Physical and Conceptual Masking

Portrait and figure drawing/painting continues to be a common exercise required of students at many art schools, university programs and ateliers/academies. And while we indeed have a mandatory portrait drawing/painting session each week—the focus of the exercise for us has little to do with the focus found at many of the aforementioned resources.

Let me explain–As many of you many already know, our curriculum is an effective system of deliberate practice designed to develop adaptable skills that facilitate many aspects of successful visual communication. With a strict schedule of carefully calibrated exercises, artists experience significant development in a number of relevant domains including, but not limited to, visual spatial skills, visual analysis skills, visual integration skills, fine motor control, automaticity, strategic planning, information synthesis, and procedural fluency. While a good deal of our exercises may lead many to arrive at the conclusion that we focus on still life—I’d assert that our aim is to focus on foundational mark marking for effective and efficient visual communication and not any specific representational genre.

With that said, we DO require our students to engage in weekly portrait exercises. And here’s one of the main reasons why…


A good deal of our efforts in regards to observational representationalism involve ways by which one may attend to different aspects of an information source for the greatest advantage relative to one’s goal. This often involves some type of masking or filtering of visual information for a good number of reasons. We mainly focus on two types: physical masking and conceptual masking.

Physical masking is the attempt to limit attention to a component piece of a larger information source via physical isolation (Think of using a color checking window/viewfinder/device for comparison with Munsell chips or drawing/painting from isolated grid squares with a grid-system.)

Conceptual masking is the attempt to guide attention to specific aspects of the entire subject or visual field while while attempting to minimize attention to all else. (For example, one part of our portrait exercise process is to focus ONLY on the perceived notan (the major interlocking shapes of the perceived light pattern while attempting to ignore all else.)

Now while these masking tasks are NOT mutually exclusive by any means (e.g., an isolated source that is physically masked still requires some type of directed attention to elicit useful information while the conceptual masking is often aided with some physical means (like squinting.)–it is useful for us to discuss and exercise these concepts as separate (but related) tasks.

So this is why we include the portrait as part of our foundational training. Our primary goal with its inclusion is not to focus on the art form or genre in any significant way other than to exploit its conceptual masking practice potential as it arguably carries with it some of the greatest conceptual baggage that must be sifted through. Now this is not to say that the artists engaging in the practice cannot apply all of their practice with the subject TOWARDS a focus on portraiture—it’s just that the inclusion of the exercise has more to do with developing adaptable methods of information gathering.