Friday, November 26, 2010

Portrait of a Redhead

The online art 'community',, has a forum on portraits that I visit on and off.  With the rain and cold weather, it's beginning to be more on than off.  There is a monthly 'challenge' in the portrait forum where someone posts several photos and everyone is invited to paint one or more in their favorite medium and style.  I haven't done many portraits this year and I felt the urge to get back to it.  This month featured an unusual looking redhead and I decided to give it a try.

establishing "landmarks"
I had a stretched 20" x 16" canvas of fairly smooth texture and I had toned it with a raw sienna previously.  I started out in the usual way with a direct sketch using a small brush and a reddish brown mix slightly darker that the canvas tone.  I sometimes use a gray for sketching, but more and more I like a warm tone closer to the colors of the subject.

I sketched carefully, trying to get the 'landmarks' in the right places. This is such a critical step in a portrait.  I try not to rush it, but I am an impatient painter and it's always a struggle to resist plunging into the 'good stuff' too soon.  As I write this, I realize that I didn't do much measuring during the early sketch, and, predictably, this lead to some problems later.   Portrait painting is a process with definite steps.  The earliest sketch is a critical early step.  Rush it and you'll struggle to find a likeness for the rest of the painting.  I did.  

Developing forms and establishing darks
My favorite part of any painting, portrait or landscape, is the drawing.  I love to draw with a brush and often I am tempted to quit at that point!  With landmarks established (incorrectly in several places) I begin to draw in the shapes more fully, still using the reddish brown mix.  I added shadow areas as if sketching with a pencil.  It would probably be more 'correct' to just begin to add the darks and halftones in color rather than shading with the sketch color and brush, but more and more I've begun to take this extra step in the sketch.  Because getting a likeness and accurate drawing is dependent on the spaces between landmarks - hairline to eyebrow, eye to hairline at temple, bottom of nose to upper lip, and so on - putting in the shadows and halftones this way helps find any areas that are badly drawn or that have missed the likeness significantly. 

Adding lights

Now I begin to add color, starting with the darkest darks.  Since these are primarily in the hair, I mix a burnt sienna, cad orange and add ultramarine for the darkest areas. Although I shouldn't have, I couldn't resist adding some lights in the hair to begin to give it body.  The darks in the face should have been added next - the left side of the face, under the nose and lower lip - but with the shading from the sketch defining these areas and giving them shape, I ship right to some of the lightest lights.  Once again, in hindsight, this is 'out-of-order' in the process.  The correct approach would have been to paint the darks in the face, follow with the mid-tones and finally add the lights, but being a bit out of shape painting portraits, I wander haphazardly.  I know better, but sometimes it's easy to deviate from what we know and instead, do what we want.

At this point I am conscious that the shape of the face in not correct and that the head seems slightly wider than the model's.  It's inevitable that this will happen when the sketch phase isn't done with patience and accuracy.  I decide that I can correct that by moving the ear in from the right and by continuing to work on the shape of the forehead, cheek and jaw by negative painting with the dark passages of the hair in shadow.   At several points in this painting, I wipe out whole sections with a paper towel dipped in OMS.  The smooth canvas makes this much easier, thankfully. 

Finally, I add a simple background after adding in the midtones and lights in the face.  I really don't like the blue after I put it in.  I think the warmer background was better, but I'm committed at this point, and since it's just a study, I'll probably leave it as is.....

"Mairen"  Oil on Canvas  20" x 16"


  1. Bruce, it is so much fun to read about the process you took to paint your beautiful Redhead. What a wonderful study. I agree with your on the background. I like the light and warmth before the blue. You did a great job. Looking forward to the next portrait.

  2. I'm finding I like a common color between subject and background. In a portrait if the skin is an ochre hue then a ochre hue background seens to mesh. So too, it seems, with a pinkish complexion and background. Probably makes for too limited a color scheme in the long run but seems eye pleasing in some portraits.