Category Archives: 3.2 Looking at faces

3.2.1 self portrait

This is the completed painting, made in acrylic paint and acrylic inc on a 50×70 canvas, pre-washed in yellow ochre (after tutor feedback I modified it to soften that sharp line on the neck)


I tried to assimilate what I’d discovered from looking at the Matisse and Derain portraits I chose for my research article on self portraits, here.   They achieved the sense of a real head and shoulders located in space, by using colour tonally, with no concern for matching actual flesh tints; and by offsetting warm and cool colours to strengthen the sense of depth.  Even though they used broad brush strokes they managed to describe character and expression.

I wanted the painting process itself to be relaxed, free and open, so before starting on my painting I spent some time studying the structure and planes of the head and face, and practised drawing them from many angles.

It’s an action painting – of myself in the act of painting, head eyes twisted to look at myself in the mirror, arm raised to the canvas, a look of concentration.  The sense of movement is increased by my pose, the treatment of the background and of my hair.

I’m pleased with the outcome as a painting.  I like the drawing, and the movement; the freedom of expression in the use of the brush.  I like the colour harmony; the ochre background repeated in the forehead and hair; the green and red complementaries in the scarf, and the red repeated in the flesh tints; the blue and turquoise repeated in the shaded sure of face and neck, and complementing the orange and ochres.

I’m not so sure about the contrasts between light and dark in face and neck – perhaps they are a bit too extreme and therefore harsh – maybe this is what makes my charcoal drawing below a bit more like me – softer.

As a likeness I’ll give it half marks!  A friend said it looks like me, but also she could recognise my sister in it.  My husband was positive about the painting and can recognise me, but didn’t want me so serious and stern-looking.  


Here’s my process :  first the head sketches, to learn and understand how the head is structured, and how it looks from various angles.


When I’d had enough of poring over these head sketches, and felt I’d improved my understanding and skill a bit, I drew my own head and shoulders on the canvas in charcoal.  I chose a pose with my head tilted up, tilted to my left, and turned to my left, all at the same time! My practise had given me the confidence to be ambitious, rather than choose a simple front-on view, and I managed to get the features lined up reasonably well.  I wore a scarf to pull my hair tight so I could see the structure of my head better.  This drawing resembles me more than the finished painting.

I brushed the surplus charcoal off, and painted the main lines in burnt umber; I’d seen traces of these lines in the Derain portrait of Matisse, and knew they’d disappear in the final painting.


With a large brush painted I painted the background using indigo, sap green, turquoise, cobalt, white.  It loosely represented the backdrop I could see in my mirror, and I was careful to make the side of my front shoulder, which was nearest my source of light (a sunny window) darker than the other side.  I’d seen how Matisse popped his front shoulder forward in the picture plane by creating maximum tonal contrast between shoulder and background there  


 In the painting at the halfway stage I looked rather odd.

Looking again at the Matisse and Derain portraits, I noticed they’d both used warm colours for the face on the side nearest the light.  I felt my green wasn’t helping me achieve the sense of form I needed.  I warned it up with pink tints similar to those on the neck, and this did the trick of bringing the left side of the face forward.

For the lower half I dribbled acrylic inks onto the damp canvas, spraying more water on and tipping it all ways.  I used a rag to model the creases in the sleeves.  By now the light wasn’t helping, so I stopped here for the day.  Notes for next session – check the hairline, check values of the right eye, soften the planes of the nose, cheekbones, shadow under lips extend down and graduate.



3.2.2 head & shoulder portrait

Here’s the final portrait, in conte crayon on A4 coloured Ingres paper.  I more or less completed this exercise in a single two-hour session with the model, so I’m pleased to have been able to create a reasonable likeness and a fairly good outcome while working fast (for me!).  There are many many faults in accuracy and modelling of the firm of the head, but at least I think it looks solid.  If I did anything more to it now, I would probably try to articulate the background a bit more.



Staying with friends during the week I’d scheduled for this exercise, I had planned ahead and taken some Ingres coloured paper and coloured conte crayons with me, as well as some drawing media.  A friend came to play in their band, and his black shirt and coloured hat caught my eye.  He agreed to wear the same outfit and sit for me a couple of days later.

We only had a couple of hours, so he sat by the window in a comfy chair, and I first made a charcoal study, feeling rather shy of my friends having the odd crafty peek as I worked.  I included more than just head and shoulders – I wanted to include the hands, as the pain and disability they manifest are an important part – but not all – of his life. 

Keeping up the pace, I started my ‘painting’, using the conte on another sheet of textured Ingres.  He was an exemplary sitter, taking his responsibilities seriously, and I made sure we had rest breaks every 10 minutes.

When time ran out I took some photos, so I’d have the chance to carry on with this when I returned home – or start a new painting in another media. 


I’m happy with my initial painting.  My sitter said he understood the point of the exercise wasn’t to make a perfect likeness, but to learn from the experience.  He thought I’d turned his mouth down a bit too much.  To me, it shows my sitter’s seriousness, and his courage and stoicism – as well as portraying his lighter, fun loving artistic side in the choice of clothes.  There are errors and omissions, but at least it’s fresh and not overworked. One day, given a chance, I’d like to make his portrait again, in paint, but I don’t want to do it now from photos – I’m afraid I’d lose his spirit!  I content myself with making some changes to better model the head, and adding the shoulders.

3.2.3 creating mood and atmosphere

I considered a few possible subjects for this exercise, and made a few sketches of my husband posing head and shoulders for me, thinking I could invent a mood or atmosphere.  I got slightly discouraged with this, as he wasn’t comfortable posing and I felt that I needed to cut the time short.

Then I embarked on a painting of a scene from the news, which as it unfolded became the telling of a story, so it was reassigned to that exercise.

Finally I met by chance an old friend who was happy to pose for me, and made this painting.

She has a gaunt, hollow-eyed appearance and I was inspired to paint a pastel portrait of her.  It all happened rather on the spur of the moment, so I didn’t give a lot of time thinking about what I was trying to achieve at the outset.  But, I had brought with me a large piece of dark blue pastel paper, and having looked for a long time at Picasso‘s blue period paintings, I set out to create an atmosphere of sadness, by means of her facial expression and my use of a limited palette of blue and ochre.  Van Gogh‘s portraits of peasants was uppermost in my mind too; they have a dark atmosphere; features are coarse, gaunt and worn looking; the dark ground and limited palette worked well to achieve this effect.

This was done in the first two hour session, on dark blue textured paper, going straight in with no preliminary sketches, underpainting or drawing.

Work in progress

The portrait aims to be true to life in the shapes and features, with the colours and the facial expression conveying mood and atmosphere.  I find I’m struggling with the challenge of creating imaginative interpretations of subjects in front of me.  I’d be more imaginative if I were painting an abstract or semi-abstract image, without looking at a model.  But with a model in front of me I can’t yet seem to get away from striving to create a realistic depiction of what I see.

The lighting was from a window close to the model’s right hand side, but there was also electric light on her right, making the depiction of solidity quite tricky – not ideal, but I wasn’t in my own studio where I could have set up ideal conditions.

I’ve achieved my objective insofar as I’ve expressed a sad, pensive, far-away look, and the colours lend a sombre atmosphere, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about my interpretation.  I’ve used the pastel in a bold, gestural way, and achieved an unfocused, ambiguous image, which is good as it may express her inner turmoil.  On the positive side, an artistically savvy friend, whose opinion is always honest, said ‘the main thing I see is a confidence in your style emerging’, which I take to mean my emerging artistic voice!  

3.2.4 conveying character

Here is the completed painting for this exercise.


I made sketches of a neighbour, a dreamy eighteen year old.  Below is the penultimate version, which I looked at for a couple of weeks before making some changes to skin tones (pink to nose and cheek, highlights to forehead and cheekbone) and hair tones (darks lighter and lights darker).  It’s difficult to compare them here because one was taken in full sunlight, and is true to the original; the other (below) was taken in shade, and consequently is much bluer.



She is on the cusp of the transition from ungainly childhood to being a young woman.  She is experimenting with being grown up – arriving with carefully applied make-up, but her hair still rough and tumble!  In my head and shoulders portrait I’ve succeeded in capturing her youth, innocence and passivity, but lost her awkwardness that the sketches brought out. In doing so I’ve lost a childlike quality and made her seem older than she is.  I must confess I’ve played to how she would like to see herself, thinking I’d like to be able to show her the painting and for her to be pleased.

The painting was done from my sketches and photos on 35x50cm mixed media lightly textured paper.  I made a lot of thinned washes of acrylic paint, using them almost like glazes to build up tone and form.  Some of the sketches and photos were made outdoors with a blue sky and far away blue-green hills behind her; this is the context for my painting.  I used these blues and greens in the skin tones, showing how the face and hair reflects the light from her surroundings.


The first (biro) sketch captures her character well, and made my husband laugh out loud in recognition!  I did get the characteristic ungainly, awkward look.  The awkwardness remind me of myself at that age.  The third (charcoal and coloured pencil) is also a characteristic pose – round-shouldered, one arm self-consciously across the front.  For the close-up (charcoal and colours pencil) she sat quite close to me, and I did capture something of the dreamy, passive gaze – although I’ve mis-aligned the eyes.  In all three, I’ve got the way the head tends to be inclined down while she gazes upwards.

The second (charcoal) study is nothing like her, but she favoured it – it makes her look pretty and graceful but lacking in her own character.





Reviewing all my portraits.

Her is a gallery of my portrait paintings so far.

Which ones are the most successful?

I asked my husband to review the paintings seen all together, and give me his reactions.  In his view the first two are least successful – they aren’t well defined and have less impact than the other four, which are all are very different in style.  The subjects in all are recognisable.  The self portrait (third painting in gallery)  is the most successful –   it jumps out at you, because paint and colour have been used more liberally.  Irem (sixth in gallery) is lightweight and a bit photographic, the paint and colours are watery. Nasife (fifth in gallery) is dark and atmospheric and has good contrasts.  

What technical demands  did I encounter?

Painting a nude self portrait was a challenge – I didn’t altogether succeed in overcoming cold, insecurity (would someone burst in) and self-consciousness, and it just felt strange sitting there painting with nothing on!

Özge (tonal portrait, second in gallery) presented the challenge of foreshortening, and drawing proportions and placing lines correctly in general, and took quite a bit f head-scratching before I was satisfied.

Drawing the head seen at different angles and aligning features correctly requires a lot of practise and perseverance.

How hard did I find the interpretive element of portrait painting?

Very hard.  I found it difficult to get to grips with the notion of a portrait in itself conveying an atmosphere or mood, without it telling a story.  I also found it perplexing how to convey character in the person I chose, whose character isn’t yet formed.