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Creating a Likeness

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

It is late June 2019: Having had gone to a workshop I was able to learn the steps involved in painting a live model portrait. While it was my first portrait of a live model, it was my first portrait overall (see "Girl' painting). While I have begged for my wife to sit for me so I could practice, she continues to say "NO". So what choice did I have except to sit for myself? I am the cheapest and hardest working model I can afford.

Basic Head Proportions of Head

An additional View of front to side head proprostions

How could I go about doing this? I first set up a mirror alongside my easel and just painted. I did the alla prima method (complete a painting in one sitting). And the mess you see below was my final product after only 1.5 hours of painting (see below: Self Portrait Study). I come off angry in this painting which proves that even the slightest brush stroke can change the painting. While I am happy with the portrait, I learned a lot about value and made mental notes of where I can improve. (i.e. it is all about the lips, eyes, and nose - the features that give likeness to a portrait - and making sure all the correct human components are in the right place).

Self Portrait Study; 12 x 16 in., Oil on canvas. Alla Prima Portrait directly from a mirror. 1.5 hours

For my second attempt, I wanted to focus more on the process rather than the time to completion. This would allow me to make appropriate decisions vs. bad ones. So, I set myself up in front of a mirror. Added strong, warm lighting, and started snapping pictures. I then used my drawing skills to get my portrait up on the canvas and made sure everything was in the right proportions before I even started with the first brush stroke. Drawing can take a lot of time so it is imperative to make sure everything is in its place because it makes the painting process so much easier. Therefore, I erased several lines and moved them (multiple times). Better to do this now than with paint. When it comes to having a live model, you do not have this luxury of time and thinking. I can only hope that when I keep doing this I will get faster and faster at making paint decisions and value interpretations from what I am actually seeing in front of me.

Canvas Prep: I purchase pre-stretched cotton canvas but the only ones available are acrylic primed. To make sure you get a good chemical bond, I mix titanium white and with equal part Liquin. I take a pallet knife and cover the canvas entirely. Allow 24 hours to dry. This takes away a lot of the factery look from your canvas. Once dried, I apply a very thin coat of underpaint (burnt umber in this case). I can either start painting (wet into wet), or wait for the underpaint to dry.

I start making very energetic brush strokes for the background that really stands out. Making sure to use a lot of OMS mixed in with my paint I was able to get more of a wash effect that resembled watercolor. I love the mess of the drip lines. They add a sense of character to the painting. Moving forward, I am making sure to squint and continue to look at my photo and focus on the values of the main three colors casting across my face.

Working in front of a mirror I took a photo of myself to work from.

I apply the three colors I see to my canvas. I make sure to keep the shapes I had already drawn in proportion to my head. At this point, I had drawn and painted for 3.5 hours (see below: Initial Block-in). It was after this time I decided to take a break. The break was for about 2 months because, you know, life gets in the way. So, during those two months, I would stare at this unfinished painting and marvel that I would have to finish it at some point. The time came at the end of September 2019 that I picked right back up where I left off.

This time, I had a large 8 x 11 photo of my self printed parallel to my easel for direct comparison. When painting, so I have learned, the artist must always be on guard with stepping back and comparing. The artist should always be comparing. For many years I never "really" knew what this meant or "how" artists do it. So in my reading and taking workshops, I have discovered that the artist should cover the entire canvas initially so that you have something to compare your darkest dark to and lightest light. In this case, 2 months ago I blocked in the entire face and neck. In starting this painting I began with the darkest dark (dark side of the face). How did I know to start here? Well, I compared my dark side of my face with the light side. In doing this comparison I noticed that the values were too close together. This is what comparing means. So, the next step would be to make that dark side darker so it allows the light side to pop. While I am doing this I am always looking at my photo and squinting a little (but not too much).

Initial Block-In: being bold, I focused on the three main shades of color for my face as more of an underpainting. If I had continued beyond this point I would have worked wet into wet. By the time I took this photo, I was already in 3.5 hours. The drawing and composition parts take a very long time.

I keep moving from one area to the next. Trying to stay in a sequence from dark to light and then downward toward my neck. One of the most difficult places on the face for me are the lips. The eyes and nose really add the personality of the sitter you are painting, but the lips do tell a part of the story. They are immensely hard for me. So, I must tackle that head-on. Another artist gave me some advice on what she learned about painting lips. It is all about the shadows and values around the lips that make the lips stand out. Not so much the lips themselves. The concave nature of the lips allows this to make sense. So, will try this when I paint my next portrait.

Close Up of the Eye and the colors used. Notice how the eyes are not white. I allowed some of the underpainting to show through.

So, let us go back to comparing as discussed before. Below is a series of crops from my photo to the final painting (see: Comparing). The white arrows ("B") identify where I began my final layers because I had colors already down that I could compare my darkest dark too. As you can see in "B", the shadow value isn't dark enough. In section "C" you can see that I added much more burnt umber, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, and yellow ochre to my mix. With the neck portion, you can see (in comparing the yellow arrows), that the value of the neck in "B" is the same as the side of my face. Based on my photo, you can see that there is clearly a slightly lighter value on my neck than on the side of my face. You can definitely see the ear and the skin on the side of the neck. You also have to consider that my white shirt is reflecting on my skin which brings it up a tone in value (in comparison to the side of my face). Again, always comparing and making adjustments as you see them. I am hoping you can understand the importance of comparing by now.

Comparing: A: Reference Photo; B: Block-In underpainting; C: Final layers of paint with the correct value

Overall, I am satisfied with the final product. Though I still have a lot of learning to do, but it at least is a start in the right direction.

Continue to paint through the struggles, you can only get better with each painting!


Tim - Self Portrait; 24 x 24 in., Oil on Canvas - 7.5 hours to complete

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