Inspired Art: Portraits Like Chuck Close

Inspired Art: Portraits Like Chuck Close

We started September off with a trip to the Schack Art Center where we admired a collection of portraits done by Chuck Close.  He was born and raised in Western Washington and one of his self portraits hangs in our local library. We were pretty excited to see the works of a famous artist that we feel a special tie to.

Chuck Close's pieces are enormous and amazing to behold.  He works with many different mediums and techniques, wood block printing, etched metals, felt prints, finger prints, handmade paper, tapestries, etc.  His basic technique (which is not at all simple) is to take a photo and then draw that photo blown up by making a grid on the photo and copying it block by block. Up close his paintings may look rough and abstract, but from far away they come to life and look almost like a photograph itself.

Throughout his life he's battled a neuromuscular condition and learning disabilities as a child, dealt with prosopagnosia or face blindness (which may be why he was originally drawn to create portraits), and as an adult he has adapted to work around his physical disabilities caused by a spinal artery collapse.  He is an inspiration, as he has not let these trials stop him from creating art. He found ways to continue making magnificent portraits using a motorized chair and motorized easel. A quote that we saw on the wall of the art center was, "Inspiration is for amateurs." At first my oldest son thought this sounded rather gloomy, but as we saw Chuck Close speaking in a video interview we came to understand the context in which he said this. To us he seemed to be saying that you can't just wait around for inspiration to strike, that if you wish to accomplish great things, you have to get busy and then while you're working inspiration will come to you. This seems like a good motto, in art and in life.

Chuck Close's portraits are amazingly complex, so coming up with a project that I could do with children ranging in age from four to thirteen took a lot of thinking. I pondered this for a while, then I took Chuck Close's advice and just got to work.  I printed a picture of myself on cardstock and created a grid, I created a larger scale grid on a full sheet of cardstock and started drawing one square at a time. I added dots of acrylic paint to the drawing, following the photo and carefully mixing colors. I used a q-tip to apply the paint so that each square would have a somewhat consistent dot, without looking overly perfect in shape and size.  It worked!  I could see my face and I knew this was a project I could replicate with the kids in two sittings. 

Our first day we took rulers and drew our grids; 1/2" squares on their photos and on full sheets of cardstock we made 1" squares for those who wanted the whole photo and 2" squares for those who wanted to zoom in further. The children spent the rest of this first session transferring the image by drawing square by square.  Some of them struggled with this a bit as it was a new concept for them.  We numbered their squares and had them draw just the lines that they saw in each square, not worrying about the entirety of the picture. It was a little frustrating to some that they couldn't just start with an outline of their head or draw an eye shape or a nose how they normally would, but when they started seeing the results, they understood better what we were trying to teach them.

One of Sophia's little girls fell in love with this process and was so excited about drawing using a grid. It was so fun to see it really click for her. This part of the project is great all on its own for the lesson it teaches in drawing things as they really are.

After finishing their drawings we drew more lines for a smaller grid. The drawings were divided into 1/4" squares, while we drew 1/8" squares on the photos (we used 1/4" squares on the photos for those who chose to transfer the whole photo onto their papers). We assisted some of the kids with this as it is very time consuming. These small grids would become our guides for applying our paint. Each square on our photos equaled four squares on our paintings.

The second session was all about the paint. We used acrylic paint for its texture and because it is opaque.  Acrylic paint is not washable so be sure to cover surfaces and clothing. We used paper plates for paint pallets, one for each child so they could mix custom colors to match all the tones, tints, and shades of their photos. At this point I discussed and pointed out the highlights and shadows on their faces and the slight variations in color.  I encouraged them to start by making their skin color then adding white to some of it for the highlights and then adding more of the darker colors to some to create the shadows.  We looked at the colors for their hair this same way, not often is it all one shade. Also, I pointed out that those things that look black or white are usually not completely black or pure white, so they would need to create custom colors.  Using q-tips, they mixed and dotted away.  With an abundance of q-tips they were able to switch them out for new ones as needed and cleanup was so much easier than when we are using a bunch of paint brushes.

While most of the kids chose to do self portraits, Sophia's oldest daughter chose to do a portrait of Red Ryder. I think her inspiration came from her upcoming role as Ralphie in A Christmas Story, the musical. It was completely different from using a photo of an actual person, but I love how it turned out.

While most of the kids chose to do self portraits, Sophia's oldest daughter chose to do a portrait of Red Ryder. I think her inspiration came from her upcoming role as Ralphie in A Christmas Story, the musical. It was completely different from using a photo of an actual person, but I love how it turned out.

If they started to get discouraged while painting all the little dots I held up their picture far away from them so that they could see how neat it looked and the progress they were making, then they were ready to keep going.  One thing I definitely recommend is not having them worry about the background or the patterns of their clothes.  Have them pick one solid color to keep it simple, or tints and shades of one color for a more complex look.

This was such a fun project and the results are amazing.  I hope that you are inspired to try this out on your own, with your kids, or with some friends. Share your results with us, we'd love to hear how it works for you.

-Mary