Monday, 6 March 2017

Plato’s Ion

Image of a rhapsode from a Greek vase,
c.480 BCE. Source: British Museum.
Ion is the only dialogue by Plato that exclusively addresses the arts, namely criticism and poetry (which in the Greek context includes drama). Written in about 380 BCE, it takes the form of a short conversation between Socrates, a philosopher and Plato’s real-life mentor, and Ion, a ‘rhapsode’ or professional reciter and critic of poetry. Plato’s authorship and the relatively early date are mostly accepted, though some scholars dispute both assertions. It is not of great substance either among Plato’s works or philosophy in general: one commentator described it as a ‘slight dialogue’ about which ‘little need be said’1. However, it is probably the oldest surviving book of art theory in the world, and cannot be ignored by aestheticians.

You can read Ion online in an English translation by the 19th century scholar Benjamin Jowett via Internet Classics Archive (the version I use here, also available as an audiobook), or in the 1925 translation by W.R.M. Lamb via Perseus Digital Library

The main question posed by Ion is: do critics know what they are talking about?

The dialogue

In ancient Greece, poetry was more recited in public than read in private. The poet composes the text, and the rhapsode interprets it, in both senses: deducing and teaching its meaning, and performing it for an audience. There is no precise equivalent for a rhapsode in our culture, but note they are reciters of verses, not actors, and perform for money. Ion ought to be worth talking to, as he is good at what he does: he has just won first prize at the festival of Asclepius in Epidaurus, and is puffed up with his success. After opening with a bit of flattery (530b), Socrates interrogates the rhapsode on the nature of interpretation, poetry and knowledge. The dialogue runs roughly like this:

  • What knowledge does Ion have of the art of literary criticism?
  • Is the poet or the rhapsode divinely inspired? 
  • If so, is Ion out of his mind when he performs?
  • Is the rhapsode-critic qualified to judge Homer’s subject matter?

The dialogue is sometimes misunderstood. Socrates is not interested in discussing Ion’s ability in recitation, nor primarily in the nature of poetry as such. His interest lies in Ion as what we would call a literary critic – someone who lectures on the poet’s meaning. This focus is explicit in his introductory speech:

Socrates: To understand [Homer], and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.

Ion. Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many. (530c-d)

The subject here is not how well Ion recites Homer, but how well he ‘speaks about’ Homer. When Ion offers to recite for him, Socrates brushes the opportunity off, for his skill in performance is not the matter in hand.

Socrates learns that Ion’s literary commentaries are limited to Homer, whom he considers ‘better’ than other poets, and takes him to task. All poets deal with similar subject matter, the philosopher argues, therefore to know whether a poet is better than others, Ion must be able to judge how well all poets speak. Comically, Ion responds that talk of other poets sends him to sleep. Socrates concludes:

No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. (532c)

He argues that when one has knowledge of an art, one can comment on what is good and what is bad, and challenges Ion to identify any painter, sculptor or musician who could only judge a single fellow artist. Ion cannot, and Socrates offers an explanation. If Ion’s literary criticism were an art (or craft, or skill) and he had mastered it, he would have knowledge of it as a whole. He does not, therefore criticism is not a form of knowledge: not a generally applicable science.

Socrates contends that the rhapsode-critic does not have expertise in the way a physician or arithmetician does. Ion’s lectures on Homer come from somewhere else, outside himself, namely divine inspiration. The philosopher illustrates his idea with a simple, effective metaphor, which he uses to explain the whole creative process:

The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet... This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. (533d-e)

The Muse, or goddess of the arts, inspires the poet, then the afflatus continues into the rhapsode and on into the audience, like magnetism through iron rings.

Socrates’ metaphor of divine inspiration.

Plato asserts that ‘all good poets... compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed’ (533e). Remove the magnet, and the chain of iron rings would fall apart. Here Plato is discussing more than criticism. He is putting forward a theory of poetic creation itself. Again:

Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only. (534b-c)

This explains why Ion is able to win prizes for reciting Homer despite being unable to perform other poets. He and Homer alike have no ‘art or knowledge’; they don’t need any. Everything comes from the Muse through ‘divine inspiration’. Good poems (as opposed to bad ones) come from the gods, and the poet is merely their interpreter. Ion seems flattered by the association of the poets and the gods, which was a familiar idea in Greece, and nods to everything Socrates says, only to be accused of having even less knowledge than the poet. Criticism has no scientific value: the rhapsodes are merely ‘interpreters of interpreters’, a lower link in the chain of possession.

Socrates is denying Ion any art or agency in his ‘speaking about Homer’. But there is worse to come. Socrates turns his attention to Ion’s role as a reciter, and argues that when Ion is reciting he is not in his right mind.

Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem? (535b-c)

When he is reciting, Ion plays on the emotions of his audience, driving them to pity and wonder. But Socrates severely criticises second-hand feelings of this sort. He has already compared poets to Corybants: priests who worshipped the goddess Cybele with music and ecstatic dancing. In Socrates’ view, if you feel roused to tears or exultation by some event that isn’t really happening, you are not in your right mind.

There is no invention in [the poet] until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him. (534b)

This is surely a damning verdict coming from a philosopher – a lover of wisdom and rational thought. Disdainfully Socrates demands:

What are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him; – is he in his right mind or is he not? (535d)

Ion agrees that such a man is not in his right mind. His excuse for inciting emotion in his audience is cynical:

If I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives. (535e)

If the audience cries during his dramatic recitals he will be paid for a job well done; if they laugh, he will not.

Now Socrates changes tack to address a broader issue: does the critic have knowledge? The issue again is not about poetry as such, or Ion’s recitals, but whether Ion is qualified to be a critic of Homer’s poetry: ‘On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part... Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge?’ (536e)

Socrates challenges Ion on a range of ‘arts’ portrayed by Homer and argues that each ‘art’ is a distinct body of knowledge best known by the experts in that field. We consult a physician about medicine, a charioteer about chariot-racing, a prophet about divination, a spinner about spinning wool. In each case, Ion concedes that the relevant expert, not the rhapsode-critic, is best qualified to judge Homer’s lines about that art.

The one area in which Ion is qualified is in rhapsody, so Socrates homes in on this point:

Do you, who know Homer so much better than I do, Ion, select for me passages which relate to the rhapsode and the rhapsode’s art, and which the rhapsode ought to examine and judge of better than other men. (539e)

There are none, so the struggling Ion provides a few examples of other arts the rhapsode should know about:

He will know what a man and what a woman ought to say, and what a freeman and what a slave ought to say, and what a ruler and what a subject. (540b)

Socrates argues these away. It seems there must always be someone who knows better than the critic – forcing the conclusion that Ion has no worthwhile knowledge of his own. Finally he tries to buck Socrates’ onslaught by claiming that thanks to reading Homer he does at least know how to be a great general. But then he has to explain why he does not serve as one: he says it’s because his fellow Ephesians are vassals of the Athenian empire and have no need of one, and the Athenians and Spartans have enough generals of their own. Socrates has no trouble exposing this weak argument. He concludes:

After all your professions of knowing many glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. [541e-542a]

Plato thinks people can only do one thing well (see for example the discussion in Book III of The Republic where in the ideal city ‘each does his own work, and that only’), hence his disapproval of Ion who has to touch on many different areas of knowledge. Ion’s skills, like the creativity of the poet, actually come from the gods via Homer, not his own resources.

Having dismissed literary criticism, Socrates wraps up by taunting Ion with a choice:

If, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired? [542a]

Ion would much prefer to be thought inspired. Socrates allows him this, and the dialogue ends.


Plato’s usual approach in his dialogues is to portray Socrates, the seeker of wisdom, questioning someone about their knowledge of a particular area and exposing the shortcomings of what they think they know. This cross-examination, known as an elenchus, often ends with the participants feeling wiser but able to assert anything, a stalemate known as an aporia.

Ion however seems to draw some definite conclusions about criticism and poetry. The dialogue explores a theme we see elsewhere in Plato and wider philosophy: the theme of knowledge. The Greeks talked of episteme, meaning theoretical knowledge, and techne, meaning practical know-how or craftsmanship. They are the origins of our words epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge) and technology (knowledge of techniques for doing things). In Ion Socrates concludes that Ion ‘speaks of Homer’ without any ‘art or knowledge’: with neither techne nor episteme. He also concludes that there is no techne of poetry. The Greek word τέχναι or techne (pronounced TEKH-nay) is usually translated as ‘art’, but in the sense of a craft or skill.

Socrates assumes that knowledge of the world is divided into distinct arts/sciences/disciplines in which a person may be expert and may therefore ‘speak well’, i.e. speak authoritatively. Not only is the expert able to apply the rules of their art, they are aware of those rules and can explain them, and can thus serve as a judge of whether others also have knowledge or instead are being deceitful or incompetent.

Plato questions what this means for critics and for poets. Poets write about a wide range of things. Given that each discipline is distinct, who knows best about, say, chariot-racing? Do you ask the critic, who offers an interpretation of a passage in Homer on chariot-racing, or do you ask a charioteer? Plato is trying to argue that the rhapsode-critic cannot be relied upon to ‘speak well’ about poems, and extends this criticism to poetic creation, too. Poets and rhapsodes alike do not have expertise in a field of knowledge and must therefore be relying upon something outside of them, namely divine inspiration. All they are qualified to do is to entertain by arousing emotion, and even this expertise is attacked by Plato. People ought to seek knowledge in a calm, rational way whereas poets and rhapsodes encourage the opposite. For Plato, this is irrational and even dangerous.

Given Homer’s high status in ancient Greece, Plato is going heavily against the cultural grain. The ancient Greeks looked to Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus and other classic poets for insights into love, war, virtue, the nature of the world, and so on. They thought the poets had a broad range of knowledge, a certain wisdom that you could learn from. Socrates himself praises Homer at the beginning as ‘the best and most divine’ of good poets; but he goes on to undermine him during the discussion. Plato’s Ion presents us with possibly our earliest theory of art, and already it is controversial. He is presenting us with, in context, a new way of thinking about poetry.

However his main purpose in the dialogue is to ask whether there are any firm principles of literary criticism, and on this question, his answer is ‘no’. The critic has no distinct knowledge. His inspiration comes through the poet, and has no ‘scientific’ basis.

There are several problems with Plato’s arguments.

Firstly, he fails to appreciate the nature of poetry. His character Socrates assumes every art or discipline works the same way, and that poetry must be an area of knowledge in the same way that medicine or fishing are areas of knowledge. This is simplistic. Poetry may embrace all sorts of subject matter while staying true to its own particular laws. Whether or not Homer has accurately conveyed information about how to ride a chariot is of little importance when we judge his poem as a work of art; we are much more concerned with qualities such as mood, rhythm and characterisation. This is why we have the term ‘artistic licence’: works of art follow their own rules, and it has always been acceptable for a poet or artist to adjust reality for creative effect. For example, one may have various criticisms of the Star Wars movies, but only a pedant would dismiss them on the basis that it is impossible for starships to make a noise in outer space. Aristotle would later acknowledge this in the Poetics:

There are not the same standards of correctness in poetry as in political theory or any other art. (1460b)2

Plato wants to judge poems as catalogues of verifiable facts, and loses poetry in the process.

Moreover, we actually have no reason to doubt that Homer wrote accurately about chariot-racing, ancient combat, and so on. Most of us are not familiar with such activities today, but Homer was held in high esteem by a culture that did know them intimately. Homer could have based his accounts upon the observation or testimony of experts. Plato does not raise this as a possibility, let alone explain why it would not be acceptable.

As for Ion, there is no need for him to have personal expertise in every subject raised in Homer’s poetry, as Socrates demands. Being an expert charioteer, physician etc has nothing to do with his craft as a critic, which lies in interpreting the supplied text. His field of knowledge would be the craft of composing poetry, but Socrates does not acknowledge that such a field exists. Perhaps this is because he dismisses poetry as the production of divine inspiration rather than the skill of the poet him- or herself. But he makes a distinction between good poets, who are inspired, and bad poets, who are not, citing the case of Tynnichus the Chalcidian who appears to have written plenty of bad poetry and is only remembered for one good, ‘inspired’ poem. Even if we accept the claim that Tynnichus had little involvement in writing that poem, he presumably applied rules of poetic composition when creating his forgotten work, seeing as the gods were not doing it for him, i.e. rules must exist. It is a poor inquiry that makes no effort to study them. It’s true that Socrates says earlier, ‘there is an art of poetry, I take it, as a whole, is there not?’ (532c), which Ion affirms. But the context suggests he is talking about Ion’s art of criticising poetry rather than the poet’s art of composing it, and the later section of the dialogue shows that Socrates is sceptical about whether such an art exists.

When poets are inspired by the gods, Plato assumes, it means we have no agency. He does not consider the possibility that divine inspiration and human skill might go hand-in-hand. 

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres:
Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry,
The idea of artists receiving divine inspiration, though leading Plato to be dismissive about them in Ion, has actually proved attractive over the centuries. If we are religious, it seems to answer questions about where creativity comes from, and why artists themselves can’t always put their creative process into words. If creativity doesn’t come from the artist him- or herself, that might explain why it can sometimes be unreliable. As for the common idea that artists uncover truths about the world that the rest of us don’t necessarily notice, and thus help us to see the world in a new way, perhaps divine intervention could explain this, too. In fact, ascribing poetry and criticism to the gods creates a problem for Plato: Socrates rejects Ion as a ‘deceiver‘, yet are the works of the gods not worthy of respect? Divine art or knowledge must be better than any human art or knowledge. If the poets and critics are divinely favoured, they deserve admiration – potentially even reverence!  

Further, Socrates dismisses Ion and his enthused audience during recitals as ‘not in their right mind’, but emotion is an essential part of how we respond to poetry. Socrates mentions the examples of ‘the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognised by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam’ (535b). If we cannot respond emotionally to these characters, there is little point in poetry or theatre at all. Only good art can bring a story alive in the most affecting way – therefore, arousing our emotions is a merit, not a problem. Again, Plato is rejecting the whole point of both rhapsody and poetry.

After all this, it is unsurprising that, as Socrates himself observes in another work, the Apology, the poets are against him.3

A different criticism of the dialogue is that Plato makes life easy for himself in a couple of ways. If Ion could critique any poet, instead of only Homer, Socrates would fail in his initial argument. Socrates himself refers to painters, sculptors, and musicians who are not guilty of Ion’s shortcoming of being fixated on one artist, and takes it for granted that they, not Ion, represent the norm. For example:

Socrates: And did you ever know any [painter] who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticising other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and had no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?

Ion: No indeed, I have never known such a person. (532e-553a)

Yet Plato makes his character Ion ‘such a person’. It is fine for him to single out critics for this dialogue, but how are they different?

It also helps Socrates that Ion, despite being a prize-winning rhapsode and presumably a first-rate artist, is not a worthy adversary in philosophy. (Goethe referred to Ion’s ‘unglaubliche Dummheit’ or ‘unbelieveable stupidity’4.) His only challenge to Socrates is his feeble claim about being a good general, forced upon him by the attack on the value of Homer’s knowledge, but easily refuted by the veteran debater. Although Plato has some fun at the rhapsode’s expense, the dialogue is not really about whether Ion is a good or bad rhapsode or whether rhapsodes are foolish, so Plato could have allowed Socrates a sharper opponent who could discuss how he interprets poetry. My suspicion is that the characterisation of Ion simply reflects Plato’s poor opinion of artists, who are after all mere interpreters of interpreters, imitators of imitators.

In sum, Ion offers little insight into either poetry or the art of criticism.

Rather than concluding that Plato has simply written a poor piece of philosophy, we should consider the possibility that he does not intend his arguments to be water-tight. The dialogue may be intended as a kind of conversation or discussion piece to stir Plato’s students into thinking about these problems for themselves.

It may also be that the dialogue is not entirely serious. After all, the poets themselves say they are inspired by gods: the muse is evoked by Homer at the opening of the Iliad (‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles’), by Hesiod in his Theogeny (‘From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing’), and by Archilochus in one of his surviving fragments (‘I am the servant of Lord Enyalios, / and skilled in the lovely gift of the Muses’). Socrates is taking the poets’ own claims of divine inspiration and turning it on them and the rhapsodes to demonstrate they know nothing. The ancient Greek audience would have known that and perhaps been amused by it, and enjoyed seeing Socrates taking a fool down a peg or two.

Well, perhaps. But at the time poets and rhapsodes may have been more popular than the ‘gadfly’ of Athens. And Plato is dismissive of poets elsewhere in his work. In the Apology, which portrays Socrates’ self-defence when on trial in 399 BCE for corrupting the young, Socrates says:

When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.5 (22a-c)

This echoes Socrates’ views in Ion. And Plato’s savaging of Ion for being merely an interpreter of an interpreter foreshadows his famous arguments in The Republic, where he accuses artists of having no knowledge because they represent the world at two removes. If Plato is merely being mischievous, why does he assert this position again and again?

Ion’s fatal weakness is its reliance upon superstition. Socrates concurs with the belief asserted by the poets themselves: their gift comes from divine inspiration. Homer’s evocation of the Muse in the Iliad (c.800-725 BCE) is nearly three thousand years old, which makes the theory of divine inspiration the oldest known theory of creativity. The obvious problem, however, is that despite thousands of years of trying, theology has never been able to prove that gods exist, either the Olympian variety or any other. From a contemporary materalist perspective, no credible theory of art can be built on superstition: remove the gods, and Plato’s explanation of literary criticism and poetic creativity falls apart, leaving nothing in its place. Even if we give Plato the benefit of the doubt, claiming that poetry comes from the gods does not tell aesthetics very much. It is like trying to sidestep our ignorance of why matter exists by stating that God created it: it just raises other unanswerable questions, such as why God exists, what existed before, what he created matter from, and so on. Plato doesn’t try to explore the curious mechanism of divine inspiration any further in his work, but then, one cannot explore something that does not exist. This is an anachronistic point, as most ancient Greeks would have assumed the gods to be real, but there is no escaping it from our perspective.

In conclusion, the dialogue Ion is fascinating as a historical document, but has little value as a piece of theory, as it fails to tell us anything useful about criticism, poetry or art as a means of knowledge.


The line notation system used for Plato is known as Stephanus referencing, after the definitive 1587 edition of his complete works. This is why the referencing for Ion starts, oddly, at 530a.

1. A.E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (1928).
2. Aristotle, Poetics, Chapter 25, 1460b. Translation by T.S. Dorsch.
3. Plato, Apology. At Socrates’ trial, one of his accusers is ‘Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets’.
4. Goethe, Plato, als Mitgenosse einer christlichen Offenbarung (1796).
5. ibid.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Ancient aesthetics

Paleolithic handprint from
Pech Merle cave
Presumably, human beings have reflected on their creativity from the beginning. Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and the first signs of ‘aesthetic’ activity known to archaeology follow around 125-100,000 years ago in the form of notched bones, use of red ochre (a soft stone), and ritual burials. Gradually we began to produce unambiguous art objects, beginning with the incised red ochre blocks and shell necklaces found at sites like Blombos Cave in South Africa, and eventually flowering into the sculpture, musical instruments and rock art of the Upper Paleolithic (i.e. the last phase of the Old Stone Age). By at least 40,000 years ago, artists were discovering basic forms still familiar today: painting, textiles, music, ceramics, engraving, jewellery, architecture and sculpture.

These prehistoric people, though non-literate, were not knuckle-dragging ‘cavemen’ but intelligent and anatomically modern humans, like us. We can only speculate about what ideas they may have had on creativity, art objects and aesthetic experience. It is unlikely they had a theoretical conception of ‘art’ as such, as this distinction emerged much later. But in ways now forgotten our ancestors must have observed their own practices such as painting, dancing, singing, weaving and sculpting, and wondered what they were, and why they did them.

Early civilisation

Around 11,000 years ago the Old Stone Age was succeeded by the New, known as the Neolithic – a revolutionary change signalled by the rise of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The Neolithic world sowed the seeds of many early civilisations, the first of which – the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians in north Africa – lay in the ‘Fertile Crescent’, an immense green arc stretching from the Middle East to the Nile. The invention of writing in those regions launched the age of history.

The Bronze Age social surplus grew big enough to fund, beside the more everyday art like pottery, the creation of monumental buildings, ceremonies and artworks.

Strictly speaking, these creations are a waste of resources. When we leave aside the cultural or religious claims we make for them, a pyramid is just a heap of stones in a field; a sculpture of a god is just a piece of rock bashed into a form; a burial ritual, however elaborate and expensive, has no significance for the person being buried, who is after all dead. Why spend so much time and energy on these strange practices? And why do only human beings do it? Thoughtful people in this age, too, must have puzzled over such things, just as early astronomers and priests puzzled over the stars in the sky, or the nature of sun and moon, day and night, life and death.

However, we have inherited no philosophy of art from the early civilisations. The Egyptians did not even have a word for ‘art’ as we understand it. They had words for various forms – ‘stela’, ‘statue’ and so on – but their conception was much broader, and nearer to what we call ‘craft’. The Egyptians seem to have judged their cultural products in terms of durability, quality of craftsmanship and splendour rather than as ‘art objects’ as such. As Monroe C. Beardsley observes in his history of aesthetics:

In tens of thousands of inscriptions in which these masters are praised, by themselves or others, it is never the beauty of their works, but only strength and everlastingness or richness and lavishness of metal that are cited. [1]

The lack of theory is not because of intellectual poverty. The succession of Mesopotamian empires and Egyptian dynasties sustained, for thousands of years, a magnificent culture of literature, architecture, theology, mathematics, astronomy and often spectacular art.

The Greeks, normally lauded as the first philosophers, are said to have learnt a great deal from the sages of Egypt. There is various evidence of this from ancient writers. In the 1st century BCE the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote a grand history known in Latin as the Bibliotheca historica (Library of History), much of which survives. In its first book he reports that Greeks “who have won fame for their wisdom and learning” visited Egypt for education. Such eminent figures as the poet Homer, the statesman Solon of Athens, the mathematician Pythagoras, and the philosophers Plato and Democritus were among the visitors. The priests of Egypt argued that “the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were transferred from Egypt” (Book I, 96). Diodorus is not necessarily reliable, and perhaps those priests aren’t either, but there is other evidence that Egypt was regarded as a highly respected centre of learning by the Greeks. For example, in the 3rd century CE Diogenes Laertius recorded in his Lives of the Philosophers that Thales of Miletus, regarded as the first Greek philosopher, “learnt geometry from the Egyptians” (Book I, Chapter 1). Whatever the facts about precisely who travelled there and when, the Greeks seem to have been comfortable acknowledging a cultural debt to their north African mentors.

Not only could the Egyptians boast an advanced intellectual tradition, their artistic work is second to none. Think of the rich colours, the bustling wooden models of peasants at work, the stunning birds from the tomb of Nebamun, the grandiose architecture of Karnak, or the serenity of Thutmose’s perfectly modelled Nefertiti.

Why then did the ancient Egyptians leave us no evidence of a philosophy of art or beauty? Whereas Greece produced Pythagoras’s study of music, Polykleitos’s treatise on proportion, Plato’s Ion, Republic and Symposium, and Aristotle’s Poetics, the Egyptians seem to have taken no interest in aesthetic questions. This may in part be a misfortune of archaeology, but the absence of an aesthetics amongst their vast cultural inheritance is striking.

The answer I think is two-fold. Firstly, the historical context was not ripe for philosophical thought as we understand it today. I’ll come back to that at the end. The other answer is that they did in fact leave an aesthetics, spoken to us through the art objects themselves.

Take an example of their two-dimensional visual art. The painting below is from the tomb of an official named Nakht. Ancient Egypt’s art was functional, often serving, as in this case, funerary or religious purposes. The function of this work is to win a prosperous existence for the family in death, as they had enjoyed in life.

Painting from the Tomb of Nakht, c.1400 BCE. Nakht and his wife Tawy (left) are shown enjoying the products of the fields. At the top right we see the family on a hunt. Source:

The artist shows little interest in perspective, preferring flat colours and shapes. The action is arranged into bands or ‘registers’ divided by straight lines, making a very schematic composition. Within this scheme, the portrayal of people and events follows strict rules. Here are a few:

1. Men were painted red, women yellow; gods were sometimes painted in symbolic colours like black and green.
2. The figures are stylised to capture each element from the angle at which its appearance is most typical. The eye is seen as if from the front, even though the head is normally shown in profile. Similarly, the chest is frontal but the limbs are shown from the side, where their articulation is most clear. The shape of a foot is much clearer in a side view, too.
3. The relative size of the figures obeys a scale where the more important a person was, the larger they were. Compare the size of Nakht and Tawy with the peasants bearing goods.
4. When drawing the figure, the Egyptians developed a canon of proportions based upon a grid system about 19 squares high. One of these grids, from the Tomb of Ramose, has survived because the tomb was left unfinished, giving us a rare insight into how the artists worked. In the illustration below, I’ve applied a grid to one of the peasants from TT52:

The figure had to fit into this scheme, however unnatural it looked.

In short, the art is functional, schematic, and highly conventional. The rules are not immune to variation, and artists found ways to avoid monotony. But the same canon of style, developed during the Old Kingdom, continued to be used almost without interruption until the gradual breakdown of the traditional culture following the invasions of Alexander and the Romans. It is an approach to art that is different to ours. The historian of aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, observed:

To judge by the surviving examples, they did not attach great importance to the representation of reality, to the expression of feelings or to giving pleasure to spectators. They linked their art to religion and the next world rather than with the world about them. They sought to embody in their works the essence of things rather than their appearance. [2]

Why was this?

The Egyptians were not incapable of realism: if you have doubts, see their portrait busts, or their exquisite paintings of animals. No, they worked this way because they had an aesthetic. What ancient Egyptian art speaks of is a desire for strict order. Someone’s place in the social hierarchy is always explicit, and the mode of representation remains roughly the same across the culture, regardless of time and place, creating a extraordinary sense of continuity, necessity, and eternity.

Think of the changes wrought by the Neolithic Revolution. The earliest human societies were small bands of hunters and gatherers, roaming the landscape in search of food and owning only what they could carry. Living hand to mouth, they would have shared their resources more or less equally. Settled Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers with crops and animals, on the other hand, depended upon stability from politics and predictability from nature. In a mythopoeic age, weather, disease and other dangers were believed to be arbitrated by gods, and people looked to organised religion to keep them on good terms with the divine. The new wealth of the agricultural revolution was swallowed by the priesthood and aristocracy as a reward for providing stability – they were the ones who sponsored major artworks, and in them they affirmed their class structure and system of belief.

Civilisation also encouraged new kinds of thought. The socialisation of labour and the development of regional markets of exchange required standardised measurements and more complex mathematics; as families permanently settled land they needed new concepts of property and law. The practical needs of a changing society demanded a turn towards systematisation and abstraction.

These, in brief, are persuasive reasons why the art of the early civilisations tended to be schematic and monumental. The Egyptians had no philosophy of art, but, just like us, they had a way of thinking that heavily influenced how they represented the world in the objects they made. Although their art is sometimes considered too stiff and static for modern taste, these were precisely the qualities that best communicated their preoccupation with order and eternity. Fulfilling that role was more important than questions about beauty – which is why they were ready to spend great labour and resources on superb work only to bury it in subterranean darkness where it would never be seen.

This brings us back to the question of philosophical thought. The early civilisations laid the foundation stone for the emergence of philosophy, including aesthetics. New needs give birth to new thoughts and new forms, which build upon the existing corpus of ideas but transform it. However splendid a culture’s art, a sophisticated body of theory does not necessarily follow: there is no Aristotle or Aquinas of the Renaissance. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians seem to have had no use for aesthetic theories, therefore they did not conceive of that kind of thought. Just as it was not possible to create bronze statues until innovations in metallurgy enabled ancient cultures to extract tin and copper ores and combine them into an alloy, it was not possible to devise philosophy as we now understand it until ancient thought received an adrenaline shot from the individualism fostered by Greek democracy.

Once the Greeks had ‘discovered’ the concept of reflecting upon art and beauty, the cat was out of the bag, but someone had to do it first. It wasn’t because the Greeks were cleverer than their neighbours. It was simply that in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the conditions for this specific step were not yet ripe. The lack of a conscious theory of art, however, in no way impaired their ability as artists. As usual, the artists lead and the theorists follow.


[1] Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: From the Classical World to the Present (1966). Beardsley notes the lack of a philosophy of art and moves quickly on to the Greeks, but in my view there is more to say.
[2] Władysław Tatarkiewicz, History of aesthetics, Volume 1 (1970).

Friday, 24 February 2017

What is aesthetics?

Illustration by Jeff Searle
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature of art, taste and beauty. It is closely related to the philosophy of art. We may draw a distinction between the two, arguing that aesthetics is the study of beauty rather than art alone: after all, we can experience beauty in non-art, such as the natural world. But the questions raised by aesthetics and by the philosophy of art are in practice inseparable, and the latter is usually considered a branch of aesthetics. It is valid to recognise a distinction between aesthetic and artistic judgements, but it’s difficult to assess the beauty of an artwork without addressing broader questions of why we experience beauty at all, or how beauty in works of art relates to beauty in non-art such as the natural world... or of course whether such a thing as ‘beauty’ even exists.

Similarly, aesthetics and the philosophy of art are distinct from, yet related to, other overlapping disciplines such as art criticism and art history. 

The word ‘aesthetics’ was first given its modern sense in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten [1], a German philosopher little known outside of aesthetics. Baumgarten wrote in Latin, academia’s common language at the time, but the term’s origins lie in the Greek verb αισθάνομαι or aisthanomai, which means ‘to perceive’, with either the understanding or the bodily senses. (The noun is aisthesis. Its opposite form, ‘anaesthetic’, refers to the numbing of sensation.) This reflects Baumgarten’s interest in the arts as a means of acquiring empirical knowledge through the senses: he later defined his word aestheticae as the ‘science of sensitive perception’. Across the years the meaning of this word has, like the meaning of all words, shifted according to the standpoint of the user.

However it’s fair to say that aesthetics tries to answer questions about aesthetic objects, whether natural or human-made, aesthetic experience, i.e. our sensing of and response to those objects, and aesthetic judgement, i.e. the ways we evaluate those objects and experiences. It studies the creation and interpretation of works of art, the attitudes and sensibilities of the human beholder, and wider issues such as how the creation and treatment of art is mediated by history, or by cultural structures such as the art market, or museums and galleries.

There is no ‘official’ way to define how branches of philosophy relate to one another, and aesthetics can be tricky to place. Thanks to its interest in evaluation, it is sometimes considered to fall under a larger branch of philosophy concerned with values and value judgements (known as axiology).

Others might disagree and put aesthetics as one of the main branches of philosophy. It doesn’t really matter. There are many overlaps between different branches of thought, and for aesthetics more than most, as I’ll look at shortly.

The questions of aesthetics

The problems of art and beauty raise an enormous number of questions.

The nature of beauty is one of the main concerns of aesthetics. Assuming we agree that it exists, what sort of experience is it? Are our judgements of beauty objective or subjective, or both? Why do we tend to find some things beautiful and not others? Why do we find beauty in human-made objects like artworks as well as in non-human-made objects found in Nature? What do they have in common?

Then there is what we might think of as the epistemology of art, i.e. art as a means of learning, of acquiring knowledge about the world. Can art tell us the truth about the world? What is the relationship between an artist, a work of art, and the world it portrays?

Take the work of art itself. What is art? How is a work of art different from other objects? What makes some works of art ‘better’ or more successful than others?

Or there is the artist him- or herself. Does our creativity come from gods or from ourselves? Must an artist be an ‘inspired genius’ or can artistic skill be learned? If both, what is the balance between them and how do they relate?

There is also the role of art within society. Is it useful? Is it glorified entertainment? Is it appropriate to enlist it for politics, or as a means of instruction? Is it moral – does it make us better people? Do works of art have an embedded, eternal meaning or are they historical objects? Do their meanings change? How do social forces define what art is, and our attitudes to it? How does society present art to us, e.g. through institutions such as galleries or aesthetics courses?

There are plenty more questions we might list. What emerges is that aesthetics is more than a pretty, intellectual past-time. It touches on some of the most profound questions about human beings and our relationship with the world. Our aesthetic ideas flow naturally from our (often-unconscious) assumptions about religion, nature and ourselves.

Traditionally, aesthetics has not been taken quite as seriously as certain other branches of philosophy, such as logic or ethics. But this attitude is short-sighted. To understand ‘art, taste and beauty’, we must study archaeology and paleoanthropology, psychology and sociology, economics and politics; we have to understand the origins and nature of our consciousness and neurobiology; of our relationship to the external world and how reliably we can know it through our senses; of our use of symbols and language. We have to study how art has changed over time and across cultures and try to understand how historical forces shape the production of art and the role of artists. Only by grasping the totality of our human experience and action in the world can we form the best possible theory of art and beauty.

Origins and development

Aesthetic thought has a venerable history, going back approximately 2500 years. We have inherited no real appreciation or philosophy of art from the early civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is usual and reasonable to say that it begins, in the Western tradition, with the ancient Greeks. At roughly the same time, China was developing its own tradition, especially in the writings of Confucius.

It was with the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece in the 6th-4th centuries BCE that the West, at least, began to ask and debate questions we would recognise as aesthetic. The Greek philosopher Plato was effectively the founder of aesthetics. He was highly critical of the value of the arts, and in his dialogue The Republic (c.380 BCE) famously recommended that (most) poets should be excluded from his ideal state. However, as a fine literary artist himself, he closed the work with an appeal to his successors: to make a case for why the poets deserved to be reinstated. The subsequent history of aesthetics could be seen as a response to this challenge. His own pupil Aristotle swiftly responded, countering his teacher’s disapproval with a more positive view of the arts. There would be many more defenders.

Plato’s ideas were seeds that flowered again and again in the Western imagination. Neo-Platonism, most notably in the writings of Plotinus, kept classical ideas alive. The early Church fathers adapted Neo-Platonism to Christianity, and it thus retained its influence throughout the Middle Ages. Even during the European Renaissance, Neo-Platonism continued to define how philosophers and artists conceived of creativity; when Michelangelo carved a body emerging from stone, he had in mind a sense of pre-existing forms whose lineage went back to Plato.

The Renaissance, however, signalled new forms of society and thought. The nascent bourgeoisie began to challenge feudal social structures and ideas, and by the 17th century Enlightenment thinkers, influenced by materialism and individualism, began to wrestle with aesthetic questions in new ways. Theories of beauty, for example in the work of Hume and Kant, shifted from objective (beauty lies in the object) to subjective (beauty is experienced by the beholder). This is when the foundations of modern aesthetics were laid, and Baumgarten’s new term entered the language. Aesthetics has been constantly rethought ever since. The latest innovation has been the mixing of aesthetics with cognitive science to give us neuroaesthetics: relating art and beauty to the study of the brain.

Clearly, the way we think about art and beauty is heavily conditioned by history. Every culture lives in an atmosphere of ideas that conditions how we make and theorise art. The earliest writers, such as Homer and Hesiod, explicitly appeal to a Muse, a god, through whom their creativity flows. In the Middle Ages, beauty was often linked to goodness and emanated from God. From the Renaissance, capitalism shifted the focus from the spiritual heavens to the material Earth, from an objective God to the subjective individual. This does not mean that thinkers from earlier eras got everything wrong or that every insight is by nature unreliable and relativistic; it means that every phase of aesthetics has approached the problem from different perspectives. Some will have lasting value, others little or none. The study of human beings’ aesthetic and artistic action is maddening and elusive, partly because subjectivity plays so large a part, and partly because it touches on so many aspects of our being: our biology, our societies, our constructs and our beliefs. The relentless unfurling of history, by revealing multiple ways of being human and being creative, has given us an abundance of insights into what is going on. If we draw the most plausible of those insights together, perhaps we can build a robust theory of art.

Don’t be intimidated

Studying aesthetics with any seriousness means reading some difficult texts. Whether you like it or not, you will have to engage with works like Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, and Deleuze’s two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Books like these, for people new to this sort of thing, can drive you to despair, because at first encounter they may appear to have descended from another planet. Some texts are difficult simply because they deal with difficult subject matter. Others are difficult because of self-indulgence. (Postmodernists are notorious for this.) You might get angry at the apparent arrogance of writers who cannot or will not write their ideas in a concise and clear way. You may even question if you are smart enough to cope.

Start with this instead.
Do not be intimidated! A lot of aesthetic and art critical writings – such as Plato’s Ion, Hume’s Of The Standard of Taste, Danto’s The Artworld, or Berger’s Ways of Seeing – are readable and enjoyable, so don’t be put off by a few challenging texts. Experts in any field may have an apparently effortless command of their subject, but no one is born with a mastery of difficult intellectual problems. They command their subjects because they have been immersed in them for many years and do them for a living.

Just remember Thomas Edison’s famous advice about one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. How much time you invest depends on where exactly you want to go with aesthetics: not everyone with an interest in art and/or beauty expects to end up teaching at Cambridge or Yale. If you set out with a clear direction and goal, and put in the time and effort, you can learn any new skill to the extent that suits you. People who understand Deleuze – assuming they really do, which isn’t a given – aren’t all geniuses, they have just put in the time. The good thing about aesthetics is that you can enjoy some wonderful art on the way.

It is surely worth the effort. Art is something no other species bothers with; beauty is, as far as we can tell, something that no other species experiences. Studying aesthetics is about more than taking an interest in art – it is to explore humanity itself. 



Thursday, 8 December 2016

Painting a digital portrait step by step

Ivan, by Jeff Searle
Painting a realistic human face is a complex task that requires you to think of a multitude of things, so it can be helpful to introduce the process step by step. In this article I will talk you through the creation of a digital portrait painting (right), explaining the process as I go along. There are heaps of tutorials of this sort, of course, so I will try to justify adding another to the multitude by making mine better than the others :).

The techniques apply to painting any kind of face: male, female or humanoid alien, and much of it will apply to non-portraits too. In that sense it should be helpful as a general guide to making any digital painting. I will assume you have a reasonable knowledge of Photoshop or similar software*, and are painting with a graphics tablet. In earlier articles I have already discussed the anatomy of the head and the drawing of individual features so I won’t repeat all that more than necessary. I’ll refer to the person being painted as the ‘sitter’ but let’s face it, you are unlikely to have an actual person posing next to your computer – the person in my painting is imaginary and that’s fine too.

There are many ways to paint a portrait. No doubt some are more efficient and effective than others, but obviously you can experiment and paint however you want. These aren’t rules. Treat any tutorial as a set of guidelines to help you find your own way.

1. Preparation

To make a successful painting we need a decent idea. Put some thought into your concept, clarifying who is sitting, his or her character, and the mood you’re trying to achieve. Because this is a portrait tutorial we will focus on a head and bust, but you’ll need to consider your background too. Will the sitter be put against a neutral colour and texture, like a photographer’s backdrop? Will they be in a room, in a garden, in their workplace?

If you’re using photo reference, ideally it should be good quality with clear lighting, preferably from one main light source. The less suitable the reference, the more you will have to rely upon your own creative resources.

Some artists do only minimal preparation. Digital artist Daarken writes:

“When I start a painting I usually have no idea what I’m going to do or what it will look like... I have a basic idea of the angle that I want to paint, but that’s about it... I make a lot of changes throughout my painting. Not starting out with a tight drawing allows me to try different things more freely and to let ‘happy accidents’ happen.”
Digital Painting Techniques, 2009

Personally I like to know where I’m going, but inevitably some of your decisions will get made, and remade, as you go along.

Setting up

When you’re ready to start, create a new file in your software. When choosing a canvas size, you need to think about what the final output will be. Will your image be used for print or only on the web? A print image will need to be at higher resolution than one intended to be shown online. Consider painting your picture at a bigger size than the one it will be reproduced in.

Some artists start on a full-size canvas right away, with a dimension of say 1500 to 4000 pixels on the longest side. Others start small for the early roughing-in stages, say 500 to 800 pixels, then upsize later when it’s time to refine the image – this is good for less powerful computers and encourages a looser way of working in the earlier stages.

If you’re not sure what size your finished painting should end up, find digital paintings online to compare with. Also, learn from your finished work. If it looks pixellated you may decide you needed a higher resolution to get the results you wanted; conversely you may find you made it too big and can reduce it without loss. With a bit of practice you’ll get an idea about resolutions and file sizes.

I would avoid a white canvas: it is a bit less comfortable to stare at while painting, and it will distort your sense of colour, since colours look darker against white. Choose a neutral canvas colour. The canvas influences your skin tones, as it sits next to them and may partly show through the colours you paint on top of it, rather like in traditional painting. If you already have a colour scheme in mind, you could choose a colour that sits nicely with it, either harmonising with the intended foreground or contrasting with it.

For my painting, to help create a genial mood I decided upon light clothing and a light background, the head therefore looking relatively dark. I wanted a neutral warmish colour, giving me this exciting canvas:

Name your file, save it, and keep saving as you go along. It is a terrible thing to lose hours of work thanks to a butterfingers moment or an inopportune lunge by the cat.

A note on image resolution

The dimensions of an image are measured in pixels, e.g. a 600x800 image is 600 pixels wide and 800 high. The more pixels there are, the higher the image’s resolution, i.e. the more information the image can contain. A lot of confusion comes from two terms, ‘DPI’ (dots per inch) and ‘PPI’ (pixels per inch). These terms refer to printed output, not the quality of the digital image itself. The resolution of a digital image is simply its dimensions in pixels.

2. Sketch

I normally begin with a preparatory drawing. A sketch is a great way to plan out your framing and composition, and proves an invaluable guide while you’re painting. You can draw this directly on the computer or you can use traditional media and scan it in. Once you have your sketch on the computer, drag it onto its own layer in your Photoshop file. You may want to clean it up a bit – using the Levels to obliterate grey values is a neat way to remove any unwanted fuzz. Set the blending mode of the sketch layer to Multiply. This will turn the white transparent, allowing you to work on layers below the sketch and still see what you’re doing.

Alternatively you can draw your sketch directly in Photoshop. Simply create a new layer and name it, then using a small, hard brush, sketch the essential forms of your sitter, beginning with the basic forms, selecting the size, the tilt of the head and shoulders, then blocking in the features. It doesn’t really matter what tool you use as long as you get a useable sketch at the end of it, and it’s up to you how detailed the drawing is. As I say, personally I like to know where I’m going, so I prefer a precise, complete drawing as mistakes are easier to correct at this stage than they are halfway into a painting. Here is the sketch I drew for my example. I thought I’d keep the sitter – let’s call him Ivan – pretty straightforward:

Digital art is awash with fantasy girls, generically pretty and gazing at nothing as if they’d never had an emotion in their lives. The main thing for me was that my sitter, though imaginary, should look like a real person. For simplicity I’m going to leave the background neutral.

Note how the slopes of the shoulders act as directional pointers to his face.

If you want to know how to sketch a head, look at my earlier articles in this series on the head. In my example I have indicated a couple of plane changes but haven’t explored values at all, i.e. how light and dark different areas will be. You may prefer to make a monochrome (which means one single colour, not necessarily black and white) study or studies to explore that, or other aspects, before you start.

Take advantage of your medium. You can move your sketch around to test the framing and use tools like Warp or Liquify to adjust it until everything looks right. Flipping the sketch to see it in reverse often shows up problems you didn’t notice before. When you’re done, lock the layer as this will prevent you from painting on it by accident.

Again, save your work. You can save multiple versions as you go along if you like.

3. Establish your light

Painting is all about light. For this tutorial we will assume the sitter is lit by a regular diffuse daylight coming through a window. You must decide from the outset where your light is coming from. It’s best to keep this simple. Once you’ve chosen a direction, you will know which areas of the head will be in light and which in shadow.

The typical light for a portrait tends to come from the top left or right. That is the light we’ll use here. You don’t have to paint this in – these pictures are just for illustration. The planes that face the light source will be lit up, and the planes that turn away from it will be in shadow. We also need to think about any cast shadows, such as the shadow of the head on the neck and under the nose. Remember to think of the head as a three-dimensional block.

Define 1) the key light i.e. the principal and most intense light source, and 2) the fill light, which is less intense and comes from a different direction. You may also have 3) a back (or rim) light coming from behind, which will add a white highlight to the back of the head and, in our demo, also make the ears red because of the subsurface scattering.

The reason for having various light sources is to mimic what happens in nature, and make the painting more realistic. But you don’t have to use three. If it helps, you can try copying a light scheme from another painting.

Let’s go with a cool light and warm shadows.


We paint in two dimensions, but a human head exists in three: its forms project into space, with rises and depressions like a landscape. It may help you to create a new layer above the sketch and draw in some contour lines, a bit like a 3D mesh, to make you think about the head’s structure.

Even if you don’t actually draw in the contours, to depict three-dimensional form convincingly you need to be thinking of them while you paint. Like planes, they show you how the form will respond to light. Areas facing a light source will be lighter, areas turning away from it will be progressively darker.

4. Create a palette

Let’s get started. You need a palette of colours to work with. Put it on a separate layer so you can turn it off when you don’t need it. First you are going to need white and black, plus the primaries of yellow, cyan and magenta. From this basic starting palette you can mix the colours you need.

Make a basic skin tone using magenta and yellow, with a little white and black. Then mix a lighter tone for the lit areas, using the skin tone but with a tiny touch of blue for the cool light. 

For the shadow tone, darken the basic skin tone with a touch of black and of the complement: we have a cool light so add some red-orange to the shadow. Shadows are generally less saturated, so reduce the Saturation a little.

You will also probably need a variant of the flesh tone with some extra red in it, e.g. for the lips and cheeks. 

There’s no need to go crazy. A small range of colours will do for now. You could prepare an entire palette before you start painting, but in practice you will develop it as you work.

Remember, it can be tempting to go for strong colours to make the portrait ‘vivid’, but muted colours are more realistic. Avoid using the same palette every time, otherwise your paintings will all resemble one another! Don’t use plain black and white for lights and darks.

5. Block in the basic colours

The next step is to block in the basic colours. The principle is to work from simple to complex: we start very simple then build up layers of detail, to the level you want to achieve.

Create a new layer under the initial sketch and call it ‘flesh’. Stick with a large, hard round brush with a high opacity and use your new palette to block out the main skin colour using a medium tone. Keep it rough at this stage and focus on getting the colour in the right place, without being overly fussy about staying within the sketch lines. You could try using a brush below 100% opacity, to give the background a chance to show through a little.

Keeping to my plan of a light background and clothing, Ivan’s shirt is a warm grey.

Block in every basic colour in the image, not just the face: gradually bring up the whole picture together. Block in the hair and clothing on their own layers. Things like glasses and jewellery are best created on separate layers too so you can still work easily on the eyes and skin underneath.

A note on brushes

I am mostly using just the basic hard round Photoshop brush. Apart from blocking in I will keep it at low opacity, say 20+%, and build up colour gradually with repeated brush strokes. Some artists like to have an immense array of custom brushes, which is fine if that’s how they like to paint, but you don’t need them. If you don’t understand form, light and colour then no clever brush will save your painting.

6. Light and shadow

On a new layer or layers, paint the areas of light and shadow where they would naturally fall. Think about your light sources, the contours of the head, and the planes of the head. Remember the rule of thumb: warm light/cool shadow or cool light/warm shadow. Here I’m opting for the latter. You don’t need to be precise at this stage – just block the colours in with a large hard brush without zooming in.

Begin with the lighter areas. Begin with the basic flesh tone but mix a lighter version that fits into the lighting of the whole image. If you want the scene to be lit by a cool light, tend towards the ‘cool’ half of the spectrum.

Now apply the basic shadows, including cast shadows.

If the colours on your palette don’t seem quite right, at any time in the process you can adjust them.

Note that by ‘cool’ light I don’t mean ‘make all the lights blue’, though it could mean that – I mean shift them towards the cooler side of the spectrum. Same for the darks. Rather than use just a lighter shade of the flesh I’ve shifted the colour of the lights to be more yellow (heading towards the cooler shades, of green, etc) and the darks towards red. What I’ve done here is really subtle – you might want to emphasise it more.


Think seriously about the background of the painting. Both sitter and background need to complement each other. Here we’re going to keep to a simple, neutral background, but even so, if we leave it as one solid colour it will look artificial. Work some lights and darks into your background and give it some texture. We can work on it a bit more later, but it’s good to establish our intended scheme of light and colour early on. My plan was to make both the background and clothing quite light, allowing the head to be the darkest area and keeping the whole painting fairly breezy.

To help the whole painting hang together, we can include colours from the flesh and clothing in the background, and vice versa. For example, the background could pick up the same colour as the fill/back light. I’ve included a hint of grey in the background and a couple of beige touches on Ivan’s shirt.

At some point you may want to reduce your sketch layer to about 20-30% opacity so it can serve as a guide without obscuring what you’re doing. Unless of course you want the line art to be part of the finished image.

A note on layers

Layers are one of the main advantages digital painting offers over traditional media, but it’s best not to over-use them. Too many layers in your file may slow down your computer and will complicate your working process. Try to keep basic elements like the hair and the eyeballs on their own single layer or on just a few layers within a subfolder. When you paint new elements, it’s a good idea to paint them onto a temporary layer first, then flatten it into the main layer when you’re happy – this lets you test how the painting looks ‘with’ and ‘without’, and makes it much easier to abandon something when it doesn’t work.

7. Facial colours

The human face is made of many colours, so for additional realism mix some colour variants, for example with extra red and yellow. Don’t be afraid of using complementary colours that you don’t normally notice in people’s skin, and experiment with blues, greens etc – the result will look natural once they’re blended in. Again, keep to fairly broad brushwork at this stage. Use new temporary layers until you’re satisfied.

Remember the three colour zones: faces tend to be more yellow around the forehead, red around the middle, and blue/green/grey around the mouth, though this is an extremely subtle effect and not mandatory.

In my example I’ve kept my colours conservative, adding some red to the cheeks, tip of the nose and ears, some yellow to the forehead, and some blue-grey to the chin:

Consider whether any colour will be reflected from the clothing onto the skin next to it.

I’m going to leave the treatment of Ivan’s clothing fairly rough. This is a reasonable strategy for a portrait, where the focus of attention must be the sitter’s face.

8. Consider amendments

Before you get into details, you may want to adjust and correct the proportions and layout of your portrait, for example by amending selections with the Warp or Liquify tools, or Edit > Transform > Distort. Make sure you’ve captured the expression you wanted, and flip the image again to check for problems.

The Warp tool allows you to select an area and click and drag the handles of the Warp grid to stretch or compress it in the direction you pull. The most versatile tool is Liquify, which you can use at any time to adjust your painting and correct mistakes. The advantage of working digitally is that if you go wrong or change your mind it’s easy to make changes. You can also easily afford to take risks that might cost you hours to undo in traditional media.

I decided I wanted to emphasise Ivan’s alert good nature a bit more, so I opened his eyes slightly wider and raised his eyebrows. I also adjusted his collar a little on the right so it balances up better. I’ll turn the sketch layer opacity back up so you can see better.

Now let’s check the proportions by flipping it:

Hm, the line of the shadow on his right cheek needs to come forward, so might as well correct that and flip it back:

If you started with a small canvas, now is the time to increase the image to its final pixel size, as we’ll be doing more detailed work from now on.

9. Features

It’s time to define the facial features. These will make a big difference to how your painting looks. We’ll do a first stage of work then refine them later.


I wrote a very short tutorial on eyebrows here. Eyebrows are not thick lines drawn on the face – not normal ones anyway. They are composed of lots of little directional hairs. 


Use lights and darks to model the structures around the eyeballs: you can refer to my full eyes tutorial here. Avoid drawing dark outlines around them if you don’t want it to look like the sitter is wearing heavy makeup.

I like to create a separate layer for the eyeballs underneath the flesh layer. Eyeballs shouldn’t normally look solid white. Instead, paint the eyeball in a greyish hue with a bit of the skin colour mixed in. Paint in a round iris and add the black pupil. Irises have dozens of tiny radial streaks in them – indicate these with a small opaque brush. They have a dark edge known as the limbal ring. We can refine the irises further later.

The eye shouldn’t look flat: it is a sphere set in a socket, so the corners tend to fall into shadow and are darker. The top of the eye curves away from the light and falls into shadow from the upper eyelid, so it will be darker there and across the top of the iris. The spherical eye affects the eyelids too, which will be lighter where they bulge out and darker in the corners.

Add a small cool highlight to each eyeball, placed in the direction of the main light source. This is very important for adding some life to your sitter. I’ve made a simple indication of the eyelashes too, which we will refine later.


You can refer to my full nose tutorial here. Define the basic structure of the main wedge of the nose, the tip and the wings.


You can refer to my full mouth tutorial here. Block in the lips with a reddish colour, then apply some basic lights and darks to mould the mouth shape. The upper lip will be a bit darker.

If the subject’s teeth are showing, block those in – again, they will not be solid white, and will fall into shadow particularly in the corners and under the upper lip.

Remember that not everyone has ‘perfect’ features. Faces aren’t always symmetrical; women aren’t always beautiful; sometimes teeth are crooked or yellow or missing. Don’t try and turn everyone you paint into a digital robot. I’ve given my sitter a wonky tooth.


See my full ears tutorial here. So that I can demonstrate it, my sitter’s ears will glow with subsurface scattering, which means adding some bright orange to the ears.


Thus far we’ve simply blocked in the basic form of the hair. Hair can help you direct the viewer’s eye, especially if it’s long and flowing, so it needs to be organised. Even short hair shouldn’t necessarily shoot off in distracting directions. Don’t draw locks randomly – decide where they are going to go.

Strands of hair tend to group together in locks, so at this stage identify the locks and shade them like individual forms with light, half-tone and shadow. Keep it broad for now.

Your sitter may have facial hair. Ivan doesn’t have a beard but I fancied adding some stubble. You can do this by painting some grey around the chin or, like I did, you can use a speckled or textural custom brush.


I don’t really need the sketch any more, so I painted in some of the details of the shirt then turned the sketch layer off. I’ve made the background slightly more emphatic too.

OK, now it’s starting to look like a portrait:

Don’t forget to keep saving. Again, you can make amendments as you go, and use your Photoshop tools to adjust forms and colours. It’s OK to make mistakes along the way. It’s digital, so they are easy enough to correct, and making mistakes is how you get better.

10. Blend the colours

The painting’s coming together. Let’s start to refine it.

Begin by blending together those rough colours on the hair, face and clothing. You will still need to go to your palette at times, but more and more you can simply sample colours from the painting itself. If you prefer to blend colours as you go along that’s fine of course – I’m just breaking the process down for teaching purposes.

Use a low (say, 15-30%) opacity hard round brush. Avoid the Smudge tool because, at its factory settings at least, it will take away the texture of your brush strokes. Use soft airbrushes with caution, as they give a very smooth finish that can leave your subject looking more like a porcelain doll than a human being.

I recommend saving the greatest detail and precision for the facial features, which communicate with us most, and preferring soft transitions for the edges of the hair and clothing. I can see Ivan’s hair needs more work in the latter regard. Keep adjusting your edges as you go along.

11. Develop the skin tones

Build up the lights and darks a bit more, using a lighter tone and darker tone than you used already. Think of how a change of plane can be marked with a change of colour and value.

Start with the lights and highlights. Normally highlights should be sparing. Avoid making them with pure white. Skin is slightly rough and diffuses reflected light, so highlights shouldn’t be too shiny-looking, unless the sitter is sweaty or wet. 

Now choose a darker shade of the skin darks and use it to deepen the shadows. A dark brown with reds and other colours in it reproduces the bouncing light seen on a real head. Don’t forget inside the mouth. Strong contrast between the lightest and darkest areas will create drama. You can use the Burn tool at a very low exposure to darken areas: when set to ‘midtones’ it darkens the skin to a deeper brown and when set to ‘highlights’ the darker additions tend to be very grey. Some may sniff at using Burn instead of mixing the colours yourself but it’s just a tool. Work at a low opacity so the colours can build up slowly and with subtle transitions.

You need to direct the viewer’s eye towards what they ought to be looking at. For example, don’t distract them by putting too much detail in the dark areas. Consider emphasising the contrast around the eyes, which are one of the most expressive and revealing features and you will want to draw the viewer’s attention to them. If you have a live model, don’t be afraid to depart from what exactly you see – creating a striking piece of art is more important than being literally ‘correct’. Artists always edit what they see towards an artistic purpose.

12. Other light sources

It’s time to incorporate your back and fill light into the painting. Create new layers for them, then (optional) flatten them into the main flesh tone layer once you’re happy. Three-point lighting is not compulsory: if an additional light source adds nothing or even spoils the picture, leave it out.

Back/rim light

Create a very light colour in a cool hue, to match the cool light/warm shadow lighting scheme. On a new layer, paint a fairly hard line down the shadow side of the head and shoulders. There will also be some subsurface scattering manifested as red/orange in the ear, which we blocked in already. Use layer opacity to adjust the intensity of the rim light.

Note that rim light won’t necessarily be at the same intensity all the way along the person’s form. It will be brightest on the up-planes facing the light, and less intense elsewhere.

Fill light

Add the fill light to the side of the head. Use a light colour: you could try a slightly coloured light for interest. I kept with a light blue. At low opacity, block in the general pattern of fill light, thinking about what direction you want to give it and where it will strike. Then work over it again to bring out some highlights. Use a low opacity, soft eraser to make adjustments. You are aiming for a nice, subtle effect.

When you’re done, you can experiment with the colour of the fill light if you want. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, and click Colourise. This will allow you to introduce some colour and to experiment with brightness and saturation until you have something that is just right.

13. Polish the features

Let’s refine Ivan’s features to finish them off. The reason we didn’t do the features all in one go, in stage 9, is because we are trying to bring the whole painting along in stages. We have made important amendments since we first blocked the features in, and we need to have those in mind.

I’ll look at each feature in turn. Note that for a realistic painting the little details, though they may not seem like much in themselves, all add up and can take your painting to another level.


The eyes are the most important feature, so let’s finish those first and take particular care over them. Paint the flesh of the tear ducts in red-pink and make it lighter in the centre where it’s moist. It’s easy to paint the bright highlight on the eyeball as a simple dot, but it can take other forms, the classic being an inverted white window i.e. the main light source reflected in the eye. There can be two or three highlights in different areas hit by the light source(s).

Spend time on the irises – make sure the limbal ring is dark, work on the streaks and add some other colours, for example blue eyes might also have grey, and yellow near the pupil.

Work on the eyelids, defining their shape and adding highlights. Eyelids have thickness, so remember the top edge of the lower eyelid, which may be a bit more fleshy in colour and possibly better lit. Add a light stroke near the inner corner of each eye.

On a new layer, carefully paint some eyelashes, using a soft round brush. Unless it’s a close-up, it’s enough to give a broad impression rather than try to paint every lash, so simplify them. The lashes tend to merge with the shadow under the upper eyelid to form a dark line. Paint them as blurry, simple shapes, a bit heavier at the base. Don’t draw them with identical length, direction and spacing, as this looks fake.

Women especially may be wearing makeup around the eyes.


Zoom in and see if you can make the nose more three-dimensional by working up the light and shadow, such as the shadow on the underside of the nose tip as well as the cast shadow upon the top lip. Keep the latter subtle or it will look like dirt or a moustache. You may want a highlight to the nose tip and down the bridge. The nostrils will be in dark shadow.

Earlier we added some fill light to the right-hand side of the face, so include those effects on the nose as well. Again, this will be more intense where the plane faces the light source, less intense elsewhere.


The mouth still needs work. Remember the contours of the lips as you work. With a hard brush, add some light blocks of colour, following the curve of the form. The corners of the lower lip tend to be a bit less defined and merge into the flesh, so soften the transition there. Don’t forget the slight identations at either side of the mouth.

Shade the lips by applying darker shades to the down planes and areas in shadow. Make it a little darker at the centre of the lower lip. To adjust the entire lip area, create a new layer, paint in a colour then set the blending mode to Multiply. You may think the lips are too red or too dark, in which case add a new layer of skin tone then reduce the opacity until you’re happy with the adjustment.

Add some cool highlight to the top edge of the upper lip where it’s turned towards the light source, and to the lips themselves. Remember that specular light reveals a great deal about the material an object is made from. If your subject is wearing glossy lipstick, or their lips are wet, the surface will be more reflective and the highlights more sharp than on dry, natural lips (they will also be more intensely coloured of course).

If you want a bit of a moist look, using a light colour apply a series of small dots to the lips.

For the teeth, work up the shadow a bit more. The lines between the individual teeth are very subtle. Add some cool highlight where the teeth catch the light.


Paint in more strands, adding extra lights and darks. Make sure there isn’t a hard line where the hair meets the forehead – this can create a ‘Lego hair’ effect.

Here’s how the whole portrait now looks:

14. Finishing touches

We’re very close now. Just think about any last adjustments.


You may want to check, tidy up and refine your lights, darks and highlights, increasing them in places, decreasing them in others. Check you didn’t forget any. You won’t necessarily see these on a live model and might invent some purely to make the image easier to digest and the forms more explicit. For example a bit of reflected light on the chin, or a deeper shadow below it, will help to separate that form from the neck.

You could add a very subtle bit of rim light to the lighted side of the head too, for added interest and realism (because in the real world there are usually multiple light sources).


You may want to have a final play with colour balance, saturation, values and so on. Perhaps the skin is too saturated, the nose is too red, or a strong colour juxtaposition is distracting the eye. The best way to make these changes is to make a temporary layer or duplicate the layer you’re changing, make the adjustment, turn it on and off and try out opacities to assess the difference, and flatten it once you're happy with the change.

There are all sorts of ways in Photoshop to adjust the colours on a layer, such as using Colour Balance, or Curves to adjust a specific colour channel. I won’t try to list everything. Thanks to such tools, you can easily adjust the colours in your painting.


You may want to add a couple of little touches of pure, or nearly pure, black and white to push sharp details. Remember not to overdo detail in places where it doesn’t belong. If your sitter is wearing jewellery, for instance, you probably don’t want it so meticulous and dazzling that the viewer looks at that rather than the person underneath.


Go through the painting, tidying up edges where appropriate and roughening others. Sharp, shiny edges may be fine on glasses or other objects, but you don’t generally want them on human skin as this looks artificial. In general, a too-sharp and perfect outline doesn’t look very painterly and may detract from the sense of realism.


Real skin is not smooth and perfect. If you look closely it has a rough surface, with spots, freckles, moles, scars and blemishes. Whether you paint this, and how far you take it, depends upon your taste and on your sitter: the complexion of a spotty teenager will need more attention than a fashion model’s beauty spot. 

On a new layer, dab on a few little marks, e.g. around the eyes, to suggest irregularities in the surface. Adjust the layer’s opacity and blending mode and keep it natural. You can use a speckled brush sparingly to recreate the porous roughness of human skin, though I haven’t done that in my painting.

Changes like these are generally best kept subtle. But if you paint subtle changes on a new layer then turn them off, you will see the cumulative difference they can make.

Use a hard brush to add a bit of roughness to your brush strokes on the face. Conversely, use a soft brush to soften any areas that look too rough, though you don’t want the finish to be overly polished and artificial.

Another idea for creating texture is to let your line art show as part of the final image, in a sepia or red tint and at low opacity, depending on whether you think it adds anything or suits your intentions.


Cast your eye over the background and make sure it works. As I’m working with a darkish head with everything else underplayed, I’ve done a reverse vignette, fading out the outside edge, then increased the canvas size a bit to give the final image some room (giving me a canvas size of 2500 pixels wide by 3000 high). Also I’ve done some darkening behind the head and shoulders to bring out the rim light.

Final word

Take one last critical look at the piece, sign it, and save it. Here is my final painting of Ivan:

That was my guide to painting a digital portrait step by step. Obviously this is only one way of working. Other approaches are available, and you don’t have to do the steps in strict order. Get painting and find the way that works for you. If you use the same palette, the same light, and the same sort of sitter in every painting you do, they will end up looking identical and your body of work predictable. This guide is a starting point, not a rigid formula – my goal was to pull together the information in the two previous posts and show beginners how they might apply it all to an actual painting.

* If you need to learn about digital painting techniques you should try Matt Kohr’s website Ctrl+Paint. He has a huge and comprehensive set of free videos which will teach you just about everything.