for things to stay flexible as they are moved around. Acrylic inks have become a new favorite. Because they are ultra-fluid and highly pigmented, they allow for a variety of effects like transparent washes and splattering.
Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Block-In: In the block-in stage I start with an open and flexible drawing that avoids hard lines in order to visualize and establish the composition. I take my time in the initial stage because here it is easiest to make changes which keep the painting from being overworked. Throughout this formative stage, I am thinking about lights, darks, shapes and using limited color.
Color mixing: I start mixing pools of color on my palette, experimenting with what I think would be a good fit for the painting. I want to have a nice selection of light, middle, and dark value choices on the palette. I start with middle values and work into the light and dark. The acrylic I work with typically dries one value darker, so I mix the color pools keeping them one value lighter (some brands may not work like this).
Building the painting: I avoid hard edges until I know where I definitely want them. Refining the drawing with each brush stroke ensures the painting continues to get stronger. Keeping fresh eyes, and being ever observant, I continue to look for ways to truly see how the painting is developing. Like a photo that is blurry and comes into focus bit by bit, editing along the way brings out the finished piece.
Bringing the painting to a finish: I want the finished piece to have rhythm and movement rough out. I make sure there is a good contrast between thick and thin passages of paint. I check values and color temperature to ensure a correct reading. I want to maintain an accurate drawing with lost and found edges. The painting needs to look good up close and from a distance.
Why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you wouldn’t have without it?
Planning is important because every stroke I lay down is dependent on the stroke that went before it. It is also important to control how and when the paint builds up. For example, I don’t want to apply paint too heavily in the dark passages, but rather allow them to retain translucency. I like achieving a nice contrast between thick and thin passages of paint, which means I have learned when a heavy or a light touch is required. Too much paint in the wrong place can ruin a work.
For your reference: What do you take more or less directly and what do you translate? Why?
The reference I use, whether from life or a photo, is a guide. I say guide because unless I am doing a portrait commission, where the likeness is essential, I am primarily interested in creating a compelling painting.
In pursuing this, I am more sensitive to responding to what is happening on the surface I’m using instead of what is happening in the reference. It becomes more about what the painting needs according to creative freedom. I may be translating most of the reference in the majority of my work versus commissioned works where I stay fairly true to the reference.
You photograph your own models. What’s important to remember when working with models to get good reference photos?
I pose and photograph my own models because it gives a greater connection with the creative process, and it allows for taking accurate color and value notes in the moment on location. In order to get good reference photos, an excellent light source is needed. Most often, this is going to be natural indirect light which provides beautiful shadow/light patterns and color. Light that overpowers and washes out color, especially in the light passages, or leaves shadows dark and lifeless, is the kind of light to avoid.
I think it is important the model’s personality shines through so that real emotion is captured in the photographs. Take a variety of close up and distance shots. Avoid directing every photo. Some of the best reference photos I have taken came about when allowing the model to honestly interact with their surroundings.
For your work, what do you need to get accurate and then where can you loosen up and play? Why?
I want my work to have both spontaneity and academic adeptness. If the drawing is correct, if edges are accurately placed, then I can play with dynamic brush marks. I have always felt that the power of the suggestive carries a greater impact and allows for mystery and a chance for the viewer to dream. Suggestion, not reality, paradoxically makes painting come alive!
How important is drawing? What does being able to draw give you as an artist?
Drawing is very important! In my younger years, I was always drawing freehand. Around 2002 I decided to start using a projector to project the image of people onto the painting surface, thinking it would give more accuracy. Big mistake! It did not give any more accuracy, but it became a crutch. Though I had excellent drawing skills to start with, they began to fade away because of lack of use.
A couple years after I started using it, I gave the projector away and once again worked at strengthening freehand drawing skills. I could immediately see the difference in my work. It became stronger in composition, likeness and accuracy. A sense of life and emotion that had been missing when I was using the projector, returned. I have found there is no substitute for drawing skills. It gives confidence to the artist to analyze what you are seeing and interpret it into something beautiful.
When it comes to composition, what are the mistakes you see your portraiture students making? How can they fix them?
I have found that creating a portrait work with a strong composition takes just as much time in observation as it does in actual painting time. This is something that many students grapple with. Sherlock Holmes askes Watson how many steps lead up to their apartment and even though he uses them every day he doesn’t know! Holmes points out that a person sees but doesn’t observe. The desire to keep painting is stronger than the desire to observe what has already been painted. I encourage students to stop often and study their painting, both up close and from a distance, asking themselves “what do I like about it?” and “what areas are bothering me?” When the student decides what areas they like, they should leave those alone, and work on the areas that are bothering them. Failure to edit is another mistake that often hinders creating a strong composition. What is left out of a painting is just as important as what is put in.
When a painting isn’t working, what questions do you ask yourself?
When a painting isn’t working, I ask myself: are the values reading the way I want them to, or do passages need to be lighter or darker? Is the color temperature achieving the desired effect, or does it need to be cooler or warmer? Is the color too intense in an area and does it need to be greyed down? Is the drawing reading correctly? Are there too many details and does something need to be left out in order to make the painting stronger?
Learn more about Chantel Lynn Barber at her website and on Facebook and Instagram. She also has a video on her process here.