June 30, 2022
This week’s challenge is to start a portrait painting in colour. The notes below suggest ways of starting a portrait study in pastel and also in acrylic.
If your chosen medium is pastel you may like to start by drawing in the main shapes quite loosely with charcoal or a pastel stick. Remember to draw the axis of symmetry of the face if working a front view and also a line through the eyes from which you can measure the positions of the other features.
When seen in three quarter view the axis of symmetry through the face will be on a curve. If looking at a profile view look carefully at the position of the ear and take note of the shape of the whole head. Then look at the forehead in relation to the nose and the jawline and chin in relation to the nose. Ask yourself questions like does the chin recede slightly?
As a general principle work the large shapes first before homing in on the smaller ones.
When you are happy with the main shapes start to work in colour. Block in the main areas of shadow with a light touch using the stick on its side for these larger areas. You will define these as the work progresses so don’t apply the pastel too densely at first. Then draw in the mid tones and finally the palest tones and details.
I have talked about tone but your work will be in colour and working out flesh tones in pastel can be challenging. One reason I used conte crayon in white, black and sanguine on toned paper last week is that it is a half way house between working totally in tone and working in colour. With small additions of blue, red and ochre these drawings can depict flesh tones quite convincingly. Experiment with the colours in your box, cross hatching, overlaying (layering) and blending to find suitable colours for your portrait.
You may like to fix the work after the main areas have been drawn and again when the mid-tone colours have been established. When working on the brightest and lightest colours as the portrait nears completion either fix very sparingly or not at all especially if working on a dark toned support.
There are several ways of starting to paint a portrait, three of which are outlined below..
1.Under drawing in charcoal developed with transparent and opaque paint.
This is described in a previous post; link below. The example is of a young woman rather than a child but a similar method and palette could be used. I like to work with a relatively limited palette and this will give your work unity.
The following palette makes a good starting point and some mixes made with the colours below is illustrated in the blog post referred to above..
White, Crimson Alizarin, Cadmium Yellow pale, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber. (or similar)
Other primary colours, plus white and a couple of earth colours will also work well. The Burnt Umber was included as it gives excellent darks when combined with ultramarine. With portraits of young people you will need to keep the colours fresh and make smooth transitions of tone and colour over the face.
2. Tone the background then use paint and a brush to draw the basic shape of the head and place the features. Then develop the painting with transparent and opaque paint working from light to dark and on the large shapes first before tackling the smaller areas and detail..
3. Make a detailed monochrome under painting making all the tones a little lighter than as seen. Develop the painting by adding colour as layers of transparent glazes. The palest and brightest areas should be left till last and if necessary executed in opaque paint. This can be knocked back a bit with further glazes where necessary.
For this session we will concentrate on the first way of working. So have at the ready, a board or canvas support, charcoal, some acrylic medium and of course paints, palette, brushes and water pots.
June 24, 2022
This week is another drawing session.
To start with this week I’ll screen share some references and we’ll do a few warm up sketches before launching into a more considered drawing for the rest of the morning.Maximum time 5 minutes for each. I will share my screen with you so we can work from the same image.
Probably best to work in soft pencil or charcoal for this and do all four studies on the same sheet (A3 cartridge would be ideal).
For the more considered drawing perhaps try drawing a boy if you chose a girl last week and vice versa. Girls may seem easier because the ear is often hidden by hair. If drawing a profile take time to look at the position of the ear in your reference; it may appear further back than you think.
I mentioned the proportions of the head last week and that in older children these proportions are close to that of an adult. Quite often noses may be slightly shorter and less developed and the only way is to observe the particular reference photo or the sitter closely. Also even in adults these measurements vary a lot between individuals.
Just to recap;
When looking at the full face;
1. look at the over all proportion of the head; i.e. how wide is it compared to its height then draw the head shape, tilted if the head is tilted.
2. draw in the vertical axis of the head and note how this axis changes direction for the neck if the head is on the tilt.
3. Show how the head connects to the body looking carefully at the width of the neck
4. Draw a line through the eyes; this will help with proportions as about half the head will be above and half below when the sitter is looking straight at you and you are at the same height.
5. For the fast sketches place the features roughly then use tone to reveal the form of the head and features. This will be greatly influenced by the lighting.
With the profile face the vertical proportions will be the same but do look at the overall shapes you are presented with first, and then place the ear correctly with noting far back it appears and its relation to the hinge point of the jaw which is just below the lower point of the attachment of the ear.
The three quarter view is beloved by portrait artists as it gives some idea of both profile and full face views. The amount of information on the full face is miniscule if the view is almost profile and likewise information on the profile is short if the face is viewed almost from the front. the axis for three quarter views is best drawn as a curve which we will discuss. If you think of portraiture as another kind of still life you will understand that perspective is every bit as important in portraiture, unless you are going for a cubist style but that is a different course!
For the more considered drawing you may continue with pencil, three crayons on a toned paper or work in colour. Working in monochrome or a with very limited range of colour will help you depict the structures of the head and tonal studies will form the basis for colour work in the following weeks.
June 13, 2022
I find the age group between about eight and thirteen or fourteen is incredibly interesting. Facial features develop so that the adult in waiting can be glimpsed. All the facial features become larger and take up a greater proportion of the head. Baby noses begin to take on their adult form and facial expressions become more subtle, whether of wonder and delight or perhaps moody, dreamy or slightly rebellious!
In this first session we’ll remind ourselves of the proportions of the head, using conte crayon, pastel pencil or charcoal for some initial sketches before moving on to a more considered drawing. I would strongly advise drawing from a reference of someone you know and meet often. Even when working from a photograph your mind will fill in remembering the forms you have observed in real life that the photographic image may flatten. Try to work as if the subject is really with you as you draw.
I give the same advice to anyone working on a landscape from photographic reference; try to draw as if you are immersed in the landscape again!
For this first week we’ll draw a head and shoulders portrait that is three quarter view or almost full face as in the drawing heading this post. It will also be useful to have a reference that is strongly lit from one side revealing the forms of the head and facial features.
If you would also like to make a profile view drawing of the same young person, that will really help you understand the form of the head. And what about the view of the back of the head? In a live portrait session I would encourage you to make several warm up drawings looking at the sitter from different viewpoints, so that literally all round knowledge of the head is gained.
I have prepared a Pinterest board of portraits of older children. The link is
Look at some of these examples in detail and imagine an axis running through the centre of the head and whether this is tilted. Note the position of the eyes relative to the top of the head and the chin. Also look at how the artist has shown how the light falls across the head. There are a couple of photographic works among the paintings and drawings. Observe these in the same way. In addition a few profile views are included. Again observe the lighting and the tonal values as well as the proportions and placement of the features. Measure the width of the head in front and behind the ear. This will vary significantly with even a slight turn of the head. Getting the ear placement right will help you make a convincing drawing.
As the first session will be drawing, observing the major areas of tone in your reference will be essential and should be roughly indicated at the earliest opportunity working from the large shapes before homing in on the detail. Indicate the masses of hair in a similar way before indicating a few strands of hair.
Learn to enjoy looking and assessing as much as drawing!
Make sure you have; cartridge paper, some toned paper like a warm fairly pale grey, some conte crayon, pastel pencils or pastel in white, black and sanguine, table easel and drawing board and lastly a good photo reference of your subject.
So I decided to include both!
September 17, 2021
This week’s challenge is to draw or paint the whole figure of a child, a child with another child, or a parent and child study. If you are fairly new to drawing I would advise drawing a single figure for your painting and to practice making as many small sketches of children whether from life or from photographs as you can, to train your eye to be accustomed to the fact that children’s heads are larger in proportion to their height than adult heads.
When painting young children either standing or involved with some activity it is useful to drop a perpendicular line from the highest point on your reference to work out the proportions of the body and the angles that the shoulders, hips and limbs and their relative lengths. Also put a perpendicular on your drawing paper. Some measuring will help you to see and draw taking into account any foreshortening that may occur as when an arm is pointing directly at you! If you prefer to draw completely freehand before painting, check the accuracy of your drawing by dropping a perpendicular from the same point as done for your reference.
As always also look for any clues from negative spaces that will help you get the proportions and lengths right.
With clothed figures, especially full skirts and baggy trousers try to imagine the limbs beneath them and their relation to the spine. Look at whether one shoulder is higher than the other and how this works in relation to the neck.
The little sketch above is of six year old Toby balancing on a wobble board. Note how in the figure on the left both feet are bearing some of his weight and if a line is dropped from his neck it would fall between the two feet. In the figure on the right most of his weight is on his right foot (left in the image) and a line dropped from his neck shows the neck to be positioned directly above the load bearing foot. Try to draw simple line drawings from life or ‘photos of standing children standing with the load shared between their feet, and also where the load is mainly on one foot. Then try to draw some children in the same way when they are actively engaged in a sporting or other activity where they are in motion.
If you have the opportunity and wish to draw a group of children together especially where their forms overlap, treat the group as one whole shape before homing in on the individuals. Work lightly at first so that you can adjust as you look at your subject more critically as the drawing progresses. Lastly make sure you take more time looking than drawing so that all the main shapes are correct before committing yourself to painting.
In the initial stages of painting look very critically at the direction of the light and how this affects the tones that reveal the form of the child. Look also at how light can affect the darkest local colours, for example even a black T-shirt can appear quite pale on the side that is turned toward the light but retain its dark appearance where turned away from the light source.
Lastly look at shadows cast by the child’s form; e.g. a shadow of the head falling on to the child’s neck and shoulder; shadows below the feet which will help anchor the figure to the ground; and in some cases the shadow of the whole figure against the ground or cast on a wall etc.
For examples of drawing and painting children look at the Pinterest Board below:
September 8, 2021
This week the challenge is to draw or paint a young child’s head in profile and/or full face. The features especially the chin and nose begin to show the character they will gradually develop into later. While it is often very difficult to identify and adult from a new baby photo it becomes slightly easier from the age of two or three.
Some wonderful examples can be seen on Jo’s Pinterest board at;
Your drawings and paintings:
September 1, 2021
This week we’ll consider making a painting or drawing a whole baby and suggest your subject is no more than one year old, or perhaps a better guideline would be between newborn and crawling, but not yet walking.
Babies have a tendency to thrash their limbs about when awake so it is often easier to work from photos but if you have a resident crawler, or baby that is starting to support himself do try and sketch from life, even if all that is achieved is a few hasty lines. This will help your observation and visual memory enormously. It will also help you to identify errors in more considered drawings at a very early stage.
However the easiest way with babies is to draw them while sleeping!
Do have a look at some of last week’s references again and perhaps practise drawing a few baby feet!
If you you would like to why not try a parent or even a grandparent and baby painting. Mary Cassatt painted many of these and a few examples can be found at:
August 26, 2021
Over the next four weeks we’ll look at drawing and painting babies and young children, looking at infant heads the first week then whole baby forms and go on to consider toddlers and young children to about four years old for the second two sessions. With drawing and painting babies and children the structures and tones need the same attention as in other portrait studies but an additional challenge is the soft touch needed to convey the softness and delicacy of children’s skin both with the tones and the colour.
Pastel, pencil, charcoal and watercolour will be used for the demonstrations but you are welcome to work in your preferred medium.
Drawing baby heads.
The facial features and skulls of babies are not fully developed and their proportions are different from adult heads. The facial features are smaller in regard to the space they occupy and only the iris of the eye is fully developed giving many babies that cute large eyed look. The nose being of cartilage grows at a different rate to the bone of most of the skull and at the baby stage the nose is often slightly upturned. The eyebrows are relatively lower than for an adult and the chin is smaller and tucked in so that it protrudes rather less than the lips.
1. Find a photograph of a baby’s face that is looking straight toward the camera and work out the proportions of the face from the tip of the chin to the top of the head. If you can see them also note the position of the top and bottom of the ears.
2. Do the same for a baby’s head seen in profile and also work out how the ears are positioned.
3. Draw and/or paint a baby’s head from your own reference. Note whether the features lie on a curve if the head is looking up or down and pay special attention to how the proportions of the various elements change. For example if the head is viewed from slightly below, more of the chin will be seen compared to the forehead and top of the head.
As with adults the eyes will be about one eye width apart. Unlike adults the baby nose and chin are shorter. As with everything when you are making a representative drawing draw what you see not what you believe to be there.
Next week we will consider the whole baby figure. However babies often play with their hands, sucking thumbs and chewing fingers, so also try to have a look at baby hands for this week’s session.
Some useful references can be found on the following Pinterest boards.
The first board (below) has useful guides to the proportions of infant to adult figures and also to drawing baby and toddler heads, hands and feet.
The second board (below) has a large collection of paintings and drawings of babies and young children. Some of these are simply beautiful studies. Others as in the Leonardo references at the end give information on the foetus before birth, and the drawings by Kathe Kollwitz give an idea of the plight of mothers and young children dispossessed by war and deprivation. Think about the study you wish to make, the character and mood of the child and circumstance. This will lead you to create a very personal work.
First it is good to make as many drawings as you can from life and photographs to give you a good understanding of the structures and enable you to be more credibly creative. The blog posts will mainly feature drawing and colour will be demonstrated during the practical sessions. Do send a drawing or finished painting for review this week, and any work made during the session will be posted for review the following week.
Your finished drawings or paintings:
April 27, 2021
This is a very popular portrait crop where the figure is cropped substantially below the waist and down to about mid-calf. It is an easier shape to fit to a canvas than an elongated whole standing figure and works especially well for women with long skirts.
Find a suitable reference or crop a whole figure reference to produce a three quarter length portrait. As you include more and more of the figure the head will be relatively smaller and the features will have to be painted rather differently; not so differently if you are working at a large scale but significantly less detailed at a smaller scale. The head is usually still the focal point of a portrait study so a good structure for the head and an indication of the main facial features are still essential.
The amount of detail with which the facial features are painted depends on several things;
Some portraits concentrate on the likeness and character of the sitter, while others may be more simplified or abstract. A glance at portraits by Rembrandt, Goya, Sargent, Matisse and Modigliani will give you an idea of just how varied the ways of depicting the clothed human figure are. Some examples can be found on the following Pinterest board:
April 19, 2021
This week you are invited to paint a figure including arms and hands but extending no further down the figure than about the waist. You may already have a suitable reference that needs no cropping or you may have a whole figure reference which needs cropping to carry out this week’s challenge. As a rough guide cropping works when it is not exactly at the elbow or cutting through part of a hand or foot. I have tried to show this in the illustration below.
You will however, always find notable exceptions from well known artists who perhaps have enough magic and experience to make the seemingly impossible work. Some great examples can be found on Jo’s Pinterest board, link below.
Week 3 Project
Choose a photo reference. Try to find a reference that illustrates the persons character or situation. You should feel something about the image. Decide by making thumbnail sketches, whether and what cropping would result in a good composition for a portrait that references the figure to about the waist. Try to include at least one hand. Some paintings of half figures have the subject at a table, sewing, drinking or reading. Make careful decisions about the background including only what is necessary or relevant.
As with the whole figure, work out the sizes of the dominant shapes and how they relate to each other. Look at the negative spaces. Either use a grid or at least a vertical and horizontal line across your image and your drawing so that you can check measurements and angles; making sure that your picture space is in the same proportion as the part of the image included in your work.
Really look at the posture of the person and ask questions.
Is the head at an angle?
Is the person looking to one side?
How does this affect the neck?
Can you imagine how the head connects to the spine?
Are the shoulders at the same height?
What are the arms and hands doing?
Are there negative spaces related to the position of the arms?
What angles are made by the arms and hands?
Are the arms bearing any weight as when leaning on a table?
Looking and answering these questions will inform your work.
April 13, 2021
This week try a different figure. If you tried a standing figure this week try someone sitting and perhaps choose someone wearing different clothes; perhaps a more flowing dress or someone in uniform. You may like to paint a child holding a doll or someone with a guitar. There are a few photo references here and ways in which other artists have painted similar figures can be found in the same Pinterest boards as last week.
For the seated figure:
and for the standing figure:
After next week’s review session we’ll discuss composition choices when working from only part of the figure and how to crop references to provide an interesting picture. For week three we will choose to include the figure down to about the waist and look at the ways arms and hands may be arranged. For week 4 we’ll be considering the three quarter length portrait so you may like to start looking for suitable references for these weeks.
The Project for week 2:
So for the Week 2 challenge find a significantly different kind of whole figure reference to your choice for last week, possibly uniformed, sitting or standing, perhaps holding a doll or musical instrument.
Check the overall height and width of your figure at the widest points. You may like to construct a rectangle around the figure so that you can transfer that rectangle to a space within your support. This will help you not only to get the proportions right but help you decide exactly how much of the total area you wish the figure to take up to make a pleasing composition. It will also help to avoid the situation of cropping an extremity at an unintended point or worse trying to shorten something artificially.
Also consider the negative spaces, for example between the legs if they are apart. Think hard about what items should be included in the background. An artisan carpenter might have his tools or an academic his books for example. Try to show the person’s character and age by the way they stand or sit and their interests by the surrounding props.
April 6, 2021
Over the next four weeks we’ll consider painting rather more of the clothed figure than just the head and shoulders. Choosing reference photo is the first challenge. You may have one of a complete stranger or you may have or can take a picture of a family member reading a book or even asleep. At least they won’t be giving you a great big beaming smile. For this week include the whole figure either seated or standing in your reference. The aim will be to get really used to looking at the various elements of the figure because understanding figure itself will help us understand how clothing drapes across the body. Usually there are a lot of clues especially with more tailored and tight fitting garments but the particular pose that presents itself can also give invaluable clues that will help you make a believable portrait.
In subsequent weeks we’ll look at suitable cropping points so that successful compositions can be made of to the waist and also three quarter length studies. We’ll also consider figures wearing uniform, formal regalia or traditional costume less familiar to us, but for all of these a general understanding of the figure, its proportions and the way it moves will inform all the work done.
Look at the standing reference first; in an adult the head is about one seventh of the total height but in a child this ratio is considerably more. In the photo above it is between one sixth and one fifth.
Follow an imaginary line from the top of the head down the spine to the pelvis and think about what happens when you get to the legs. With a standing figure the neck will be directly above the foot bearing most of the weight and if the weight is being evenly shared between both feet will be directly above a point between the feet. If your figure is leaning against a wall notice if this changes anything.
Look at how far the arms extend down the body if they are down and how far again if they are folded or the angles made if they are on the hips or if one arm is on the hip what is happening with the other arm.
Look at the tilt of the shoulders and the hips if these can be identified. Thinking about how the body moves will help. Look at the knee in relation to the direction in which the foot points. If you stand fairly upright with your feet together and then turn one foot out a bit the knee follows it and so the knee points in the same direction as the foot. When sitting this is also the most relaxed position for the foot, but of course if you cross your legs you will find the foot has far more freedom but still feels more comfortable when pointing the same way as the knee.
Try to find out how your own joints limbs and back behave, then look at your reference again and think through what is going on.
With the sitting reference, look at the relation of the sitter’s form to the form of what they are sitting on whether it’s flat ground, a grassy slope as for the Afhan girl heading this post, or some kind of seat. It can be useful to make a sketch of the chair, bench or stool, but remembering that the soft parts of some chairs will be altered by the sitter as above. The appearance of the figure, especially the fore-shortening of the upper leg will be very different depending on whether you are viewing the person from the side or the front. The height of the chair in relation to the person’s leg length will also result in a very different posture for the sitter. If a tall person sits on a low bench they will either stretch their legs out or bend their knees up bringing the feet closer to the chair. Just think about things like this when looking.
You may like to look at how other artists have portrayed standing and sitting figures so do have a look at the following Pinterest boards.
For the seated figure:
and for the standing figure:
Then it’s high time to have a go!
Choose to work either from a standing or a seated figure and make a few thumbnail sketches first, before launching into your first painting. Work so that you make note of the tones in the composition as well as the shapes of the forms. Try to imagine you are in the presence of the sitter and that the figure actually exists in three dimensions rather than the two dimensional image you are referring to.
After that decide how much space your figure will occupy in your painting. Look at the overall height and width of the figure and how much of the background and what of its features you wish to include or exclude. Sometimes an indication of the space around the figure and the objects within that space helps the composition while at other times there are things in the background which are irrelevant and may detract from the main focus: the figure being portrayed.
The medium is up to you; pastel and acrylic are possibly more forgiving than watercolour but whichever medium you choose once you have established the main shapes, take note of the tonal balance as well as the colour. If you choose to work in watercolour you may like to Google the portrait watercolours of Charles Reid, and Hans Schwarz, and of course Singer Sargent also produced some wonderful watercolour portraits.
March 17, 2021
This is the last of the head and shoulders portrait challenges and this week it would be great to try a portrait that is different from any attempted so far. If you haven’t yet tried to paint a very elderly person or a hatted person perhaps try that. Alternatively you could try a profile or near profile view or someone with amazing hair.
If possible choose a reference where the subject is not smiling. No one could possibly sit and keep up a broad grin for forty minutes and portrait studies from photographic reference look far more natural if the subject has a pose that could realistically kept for a long period.
If you decide on using a grid make sure that you take only the information that is really necessary to get the large shapes right. If you draw freehand in charcoal either as an under drawing for pastel or acrylic try to work tonally just indicating all the main forms and observing closely how the light reveals their form. Observe whether the head is tilting back or forward Remember to measure the total width and height of the head and to position the eyes and ears correctly.
If painting someone in a hat look at how the hat shades the face and how soft edges are under the hat.
If you are going to attempt a profile you may like to look at a few examples on the Profile section of my Portraits Pinterest Board, link below:
There was also interest in attempting a portrait where colours represent tones. You can find several Fauve portraits and the work of the contemporary artist Jessica Miller who works in this way in the Fauve portrait section of my portraits Pinterest board, link below:
March 10, 2021
This week’s portrait challenge is to paint someone wearing a hat or headdress. All the illustrations for this have been made in pastel or by making a tonal under drawing in charcoal, fixing it really well then adding layers of colour.
For an adult face quite dense layers of charcoal may be laid down to describe the forms of the face and mass of hair. For a child’s face a more delicate approach may be needed and it would be better to start with a drawing in pastel or pastel pencil using similar colours to those that will be used to finish the work.
Some examples of portrait paintings where the model is wearing a hat, hood or other and fascinators definitely come into the class of other! can be found on the Pinterest board that can be accessed by the link below:
When making a tonal study it is essential that the drawing is accurate. If the photograph is a front view or slightly three quarter view try to observe the following. Not quite so possible if the model is wearing a wide brimmed hat or in profile!
Look at the general shape of the head. Note whether it is tilted sideways and how this affects the axis of symmetry. Perhaps drop a vertical down so that it crosses the head between the eyes. Then drop a line from the highest point of the head to the tip of the chin, you will be then be able to see how much the head is tilted and you will be able to either make the eyes level if the head is perfectly straight, or at the correct slant if not.
Although if someone is looking straight at you the middle of the eyes appear about half way between the tip of the chin and the top of the skull, this alters when the head is tilted upwards or downwards. When looking up there will be considerable foreshortening so the eyes will appear nearer the top of the head but the ears will appear lower and you will be able to see under the chin and up the nostrils.
When the head is looking down with the chin tucked in, obviously you will see more of the top of the head and all the facial features will be rather differently foreshortened. The eyes will appear lower, the ears higher and the nose may overhang the mouth. The lower lip may disappear and only a little of the chin may be visible.
Usually a photographic reference will not be as extreme as this but do note the position of the head in relation to the head and shoulders.
Also note the width of the head in relation to it’s height and the position of the ears in relation to the point where the lower jaw articulates with the rest of the skull. It’s a good idea to feel this on your own head and also to examine the rather fundamental fact that a head, although roughly rounded has a curved frontal plane and curved sides. It is possible to think of the sides starting where the temples and cheek bones make a rounded corner. Again feel your own head and it will be easier to think about the structure of the head when you are drawing.
Leaving you with a final thought; remember that the hair is on the head so be generous with it! And if the model has very little hair you have the perfect chance to get the head shape spot on!
March 3, 2021
During the next few days the portrait will be completed and published. A lot more work is needed to resolve the features and soften and blend the skin tones. Some information on working in pastel will also be published.
Palette of colours used was: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Crimson Alizarin, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber.
Both cool and warm skin tones can be made with this very basic palette. It will also provide for some near blacks by mixing Ultramarine with Burnt Umber. Try adjusting Burnt Sienna with the other colours to provide for a very pale complexion, a mid toned complexion and a dark complexion.
Although the addition of a few more pigments would be useful for example a warmer red like Cadmium Red Pale, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber and Raw Sienna and perhaps Viridian, a remarkable variety of complexions and cool and warm shadow areas can be made from this basic palette.
February 23, 2021
Portrait painting is challenging because we are so familiar with faces that we can spot inaccuracies easily, and perfecting a likeness both of the physical features and the character of the model requires a lot of precise observation. This does not mean that we need to paint every detail but does mean understanding of how the various forms of the head and shoulders present themselves. A glance back to the portrait drawing Blog posts of May 5 Full Face, May 18 Profile and June 1 Three Quarter View will give you some useful reminders. Choose the appropriate month of the Blog archive to find them.
No excuses for the length of this post but the information should be useful for all of the next four weeks. I’ve put together a very eclectic mix of portraits on my Pinterest Board at
Making studies from photographs makes some things easier; the subject is already translated into two dimensions; it’s the easiest way to attempt wriggling children, and also to maintain consistent lighting etc. The down side is that many photographs tend to flatten the image so that we lose the sense of three dimensions and it is all too easy to copy slavishly instead of using the reference as a starting point.
Choosing a reference photograph
For the next four weeks we will consider working from photos of the head and shoulders and I suggest starting with a front or three quarter view. Reference photos with directional lighting from either side or above are more useful in revealing the form of the head and its features than those in which the head is evenly lit. Even lighting makes it very difficult to make the nose appear three dimensional and in painting as in a tonal drawing colour and tone will be more important than line to depict forms that are in reality three dimensional. Shadows on the face become even more interesting if the subject is wearing a hat but I suggest for this week it’s hats off and your first task is to find a suitable reference.
To Crop or not to Crop?
Once you have selected a suitable image you may find more content is more included than you wish to use for your portrait. It may be that more of the figure is included or that the surround is too large. Try using two L shaped pieces of card arranging them like a view finder so you can decide on an attractive crop for the image. Once found it’s a good idea to attach them so that you always return to work from the same part of the reference.
Now that a reference has been selected and cropped it could be imagined that all that remains is to go ahead and paint, and that’s possible but it may be better to think a few things through first, especially with regard to;
position of the head and its size in relation to the support, size of the finished work, background, tonal balance, colour composition
This is the stage where it would be useful to make a few thumbnail sketches. These should be no more than 3 x 4 inches and all on the same sheet of paper. Explore some of the following using a rectangle of the same proportions as the support to be used for the finished work.;
a) The position of the head on the paper e.g. as in the reference or to right or left, further up or down
b) Size of the head compared to the support, and size of finished work. Very often a photo reference contains the face but not absolutely all of the head. This can look charming at a small scale but presents considerable problems at a much larger scale. Very often head and shoulder portraits are made at three quarter life size so for an adult’s head and shoulders with some background 12 x 16 inches or about A3 would be fine and still allow the head to “breathe”. If only a child’s head/face fills the image so that there is virtually no background you may consider working much smaller at say 8 x 10 inches. Those working on paper can always cut paper accordingly but if you are using board or canvas you should work out the size you wish to work at carefully beforehand.
c) Background or vignette: Photographs of head and shoulders will have a background. It is a valid choice to paint without a background if that would suit the subject.
d) Does the background in the reference detract from or is it important to the way in which you wish to paint the portrait. Backgrounds may need simplifying, even to the extent of making them fairly uniformly dark or pale. Try both in separate sketches to see what would suit the subject best.
e) The main tonal areas of the head, neck and shoulders, and the hair. A small thumbnail sketch should really help you sort out the large areas and perhaps pinpoint the real highlights in the reference. It will also help you sort out the fact that the eyes are always in shade.
This is the point when you should also start to think about colour;
e) Complexion: Is the subject pale or dark skinned? Although we are only looking at the head and shoulders are clothes important and colourful and are some of those colours reflected in the face, especially neck, chin and sometimes the cheeks. See colour notes below for fair and dark skins.
f) Clothes and jewellery: Is the sitter wearing a hat or jewellery and how important are these to the composition? If a brimmed hat you should have already looked at the shadows this may cast across the face.
g) Background colours: do these enhance or detract from the portrait reference? These may be simplified and/or changed.
You may like to make a thumbnail colour sketch and work out some suitable flesh colours and see how these would work alongside colour swatches for background and clothes.
A mid toned paper would be suitable for working with pastel. If using acrylic or you may like to lay down a layer of white or tinted gesso, or thinned paint. At this stage you may decide whether to draw the image on to the support or whether as many painters do, or to start by blocking in the main shapes and tones and gradually refining these till your portrait is finished.
However you start it is important to reduce distortions when transferring the main shapes to the support by always working at the same ratio of dimensions on the support as in the reference. If working on canvas choose a size with the dimensions in the nearest ratio to the reference.
For example if your reference is 5 x 7 inches and you wish to scale up to twice the size a 12 x 16 inch canvas would be suitable but remember to lightly mark a rectangle of 10 x 14 inches ready to scale up the reference. When painting begins the paint can be extended to cover the margins but at the initial stages this will ensure that you should be able to get the proportions correct.
Draw the image on the support; either freehand or by using a grid.
Freehand: Personally I prefer to do most of the drawing freehand but often make a feint line across both my reference and support, dividing them both into quarters. This is helpful in checking whether the subject’s head is slightly tilted and gives a rough guide where to place the main shapes and to check the proportions and angles.
Grid: Many find a more exacting grid method useful. Stanley Spencer used grids extensively. If you wish to try this find a piece of acetate and make a grid of 1 inch squares. Lay this across your reference and make a corresponding grid of larger squares on the support (two inch squares for two times reference dimensions), remembering to work out the margins if the proportions of the support are not exactly the same as the reference. You can then transfer the drawing square by square from the reference. While accurate, this can result in a stiffer drawing so ensure you preserve the flow of the forms as they relate to each other.
Just draw the main lines and shapes including eyes, mouth, nostrils, nose and ear positions as well as the main head and shoulders shapes. At this point you can decide whether to start your painting by blocking in the main shapes or by making a tonal under drawing or painting. I may decide to start an acrylic painting by making a tonal drawing in charcoal, fixing this and laying a thin layer of transparent paint, perhaps burnt sienna or a more neutral colour thinned with water and a little slow drying medium and wiping out the highlights with a rag.
In Pastel: A good way to start is to draw the main shapes and then to start lightly blocking in tones and colour with broad side strokes, broadly working from dark to light but often also marking the lightest and brightest areas early on.
In Acrylic Paint: Perhaps tint the surface as described earlier and mark out the main shapes of the composition broadly with a brush. Then start to paint in the main areas of tone. I like to build up fairly tonally. This is a personal preference but within that I may like to indicate cooler and warmer areas, so it will not be a totally monochrome under painting. No detail will be painted but I will establish the darkest, palest, and then with colour perhaps some of the most colourful areas and the background so that I have some key areas established.
Most flesh colour mixes have a brown as their base which is modified with other primary colours. other colours. For fair skin this is often a burnt Sienna. For middle complexions this may be a burnt umber and for dark complexions raw umber. All of these can be modified with reds, yellows and for shadow areas blue. Some of you will have already experimented with the Zorn palette which makes successful flesh colours mainly because black and red will produce good browns. A reminder of some of the colours possible with this palette is below.
Try mixing your brown pigments with reds, yellows, white to make flesh colours and see what happens when you add a little blue or a little viridian.
Also note the difference between using a cool red like carmine or crimson alizarin or a more orange red such as vermilion or cadmium red pale in the mixes.
The flesh tones can be built up with opaque or transparent paint using darker and cooler shades for the shadow areas and pale opaque paint for the palest areas. See if any areas are picking up colours reflected from clothes or from the background and include these.
1.Thumbnail sketches as indicated earlier; exploring composition, tone and colour.
2. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting it would be good to have the composition worked out on the support; as a drawing for watercolour; or a charcoal under-drawing for pastel quite heavily fixed so that the colour can be worked over the drawing. In the case of a young person the pastel drawing should not be too dark.
If working in acrylic you may prefer to make a tonal under-painting or block in the main areas of colour, or make a tonal under-drawing, fix it and wash with a thin layer of very transparent paint. The paint layer will seal the charcoal and prevent it from lifting.
I hope to demonstrate some colour mixes and applying the first layers of paint. So the review session will be short.
Illustrations will be added to this post during the week.
This week is a mix of finished and preparatory work;