Last September, almost exactly one year ago I started hosting a portrait painting group in my studio. I had always felt that my life painting skills were struggling and also knew that working from life would improve my invented work as well as improve my work done referencing photography.
I decided to host the group to make sure that I would paint each week. There were a few weeks that were missed for holidays or vacations but I managed to finish the year with 52 head studies, 46 of them done from life and the other done from a photo to make up for missed weeks. I wiped out 2 of the head studies early on because I thought they were terrible, but moving forward I decided to keep even those that I wasn’t happy with to document the process.
Over the course of the year, I tried several approaches and palettes. For a while, I was able to really explore a 4 color palettes, using just white, black, yellow and red. I also tried doing a detailed drawing and then painting over it, blocking in an average tone and then working up and down in value. Most recently I have been working from the mass tone of the shadow side first and then blocking in the mass tone of the light side. None of these are new ideas, but I hadn’t really explored them with enough consistency to decide what I liked or disliked about them.
Here are my paintings from the last year, warts and all in a rough order. Most of these are not great paintings, just sketches to study an approach. Some of the process videos are embedded through Instagram. Hopefully they work smoothly. If you scroll through to the end, I will have some thoughts on what I have learned.
I spent two weeks on this pose, from life:
This was another two week pose:
The next few pieces were done from photos to make up for a missed weeks
I took the image above a little farther (below), painting from imagination.
In the 49th week, I felt like I had a breakthrough
My painting from this last week:
- Keeping things as simple as possible when starting until you get the shadow and light side blocked in saves a lot of reworking. Reduce the shadows to one value and the light to one and block them in. Start with the dark. You should be able to see a likeness with just the shadows in. Don’t move forward until this is solid.
- Once you have the big general shapes established, you are much more likely to be successful adding in details. The big shapes and values give you context that you can paint details into successfully. Resist adding detail to any of the features of the face until the big forms read solidly.
- Don’t rush. Better to have a successful unfinished painting than cover the whole canvas with regrets. Relax and have fun.
- Brushes matter. Get good brushes and have a variety to work with. This might be the oldest saying in the art world, but use a bigger brush, much bigger than you think you will need.
- Not having enough paint to work with makes it a LOT harder. Mix plenty of paint and have more than you think you will need on your palette.
- Values are probably darker than you think. I see this not only in my own studies, but in the work of others also trying to figure this out. Keep an eye on this and make sure you are pushing the shadow side dark enough and it will give you a bigger range for the light side and still have contrast with the shadow side.
- Find the things that are hardest for you to do and tackle them head on and often