Updated: Nov 17, 2021
I’m going to share with you some of my favourite portrait painting techniques. Here, I am painting The Queen. It is still a work in progress. There is something about this pose that I just had to try to catch it.
Ordinarily, I would love to get the opportunity to work directly one on one with my model and have a live studio sitting where I’m painting a portrait from life. But sometimes that’s just not possible. So, when that’s the case, I try to get as much photographic reference as I can. I shoot reference material from many different angles. Getting in as many details as I possibly can, from the clothing to jewellery to hands. Even zoning in, right on those facial expressions for the painting The Queen. You never know when your model is going to do just the right thing. Having quantity here with your reference material is absolutely crucial.
I’m working directly on primed canvas board that’s 24 by 30 inches. I need to ensure that the model here occupies the right space. So I begin with a bit of a gestural drawing looking for those centre lines and a line that divides her cleanly in two. I then I have the general location of painting The Queen on my canvas.
Structure of the portrait
I usually work on a coloured background. For the most part, I use burnt sienna, sometimes burn umber. And this can tend to warm up my colours that I’m adding to my layers. But for this painting The Queen, I’ve just opted for a plain white canvas. To show that you can actually do this without any ground colour at all.
I divide up the face using some basic lines. This helps me achieve the structure. I begin with a vertical line dividing the face in two. And then one where the eyes are occupying space. Finally, it becomes easier to work out where the nose and the mouth are going to go when painting The Queen. This I find really anchors the portrait.
One of the dangers of working on a stark white background is we can’t really gauge what our tones are doing. So here I’m just trying to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. Then it allows me to read those colours in the clothing and then in the face. Its little bit easier by having something to compare these zones to.
Now because The Queen is wearing a deep violet top. This helps me choose the appropriate colour for the background of the painting. I always go for the complementary opposite of my subject. Here it’s a yellow-green. Yellow and purple sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.
Now the colour that I’ve gone for in the background is a muted yellow-green because I don’t want this to outshine the subject of the painting. I’m using a bristle dagger here to block in the face, and I’m using some pretty simple combinations of colours. Predominantly it’s titanium white with a bit of burnt umber, and alizarin crimson. Sometimes I’ll use other earth colours like a burnt Sienna, or a yellow oxide. But I try to keep things as clean as possible here in the blocking in stages.
We have a very ambient glow coming in from studio lighting that I can see in my reference material. For this ambient glow, I am going to make it a little bit cooler by using a bit of magenta and ultramarine blue. I’m going to try and keep this blocking in as simple as possible. These brushes really do help speed me up as well. I can cover a lot of very quickly by using that broadside of the dagger wedge. And then it becomes straightforward to blend across zones by using that broad face of the brush. Blocking is one of my favourite aspects of the painting The Queen because it’s just so immediate. You are using expansive strokes of colour. Straightforward combinations of paint. And it really comes together in a flash.
One of the things that can help speed this up is adding a bit of medium that will help with the flow. Here I am using liquin original made by Windsor and Newtown. It’s an excellent medium for providing a little bit of a smooth fluid consistency. It helps make your colours go a little bit further. However, never mix more than one part medium to 3 part parts paint, otherwise, you run the risk of yellowing.
Now sometimes, I’ll smooth and blend features within the portrait. This gives a little bit more softness and then reestablishes where the features are going to go. I use plenty of burnt umber here just to achieve a bit of a darker tone and a bit more warmth coming through the skin.
She doesn’t really look like The Queen at all, but I do have faith in the process that she’ll get there as I refine this painting more. Now it’s quite normal to feel a little bit disillusioned after the block in stage. Like maybe you’re not on the right track or the paintings looking a bit off or weird. Just recognise that it’s part of the process.
Colour, Tone, Shape and Mass
This process is about refining the image throughout those stages. We start off loose, and then we gradually incorporate more details as the process progresses. Now if we have the right foundation and with the proper groundwork here, it should make those details a little bit easier.
I do feel confident that the groundwork is pretty solid it, so I start by adding tile like brush strokes of individual blocks of colour. And I just built this face one tile or block at a time, paying very close attention to those transitions of colour and tone. I also pay very close attention to general masses and shapes within the fact. I don’t want to get bogged down in detail just yet. Just work out the location of everything to start achieving that likeless.
Refining the Portrait
As you pay close attention to your photographic reference or your sitter in front of you, you’ll notice some very bizarre colours start to come through. One of the things I’m using here is a lot of ultramarine blue and magenta to achieve a slight violet tinge in the highlight on the side of the face. If ever I need a darker tone I mix my ultramarine blue with burnt umber. I don’t have black on the palette. Instead, I like to mix my blacks. I am using this dark colour to redefine features like the eyes and the creases in the side of the nose.
The portrait is beginning to get more and more refined. It’s about building on that blocky foundation. I am just adding to the complexity of our colour mixes and also decreasing the size of the brush to get a little bit more intricate mark making. But we have to work up to this point. We can’t just start here from the outset. Well, you can. It’s just a bit more difficult. I don’t do it. You probably shouldn’t do it either!
Instead of using one brush for the entire painting I’ve actually got a hand full of brushes as I’m working on this. I’m using flats, filberts and of course my favourite – the dagger.
Using crimson is very handy when it comes to achieving a little bit more warmth coming through the skin for painting The Queen. I’m paying close attention to the colour temperature in these various stages. One of the things that I can use is that crimson to increase the heat inside folds of skin. I balance this out with my cooler tones.
It’s about creating a fascinating dynamic as well as an authentic likeness. And one of the things that can help with that tremendously is that juxtaposition between your warm and cool colours. I just love painting these character lines in the face. There’s so much interest here to try to communicate with brush and colour. Each one of these individual folds and wrinkles provides an opportunity for an interesting highlight as well as a shadow.
These highlights are very delicate though. To achieve a little bit more translucency, I can go for pure zinc white. This is a really lovely alternative to lead white which can be toxic and caused some concern for some artists. There’s also are some concerns about when it comes to using zinc white that some artists have claimed that it goes brittle over time. It’s not as archival as some of the other whites you can use. When it’s mixed with ultramarine blue, a little bit of magenta and burnt umber, it gives this charming and delicate feeling it to the highlights on the side of the face here.
Again I always save my tonal best for last. I gradually approach the top must highlight for the end of the process. It’s almost like sculpting in a way. Where slowly you reveal the three-dimensional form. This is also true for the darkest darks where the most intense colours lie within the painting. So here in the lips, these flashy red colours, I’m going to save towards the end of that process. Now where the crease in the mouth is, this is going to get a little bit more of a shadow.
I am using a little bit of cadmium red here, in conjunction with alizarin crimson. And to make sure these colours don’t get a bit too out of hand I’m using a bit ultramarine blue and burnt umber to desaturate.
Glossy and Matte Issues
I’m pretty far from the final detail. I am starting to notice some interesting surface quality issues between gloss and matte. It’s something that commonly comes up when I paint portraits. You might notice the surface of the painting going between a matte or a gloss finish.
This is quite normal. What’s happening here is the canvas itself may repel or absorb the oil content in the paint layers you’re putting down at different rates. Where the oil is sitting on the surface, these areas are going to look a little bit more glossy naturally. Where it is absorbed into the material it’s going to go a bit more matte.
Oiling-in the Portrait
There are some ways we can get around this. One of the techniques I use is called oiling out or oiling in. This is where we apply a very minute amount of oil or medium to the surface of the painting to even out that surface quality. Now there are some dangers when it comes to oiling out. Firstly, we must recognise our fat on lean principle. Secondly, we must not exceed those limitations of the medium of the oil that we are using.
Sometimes we can ask a medium we are using for oiling in to do just too much. This is where we might use something that’s not appropriate for that process of all. Like maybe an oleogel or a liquin original. Some mediums have the tendency to yellow and do so quite dramatically over time. And this can alter your painting to a point where you wouldn’t really even recognise it.
Next, we want to make sure that painting The Queen is absolutely dry, so we don’t mobilise any of that paint that we laid down and lift up with any of our brushwork. This is a process you could use if your paintings are getting a little bit more traditional and less direct.
Finishing up for now
Layering more and more will naturally lead to some surface issues. As you oil out the surface, you’ll notice that the tones will get a little bit darker and your colours will get a little bit more intense. It really helps to gauge what I’ve been able to do with the portrait so far before I make the next move. Sometimes the surface of the painting can repel the oil that you’re adding to it. So just working it into the surface gently is the key. I will need to take a dry rag and wipe away some of the excess oil when I’m finished painting The Queen.