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Art supplies Drawing Faces Oil Painting Painting People Portrait Portrait Party

Portrait Process: Start to Fail and Start Again

Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12x8"
Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12×8″

My first attempt at painting Sylvia, a lovely young Bulgarian architecture student, ended in an abandoned failure, displayed at the bottom of this post in 6 steps. I altered my course for the second attempt (above), starting with a better drawing, and was able to complete the study more successfully. I tried to practice for alla prima painting, not going for a “finished” portrait, even though I painted from her reference photo on Julia Kay’s Portrait Party, instead of from life.

What made the difference between failure and success was that I took the time to make a more accurate drawing first (above). I drew on one side of a sheet of Dura-Lar Matte Film (after first reversing the reference photo in Photoshop) and painted on the other side. Then I turned the sheet over, toned it with a transparent umber stain, and reversed the photo back to normal. That way I had the lines of the drawing to refer to, along with the photo without obliterating the drawing. It’s still visible on the back of the painting and could be traced over onto another sheet of Dura-Lar if I wanted to paint her again from the same drawing.

Below is the failed first attempt, where impatience and hubris led to a quick, sloppy drawing (with the evil thought, “I can always correct the drawing when I paint,” which I need to ignore in the future!). The captions describe what went wrong at each step:

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Faces Oil Painting Painting People Portrait Sketchbook Pages

Portrait of Nick for Julia Kay’s Portrait Party

Nick K for JKPP, oil on Mylar, 9x12
Nick K for JKPP, oil on Mylar, 9×12 inches

Wanting to continue my alla prima portrait painting practice but without a live model, I picked a photo of Nick K. from Julia Kay’s Portrait Party to paint.

I recently looked up the saying, “Perfection is the enemy of good” and read about the Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule or the law of diminishing returns that states it “takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task, while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort.” This is so true with my painting. I can enjoy and complete the majority of a painting in 6 hours or less and then easily spend another 60 hours tweaking, finessing details, and overworking it until I’m sick of it. I stopped painting this one as soon as I’d said what I had to say, way before I usually consider a painting “finished,” but also long before it stops being fun.

After toning a sheet of Mylar (see previous post) with raw umber and letting it dry, I sketched out the image in thinned raw umber. Then I took a photo on my iPhone and using the Miira app, traced lines on my drawing to compare it to the original photo (first photo below). I could see I’d completely missed the boat and started another sketch on a fresh sheet, tested it again, and decided I was close enough to begin painting.

Later, I realized the mouth was in the wrong place and moved it. I discovered that when you turn a painting on Mylar over you can see the original drawing through the film (see the red arrow on the reversed image below, pointing to where I moved the mouth). I’m really trying to see the shapes and planes that make up the face and head. Holding up a bamboo skewer or knitting needle along the angles and “plumb lines” of the face really helps to visualize what lines up with what, and is helping my drawing tremendously.

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Drawing Faces Gouache People Portrait Sketchbook Pages

Portrait of Richard for Julia Kay’s Portrait Party

Richard for JKPP, Gouache, 7.5x6 inches
Richard for JKPP, Gouache, 7.5×6 inches

I really tried to focus on two things with this portrait, getting the drawing right and keeping the gouache colors light (gouache dries darker). For once I managed to keep a tilted head tilted in my drawing–for some reason my brain always wants to make everything upright and symmetrical. It doesn’t surprise me since I learned that the image that comes in from our eyes is upside down and it’s our brains that convert it to right-side up. My brain definitely has a mind of its own…oh wait a minute–it is my mind!

Below is the original pencil drawing over which I painted the gouache. I wish I could show you the photo I worked from, but I think those are only meant to be visible to members of Julia Kay’s Portrait Party, which you can apply to join on Flickr and play too, if you want to.

Richard for JKPP, Graphite, 7.5x6 inches
Richard for JKPP, Graphite, 7.5×6 inches
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Art supplies Faces Flower Art Gouache People Portrait Sketchbook Pages

Portrait of Kathleen for JKPP and Bonus Azalea

JKPP Gouche sketch of Kathleen, 7.5x5.5 inches
JKPP Gouche sketch of Kathleen, 7.5×5.5 inches

I painted Kathleen (from the Julia Kay Portrait Party) side by side with the flower below but decided to post them as separate images. I’m loving gouache but really struggling with the way light colors turn so much darker when it dries. I actually lightened the sketch above in Photoshop so that it wouldn’t look so scary.

Azalea in Gouache, 7x5 x 5.5 inches
Azalea in Gouache, 7×5 x 5.5 inches

I found this flower (I think it’s an azalea) growing along the sidewalk in the neighborhood and picked off a blossom to paint. The flower is too dark because of my lack of experience with gouache, but I had fun painting it. Gouache is so much fun and I’m especially loving M. Graham Gouache. Now to just learn to mix colors about 4 shades lighter than they look! I mastered doing the opposite with watercolor so I’m (almost) sure I can do it with gouache too.