Posted on Sun 12 Aug 2007
How to paint a portrait full of character
I like painting portraits of people of all ages, and I like to paint faces that express emotions. Using watercolour, with all its vibrancy, helps me to show the shadows and light that bring the portraits to life.
My best portraits come from photographs I have taken myself. It is also important to get acquainted with the person I want to paint. I chose Lydia as a model for her eyes and her smile; I painted portraits of her sister and her mother a year ago for the same reason.
Lydia was painted on 300g Langton Rough watercolour paper with two round sable brushes Nos. 8 and 2. For the details I used a sable brush No. 8 with a pointed tip. I always have my little flat No. 2 mix brush for making corrections.
I used the following Maimeri watercolours:
Skin: • Magenta • A little viridian • Burnt sienna (I mix both a light colour and a darker shade.)
Eyes: • Burnt sienna • Ultramarine
Mouth and the red in the face: • The skin colour plus a little more red
Hair: • Burnt sienna • A little yellow ochre • Ultramarine
Shadows: • Cobalt • Raw umber • A tiny bit of violet
Dark shadows and black: • Ultramarine • Burnt sienna
1 Draw the portrait carefully using simple lines. Before beginning to paint, decide where the light hits Lydia’s face and therefore where you must keep the paper white.
2 Put in the light skin colour from the left side of the forehead. Start by putting on the paint where you want dark skin tone then, with clean water, go into the paint with your brush to give nice, soft shading.
3 While still damp, add a little red to the cheeks.
4 Remember to paint ears, neck and arms while you still have the colour of the skin.
The most important features in a portrait are the eyes and the mouth. Not before painting the portrait will you know if you have succeeded in depicting the personality of your model. I always put these features in as soon as possible. If you get the eyes right, you won’t go wrong with your portrait so start with the eyes.
1 Lydia has brown eyes, so mix a little ultramarine in the burnt sienna and paint all of the iris, leaving a little white spot for the glint in the eye. Now the eyes are staring emptily at you, but let the paint dry completely before painting the pupil almost black by adding more ultramarine to the brown. Use the same black for her eyelashes.
2 Start painting the dark inside of Lydia’s mouth– let her smile come to life! Paint negative space around the teeth, but take care not to go into detail and do not paint the space between the teeth as it will look grotesque in a painting. Leave it to dry.
3 Now to the lips. The red for the lips is very close to the red in Lydia’s cheeks so you only need to add a tiny amount of magenta to the red. Paint a fine line at the lower side of her upper lip (as her lips will be a little darker here), then soften it by adding clean water to the paint. Take care not to make the lines too sharp where the lips meet the skin, as it never looks good in a painting. If it gets too light just put on more paint and repeat the softening procedure, adding clean water into the red with your brush. On the lower lip be sure to leave some white, where the light hits.
1 The red in Lydia’s blouse is magenta with a little burnt sienna. Take care you get the stripes right, as they are important for the curves of the arm and the fabric.
2 Put in the dark hair along the left side of Lydia’s face, framing her cheek and forehead. Add more ultramarine to the hair colour, softening it toward the edge, taking care the edge isn’t sharp, which can cause difficulties when you do the rest of the hair later. The dark tones give depth to your painting.
1 Painting the dark frame of hair to the face shows that the skin needs more colour, so go over it again before adding the shadows. Wet the area you want to darken, and drop the colour in – it will mix beautifully. A little more red can also be added to her cheeks and chin.
2 Usually I mix shadow colours from cobalt and raw umber, which give a nice grey but as the skin is very delicate here, I added violet as well.
3 Use the shadow mix for light shadows around the eyes, under the nose, under the mouth to shape her lip, and Lydia’s eyebrows. On her eyelids use a No. 2 brush to paint the details in the shadows to help indicate that her eyes are round, not flat. For the same reason put in shadows in the corners of the eyes. Add ultramarine and burnt sienna for some of the darker shadows – in the neck and the dark on her blouse under her arm. The nostrils also need darker shadows. Put in the dark colour in the edge of the nostrils and tone out into a light grey. Take great care at this stage.
1 For the hair, mix burnt sienna and a tiny bit of ultramarine then add a little yellow ochre. Let your brushstrokes follow the hair, and don’t forget to leave white paper where the light reaches the hair.
2 Step back and look at the painting to see if corrections have to be made. In my case, I decided to add more contrast at this stage, and so darkened some parts of the portrait. Almost with every painting I do I put more contrast in at the end. It is the darks that bring the light forward and give life to your painting.
This extract is from an article in Leisure Painter, March 2007 issue.