Faces Oil Painting Other Art Blogs I Read Painting People Portrait

Francis: Work in progress, oils

Francis-Grisaille underpainting done

Grisaille underpainting, oil on canvas, 9×12 (larger)

Francis is a little boy I photographed (with his mom’s permission) in the cafe at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Something about his red hair and sweet, wise nature made me want to paint him. This is a second attempt–the first got tossed. I’m trying a technique I recently saw demonstrated at the California Watercolor Association meeting. The goal is to end up with strong darks, high contrast and glowing skin. The artist who demonstrated the technique started her demo by showing slides of Caravaggio‘s paintings. He is known for strong contrast of glowing light in an otherwise dark scene, known as Chiaroscuro.

Once this layer dries I will be painting over the underpainting with a thin layer of color, trying to allow the darks and lights to remain and show through.

Francis-sketch on toned canvas
(above) First I started by toning the canvas with a thin wash of acrylic burnt umber paint. Burnt sienna would have been better though–this color is too dark and not warm enough. Then I used Saral transfer paper to trace the enlarged photo onto the canvas. Portraits are the one subject that I still do that kind of transfer instead of drawing freehand when I want to be sure to get a resemblance with all the features the right size in the right place.

Francis-Getting started

(Above) Next I started blocking in the dark shapes and lines I saw using burnt sienna oil paint thinned with Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits.

Francis-blocking in

(Above) Once I had the shapes blocked in I was ready to start adding the black paint, trying to keep it thin so some of the burnt sienna would show through.

Francis-Grisaille underpainting started

(Above) Then I started adding white paint, trying to make smooth transitions between dark and light. And this brought me to the finished grisaille underpainting at the top. Now I just need to let it dry and then start adding the thin layer of color and see what happens.

Art theory Faces Gouache Painting People Portrait

Girl in Gouache

Girl in gouache

Gouache on hot press watercolor paper, 7×10″
Click here to see large (then click again)

I painted this from a photo I took of a little girl at my niece’s high school graduation. I’m learning a lot from working with gouache–it’s a great way to experiment with seeing values and color temperature which is so important, especially for working with oil paint. I’m also learning that while you can repaint layers with gouache you do eventually get unpleasant paint build-up and it becomes more difficult to blend, as layers beneath get reactivated (unlike acrylics).

One note for anyone who’s interested in working with gouache: Many of the colors are not at all permanent since many artists who use gouache are painting for publication and the work only needs to look good until it’s photographed. When shopping for gouache, make sure the tube of paint has an A or AA permanence rating. Anything below that (B or C) and the paint may fade or change color rapidly (just in case you paint a “keeper”).

Drawing Faces People Portrait Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Drawing Faces


Graphite and watercolor in Aquabee 6×9 sketchbook
To enlarge, click images, select All Sizes


These are two more faces from my project of drawing faces from a book of character actors acting that I  explained in a previous post here. This actor was supposed to be a soccer dad whose daughter just scored a winning goal in the first picture and a Hells Angel preparing for a confrontation in the bottom picture. Drawing the top picture I could really see what all the muscles in face were doing to pull his skin here and there.

I had to draw the first one twice–the first time I didn’t get things lined up at all. I seem to always want to make faces and their features symmetrical whether they are or not. I try to straighten tilted heads, make mouths the same size on both sides of the face even when the head is turned so that it’s shorter on one side. The second time I looked more carefully at angles and where features lined up with each other and their sizes in relation to each other and I got closer to reality.

Art theory Faces Other Art Blogs I Read People Portrait Sketchbook Pages

Drawing Famous Faces & Copyright Info for Artists


Ink (Pentel brush pens) in Aquabee Deluxe 6×9 sketchbook
To enlarge, click image, select All Sizes

My painting group buddies Lea and Susie are taking a monthly portraiture class from local artist Myrna Wacknov. One of the homework assignments they’ve worked on during our painting group sessions is to take two sheets of watercolor paper and divide each into 8 sections using strips of tape. Then on one they draw the same person 8 times using different colors, techniques, lighting, etc. on each image. On the other they do eight different people but unify them in some way. Judith isn’t taking the class but jumped in anyway and is painting a sheet of 8 angelic portraits of George Harrison from an old Rolling Stone cover.

Then I found the book “In Character: Actors Acting” at the library, with 250 pages of photos of character actors’ faces showing every kind of expression and feeling. I couldn’t resist joining in. I bought a used copy of the book and plan to go through it, flipping it open to a page and making drawings or paintings in my sketchbook. This is the first one. There were two photos of this guy on the same page and I got distracted and accidentally drew his left eye from one photo and the right eye from the other photo. He was looking in different directions in the two photos–he’s not really wall-eyed, poor guy.

Copyright issues:
I did some research about whether I need copyright permission to use these photos in drawings. The answer is yes and no… BUT since I doubt anything I draw will look “substantially similar” to the original photo (or the person I’m drawing!), I’m probably OK.

Here’s what I learned on a page about copyright rules for illustrators:
Q: What are the rules when it comes to illustrating celebrities?
First of all, if you’re not working from your own photographs or memory, you need to obtain permission from the photographer who created the photo you will be using as reference material. (You do not need to get permission from photographers if you create portraits or caricatures based on dozens of photographs from different sources and you are careful to not to include elements that would make it obvious you copied from a particular photograph.)

Q: Can I use someone else’s photograph as reference material for a painting I’m creating?
If you’re copying a photograph, you must get the photographer’s permission…Even though it’s in a different medium, you’re violating the photographer’s copyright if you copy a photograph in your painting.
To constitute a copyright infringement, a “copy” must be “substantially similar” to the original work. If your finished illustration looks different from any of the originals you used as a reference material, you shouldn’t need to obtain permission.

Art theory Drawing Faces Other Art Blogs I Read People Photos Portrait Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Painting vs Preparing to Paint (& Portrait Request)

Fake Dane's Portrait

Brown Micron Pigma ink and watercolor in large Moleskine Watercolor notebook
To enlarge, click images, select All Sizes

The other day I got a mysterious email from someone calling himself “Fake Dane.” He wrote, “Hey, I think your art is great. I was wondering if you’d be willing to sketch me from a picture. I’m assembling a collection that I’d post. Dane”

And he sent me his photo. If you want to draw him too, just click the photo below and select All Sizes when you get to Flickr and then you can print it out:

Fake Dane's Photo

I wrote back, “Sure, why not?” and did the sketch above. I was going for caricature so I hope he’s not offended. (UPDATE: He replied and said he really liked it and put it on his blog. There’s some funny drawings of him as a vampire there too.) If you want to do a drawing of him and send it to him too, there’s instructions in the “Please Read” sidebar on his blog.

It was a fun, quick painting project on a day in the studio that was mostly spent at the computer, trying to sort out photos and compositions for upcoming paintings, something I don’t particularly enjoy doing. And that made me think about the differences between…

Alla Prima/Plein Air vs carefully planned painting

When I’m planning a painting I consider focus, value, composition, color scheme, etc. I do thumbnails and value sketches. If it’s something requiring exact proportions, such as a portrait of someone’s child, pet or home, I’ll start with a drawing and then work from a photo, tracing it onto the watercolor paper. But even with more carefree subjects like flowers and still life or landscapes, that prep work saves a lot of frustration once painting is underway. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

On the other hand, my understanding is that people who regularly paint alla prima (in one setting) or plein air make the prep work quick and intuitive and let go of exactitude, painting their impression of the subject rather than a careful rendering. I’ve done some and it’s a lot harder than people like Kris Shanks, Nel Jansen, Ed Terpening, and others whose blogs I enjoy visiting, make it look.

What I’m trying to figure out is how to combine the two approaches, or how to avoid all the labored pre-planning. Judy Morris, the teacher of the workshop I took in February, said that her favorite part is planning and composing from photos, not the actual painting. For me it’s the opposite — while I enjoy drawing, I love painting more and don’t really enjoy spending a lot of time photoshopping compositions and sorting through photos at the computer. (She does the prep work manually, working with black and white photocopies and enlargements of the subject and background, which she cuts out and assembles.
On the other hand, if I don’t do the pre-planning (especially with watercolor) the whole painting ends up being a study that has to be done over. I guess with acrylics and to some extent oils, one can just keep working on and changing a piece until it’s right, but I’m not sure if that’s a great way to go either.

I’m hoping to find my own way of working that incorporates the best of both worlds.