For this month, I wanted to show a painting demo of one of my more recent paintings. This post will talk about my technique for painting from a photo and balancing what I see with what’s in my imagination.
And most importantly, how I accidentally painted a younger, hipster version of Abraham Lincoln.
Why Paint a Portrait?
This past month I’ve been learning about portrait painting. The video that hooked me in was a PBS special about an artist named Stan Miller (link to the video). Here’s the link to his YouTube channel if you want to dig deeper. As I watched each of his instructional videos, I was inspired and decided that I wanted to take a stab at portrait painting. I had never painted a portrait before, and I knew it would be difficult. Part of the draw though was because I had never painted anything like it, I knew I would learn skills that would help me become a better painter.
Choosing a Photo
When painting realistically, you follow certain rules. The three main ones are color, perspective, and value. To make this first portrait experience easier, I decided to choose a black and white photo to paint. That meant that I only had to follow two rules – value and perspective. In other words, I had to put the eyes and the nose in the right spot on the head, and I had to color the shadows all the right darkness. Then I could do whatever I wanted with the color.
I also thought it would be a neat experiment to paint something like Stan Miller's portraits, like this example. You see yellow, green, magenta, purple and all sorts of colors that don’t usually belong on a face – I wanted to get away with something like that!
The goal of the pencil sketch is two things: to figure out where things go, then draw in the darkest values. By “where things go,” I mean the location on the page and the proportions of what you’re about to paint. It could be testing how a two-inch margin looks between the head and the edge of the paper, then erasing and trying a three-inch margin. It means following rules like putting the nose halfway on the face, then the eyes two-thirds on of the way on the face. It's not necessarily getting the shape of the nose right yet, but this planning stage keeps you from getting halfway into a painting and realize something is lopsided or out of place.
Or in my case, realizing that you’re accidentally painting a young, hip Abraham Lincoln. I went with it anyways.
Additionally, I'm trying to pick out all the dark spots and scribble them on - the corner of the mouth, the back of the neck, etc. This familiarizes me with the shapes and regions that will be super important in the next step...
Here I used a large brush and large strokes to throw down some base indications of value. Which spots needed to be dark? Under his neck, side burns, etc. Which spots needed to stay paper-white? Side of the nose, part of forehead, cheek, etc. Any value in the photo between dark and paper-white, I'd block off random strokes. For example, look at the top left forehead. It's not a real shape, but the stroke just says “This is where the forehead ends.”
Then I started picking out shapes from the photo. They get more specific in the next wash, but you can see a few at this stage - the corner of the mouth, the inside of the ear, the goatee, etc. I'm outlining the shape of things that I want to hone in on later.
The colors are mostly random. I try to vary them to keep things interesting, but really they're flowing from my imagination.
Darker Wash and Adding Details
With equal feelings of regret and humor, I've embraced that this is looking more and more like a hipster Abraham Lincoln.
I went on to work the details area by area with a smaller brush. I’ll break down one spot for you as an example. Look at his left eye, the eye that’s in the light. If you scroll back up to the last wash, it used to look like a big splotch on the top of the eye, plus a little line below.
I first painted an eyebrow with dark paint, because he didn’t have an eyebrow yet. I looked at the photo, and that shape looked like a boomerang to me.
I darkened up the middle of the eye like an almond, but I left a few white lines in there so it’d look like creases in the photo.
Last, I painted in the crease underneath the eye. Three simple shapes, and I moved on to the next section of the face.
This stage takes the longest of the entire painting. It’s also my favorite part where I lose myself in the work and the time starts to fly by.
At this stage I’m focusing on darkening certain spots and adding little details I've missed. You can compare this photo to the last one and see the new colors on the ear, the neck, tee shirt, hair, and the facial hair.
The last thing I did was wash in some random colors in the background. I wish I had a method to it, but it’s honestly a random process trying to look artsy. Maybe one day I’ll find an artist with strong opinions about abstract background smudges, but until then, I’m making that part up too.