How to Paint a Portrait

Capturing the essence and spirit of a living subject requires attention to detail, the ability for creative extrapolation, and the talent to register the nuances of expression and creases of time and living.

Portraits are often considered the pinnacle of perfection because of their ability to look into the interior of the subject and reveal the most intimate understandings of his or her nature and true self.

As with all beings, the superficial shell projected to the world is not the true self that percolates beneath and it is only through the prodigious application of artistic review these true colors are illuminated and brought to the surface.

Preparations for Portrait Work

Before you begin the process of painting, there are some preparations to be made in your workplace and in regards to the subject.

  • Schedule a live sketching session with the subject and ask permission to take photographs you can later use to detail nuances. Bring mixed skin tone samples to the meeting to determine the best selection or whether your mixes need more work and tinkering.
  • Decide on your medium, brushes, and style before beginning your work.
  • Complete a sketch to help capture and relay proper proportions of the work (photographs help you do this.)
  • Make sure you have all the supplies readily accessible to you in your workspace, especially if working with mediums that dry quickly.
  • Natural light is the best light to work in – if you don’t have access to natural light, use a daylight bulb in your desktop lamp.

The Magic of Watercolors

A beautiful, fantastical, and flexible medium, watercolors are easily blended and layered to create stunning washes and subtle color while maintaining the ability to capture detail in a softer stroke. They are a popular selection in creating abstract portraits because of the flexibility and nuanced appeal of the brush stroke and color wash.

In composing a watercolor portrait, pay special attention to the selection of brushes, utilizing different sizes to create the desired effects. Flats with synthetic and sable blends are excellent choices, along with finer tipped sable brushes for detail work.

An important note for painting with watercolors is to apply a water mask, which is painting a thin layer of water over the entirety of the work before beginning to load the color.

Remember to pull the brush rather than applying a traditional “painting” stroke. Allow the water to facilitate the movement of the paint across the surface. The work of watercolor is to allow the water to do the work for you. With practice and continued experience, you will learn how to manipulate the flow of water with delicate application of spots of color.

Experimentation is the key to discovering your watercolor style of expression. Watercolor is a more delicate process and it is important to allow the paint to dictate the movement of your work. Patience is a helpful element in completing this subtle portrait work.

Versatile Acrylics

Choosing acrylics for portrait work is a reliable and exciting medium. The versatility and variety of effects managed through acrylic work is appealing to a wide range of artists from beginners to professionals. It is useful to gain experience in sketching and becoming familiar with bone and muscle structure before beginning the painting process. Practicing proportion will also help ensure a quality result in your portrait work.

In completing portrait work, one of the beginning steps is to establish the desired skin tone of your subject. Do not rely solely on the “flesh tone” tube of color sold at the shop for it will not be conducive to the true nature of your subject. Just as true skin is a blend of nuanced colors, so must your palette. Experiment with different shades of pinks, yellows, and blues to achieve the shadowed tone of flesh as well as the brighter components of the skin color.

For realistic work, it is helpful to establish a range of colors and tones for your subject, starting with the skin tone and advancing to the darker colors of shadow. A useful technique is to observe the subject’s palm color, the back of their hand, and the color of the shadow cast by their nose. This will give you the light, mid, and darker range of color.

If producing an expressionist or abstract work, less attention may be paid to the traditional shades of color. Create a similar range with the colors you wish to use (some artists utilize a range of colors they feel represents the personality of the subject) by creating a value scale for your light to dark selections.

The Endeavor of Oil Painting

One distinct advantage of painting with oil is the time you will have available to you. Oil is a slow-drying medium and is conducive to long projects or in difficult work you will have to return to the next day.

Drying time aside, oil painting requires the use of turpentine or linseed oil to thin or to clean up the paint. This makes the process a little more extensive and considerate work but is richly rewarding with the texture and depth of color. Oil painting is typically considered a challenging medium for beginners but is very popular with realistic and expressionist portrait work.

Begin with an underpainting, an essential task of blocking out dark, medium, and light values on the canvas. It will serve as an important roadmap as you continue the layering of your colors. Oil painting is typical performed in layers, completed one at a time before continuing to the next and can be a time-consuming venture. Manipulate texture as a mean of translating detail in the portrait work, such as in the hair of the subject.

The Importance of Experimentation

Regardless of whether you choose watercolor, acrylic, or oil paints as your method of expression, experimentation is the precursor to all success.

While guides and explanations can help demonstrate or instruct some methods of technique, the true mastery of art is through the willingness to challenge the self and the creative muse that surges within.

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