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Red Rule


The Basics of Painting Portraits

There are some fundamentals of portraiture that one must practice in order to consider painting portraits. These steps include learning how to capture the likeness of the subject within a basic drawing and then being able to convey the coloration and tonal planes of that subject. The following paragraphs will give you some tips and areas of study that should help you.

To warm up and get the brain in gear, create a few contour drawings of your subject. Their purpose is to help you really see your subject and get the thought processes headed in the right direction. To start the actual painting, begin by drawing an oval or egg shape. Bisect this oval with a straight line across at about halfway down the face. This is to indicate where the eyes will be. Use of a line helps to make sure you don't get the eyes crooked when you draw them in later. Next, draw a line about halfway between the eye line and the bottom of the chin (the bottom of the oval). This line will be the position for the bottom of the nose. A third line is then drawn about halfway between the nose line and the chin, which indicates the placement of the mouth. The fourth line is drawn right down the center of the head, top to bottom. This is used to make sure the face is drawn symmetrically. After you have drawn two slanting downward lines to indicate the outer sides of the neck, the initial line drawing is complete.

This preliminary drawing can be made in light strokes with a hard pencil or with vine charcoal, depending on the preference of the artist. Some artists also use a light wash of dilute paint to do their initial layout sketches. This is especially good for setting in some light shadowing or dark areas as you begin to lay on color.

Now that the basic shapes are in place, start to "block in" basic areas of color and shadows. It is wise to lay on the tones you envision using in a very light topical application first. Then, as you flesh out the portrait, you add more and more paint in the tones you desire. In other words, keep your painting a bit "loose" - with light, broad strokes, not tight, careful strokes. Just lay in the basic shapes and colors.

Some artists use an old fashioned method to check the progress of their work. They reflect their painting into a mirror to see what areas are crooked or not working quite right. Looking at the drawing in the mirror helps "shock" your eye into seeing the asymmetrical areas. Drawing portraits with uneven eyes, a crooked nose, or a lopsided jaw are quite common in initial attempts to capture a likeness.

After viewing in the mirror, correct these problem areas and keep working. Keep in mind, however, that every person has some slight asymmetric parts to their face. No individual has perfectly even features. In fact, most people look unrecognizable if a photo of them is accidentally reversed. But there is a distinction between a slightly incorrect look and having features that are drastically asymmetrical.

Check to make sure the basic proportions of the painting are correct before moving on and putting down darker tones. Use the "eye-widths" measuring method to double-check and make sure everything lines up and isn't too large, too small, or not in proportion. It is much easier to correct major errors now rather than later when you have put in more detail and more paint. When you decide that the proportions of the face are accurate, continue to refine your portrait.

Start to add more detail and add fine elements like the pupil of the eye, detail around the lips and nostrils, and so forth. Don't be shy about problem areas and reworking them. Remember that the lightest lights are the last things to be used. Those sparkles at the edges of the eyes, a glowing tone on the cheekbone, and the like are some of the last details to be added.

Still consult the mirror several times during the portrait. Constant vigilance is needed in the initial stages of your portrait painting experience. It is quite easy to get the features out of alignment and a disappointing finish might result.

Take a break if you are having some trouble with a certain area or are getting frustrated because you are not getting the result you want. Frequent breaks can be very helpful, and will save you time in the long run. Don't keep on reworking and fussing and reworking and getting increasingly frustrated (and perhaps messing up your drawing in the process). Get away from the painting for an hour (or day) and work on another canvas, or just do something different for a while. More than likely, when you return to the portrait later, you'll find that you can solve the problem area right away. This works for artists no matter what the subject matter, but portraits can be rather intense and concentration so strong that you can get "too close" to it.

Try a self-portrait or two to start. This way you will not only have a record of your ability to capture likeness, but it will look wonderful in a few years when you have a retrospective of your work. And above all, relax and have fun.

"If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features."   -James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), American painter

Red Rule

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Copyright ARTtalk Vol. 14 No. 7 -- May 2004