Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff

Do you struggle to create figures that look dynamic and not stiff? Maybe you've applied those 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions, and have measured and re-measured. Everything seems to be accurate. And yet, in your drawing, the figure still looks stiff as a board!

The 4 Actions can indeed help you achieve accuracy. But accuracy and liveliness are sometimes 2 different things. At the end of the last lesson, I mentioned there is actually kind of a 5th action—the gesture line.

Practicing gesture lines is a key to creating figures that look dynamic and not stiff.

What Gesture Lines Are
And Why You Need Them

"Gesture lines" are simply lines that communicate the implied movement or "rhythm" of a person's pose (see the examples below).

Even when a person is holding still, the human body naturally tends to have graceful, flowing lines that imply movement. This implied movement is what the gesture line does a great job of capturing.

Typically, gesture drawing is done from life, and under a short time limit. Each example above represents about 2–3 minutes of drawing. Below, I've spent just a couple more minutes on each drawing (click images to enlarge).

In the extra time spent on each drawing, I simply built more specific shapes on top of my original gesture lines. If you use your initial gesture lines as the foundation for a drawing, they can help your drawing retain some of the energy of those gesture lines.

But your drawing will only be as strong as your foundation. That's why—even when you're gesture drawing—you still need to apply the 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions. Because of the limited time-frame of a gesture drawing session, it may be impractical to always use a measuring tool to apply the 4 Actions, but you must still apply the 4 Actions using your eye.

How This Applies
To You as a Painter

You might be thinking, "That's great for drawing, but I want to paint." Well, it's a funny thing… a disciplined practice of gesture drawing can lead to a command of the gesture line, which in turn can help your figure paintings look more dynamic. I'm not 100% sure why this seems to be the case, but I think it may go something like this:
  1. Gesture drawing can give you familiarity with (and therefore greater confidence in) drawing the basic shapes of the human figure.

  2. This confidence can help you break free from a slavish adherence to static photo references when painting a studio work.

  3. With practice, the energy and liveliness of gesture drawing can be wielded in harmony with the objectivity of the 4 Actions to create figures that are both accurate and artistic.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me paint a figure from start to finish in my upcoming online video course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

I'll share more figure drawing tips next time in Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff (Part II).

Until then,

The 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at art school was the 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions. With just 4 actions, you can draw absolutely anything under the sun… with the correct proportions! Yes, I'm being serious.
  1. Compare distances 
  2. Copy angles 
  3. Check alignments 
  4. Consider negative shapes

Now I'll demonstrate each one…

Note: In the following illustrations, I measure the proportions of a painting. However, in real life, I would measure the proportions of my subject first, and then measure my painting to ensure the proportions of my painting matched the proportions of my subject.

1. Compare Distances

A. Hold out your brush handle (or pencil, etc.) against your subject. Close 1 eye so you don't see double.

Choose any 2 points on your subject. Mark off the distance between these two points using the tip of your brush handle and the tip of your thumb. In example "A," I've marked off the distance between the top of the girl's hair and the bottom of her chin.

B. Now, see if this distance compares to any other distance in your subject. In example "B," I've discovered that the distance between the top of the girl's head and the bottom of her chin equals the distance between the bottom of her chin and the bottom of the bowl.

Why this is awesome
Now that I've found where the bottom of the bowl goes,
I will be much less likely to make her arms too long or
too short as I draw them between the head and the bowl.
Continuously comparing distances like this will
help you achieve correct proportions, no matter
your subject's shape or size

2. Copy Angles

Compare a horizontal or vertical brush handle to an angle in your subject to determine how much the angle is tilted. In this example, a horizontal brush handle makes it much easier to tell how much the girl's eyes are tilted.

3. Check Alignments

Use your brush handle like a plumb line to find 2 points that align to each other. In this example, I've discovered that the corner of the girl's mouth (A) is directly below the edge of her eye socket (B). Finding this unexpected alignment greatly helped me to draw the tilt of her head correctly!

4. Consider Negative Shapes

Let's say I've been drawing and re-drawing the arm, and it still doesn't look right. But then, I shift my focus and look at the negative shape–that triangular shape of air between the crook of her arm and her side. I focus on drawing that shape correctly, and suddenly—viola! Her arm looks accurate too. Often, correctly drawing a negative shape will automatically improve a positive shape.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate these 4 Actions on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

Now, I know I said there are just 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions, but there's kind of 1 more–the gesture line. I'll talk about that next time in Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff.

Until next time,

My Simple Method For Mixing Any Skin Color

Do you find it difficult to mix good skin colors?

First, remember that before you attempt to mix the color of a shape in front of you, you must first consider that shape's value and temperature (For value, see Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D and for temperature, see Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Tones.)

But this lesson is about color. So without further ado, here is My Simple Method for Mixing Any Skin Color…

Step 1: Simplify

Flesh can contain hints of every color of the rainbow! When I'm mixing skin colors, I often find myself dipping into every color on my palette.

This is why I find it best to keep things simple in the beginning. When I start mixing skin colors, I think of each color on my palette as belonging to 1 of 3 categories:
  1. Reds 
  2. Yellows 
  3. "Nudge Colors" (I'll define this in a sec)

I find that simplifying my colors like this is an efficient approach to painting any skin color under almost any condition.

Of course, there are
always exceptions

Let's say you're feeling adventurous, and you light your model with a bright blue LED light. Your model's skin tones may just appear blue, without much influence of red or yellow. But given that your model is under natural light or under an artificial light of typical color, you are probably safe to assume your model's skin color will contain some balance of
red, yellow, and a nudge color

Step 2:
Mix Up Big Piles
of Average Colors

Now, by "average" colors, I mean colors that generally represent the colors in the subject as simply as possible. I know you can see dozens of colors in your subject. But in the beginning, keep things simple and don't try to match every color you see right away. You can mix more specific colors later with those "nudge colors" I'll talk about.

At the start, I mix up just 2 big piles of average color–1 average color for the lit side of the head and 1 average color for the shadowed side (above, you can see these two colors applied in broad, blocky shapes).

Step 3:
Nudge as Needed

First of all, just what is a "nudge color" anyway?

Well, mixing just red and yellow together can produce some pretty intense oranges that may not look natural as flesh colors. For this reason, it's usually necessary to "nudge" your mixture toward one color or another by mixing in other color(s)–"nudge colors."

Below are a 2 examples of average color mixtures I often start out with. In both cases, white is used as a nudge color. The white both lightens and cools the original orange color.

Example 1: Lemon, permanent alizarin crimson & white.

Example 2: Yellow ochre, permanent red medium & white.

Now, although I often start with the above mixtures, I certainly also mix in various other nudge colors as necessary. Sometimes your subject will dictate a nudge toward green in places. Or blue. Or violet. In fact, Any other color on your palette is a candidate for a nudge color.

So, How Do I Know Which
Reds, Yellows and Nudge Colors to Use?

Excellent question. My best answer is let your subject be your guide. Choose colors that are appropriate for the values, temperatures and colors in the subject.

In the end, observe your subject with care and faithfully paint the colors you see before you. Formulas only help you know what to look for and prepare you for what you might find–nothing more. Much more important than any formula is the process of training your eye to observe and paint faithfully.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate this mixing method on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

I hope you've enjoyed these lessons on painting the portrait! Next time, I'll kick off an exploration of figure painting with The 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions.

See you then!

Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Tones

It's happened to all of us who have ever attempted to paint a portrait…

You've been painting that cherub of a child. You've been carefully trying to match the colors of that perfect, unblemished skin. You think you've nailed those rosy cheeks, that fair flesh, that sandy blonde hair.

But then you stand back from your work and… wow. Those cheeks are definitely rosy… like the red soil of Arizona. That skin is exactly as fair as chalk dust. And that hair is sandy, alright. Just like… well, sand.

If only you had a chart of "skin-tone recipes" written by some Betty Crocker of the art world that would tell you exactly how to whip up big batches of "Satin Skin" and "Ethereal Epidermis" instead of the "mud," "dirt" and "chalk" currently on your palette.

Fortunately, the cure for "muddy" or "chalky" color is not an unobtainable fantasy. In his book Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, master artist Richard Schmid sheds light on this topic…

"'Muddy color'… is simply a color
that is inappropriate in temperature
—Richard Schmid

"Muddy" and "chalky" color is not so much a color issue as it is a temperature issue. So let's talk temperature...

Temperature Basics

The first thing to understand about temperature is that there is no such thing as "warm" and "cool." There is only "warm-er" and "cool-er." It's relative–a color is only cool-er or warm-er compared to another color.

Therefore, a "muddy" or "chalky" skin-tone is a color that is either too cool or too warm compared to the surrounding colors.

Side-Note: A color might also look "muddy" or "chalky"
if it's the wrong value. For example, a shape that's too dark on
a portrait will look like just that–a dark smudge on the face.
But given the value is correct, the reason a color looks "muddy"
or "chalky" is that it's either too warm or too cool in comparison
to the surrounding colors.

But of course, this information is useless unless you can make your muddy colors "UN-too-warm" and "UN-too-cool…"  

2 Ways You Can Make A
Color Warmer Or Cooler

1: By Moving Around the
Color Wheel Like a Clock


First, however, here are 2 important things to know: 1) the red-orange-yellow side of the color wheel is considered "warmer" than the green-blue-violet side, which is considered "cooler." 2) Most consider either bright yellow or yellow-orange the very warmest color. Blue is considered the coolest color (However, there's an exception that I'll mention in a bit…)

Now, imagine you're traveling around this color wheel like the hand of a clock. The closer you move toward the cooler side, the cooler the color will become. The closer you move toward to the warmer side, the warmer the color will become.

2 Examples:
  1. Let's say you're standing on that very warmest color–a bright yellow-orange. You take one step clockwise toward the green. Now, you're standing on a yellow that's tinted with a hint of green. This yellow-green is cooler than the yellow-orange because you've moved closer to the cooler side of the color wheel.
  2. This time, start out on violet. Take one step counter-clockwise toward the blue. Now, you're standing on blue-violet, which is cooler than violet because it's closer to blue and because you're moved further away from the warmer side of the color wheel.
The 2nd way you can make a color warmer or cooler is…

2. By Moving Along Imaginary
Spokes of the Color Wheel

Earlier, I said blue is considered the coolest color, but I mentioned there's an exception…

It's true, blue is the coolest color of the rainbow.

However, for the painter, there is one other color so icy, it gives blue frostbite… pure white.

In this particular color wheel, you'll notice there is a narrow ring that contains the main colors in their most saturated forms (1)

The farther you travel away from this ring toward the center of the circle, the more white is added (2).
Adding white will cool any other color… even blue!

Whew, this has been a ton of info!
Just 1 last thing…

…I'd like to share a few "quick tips" to help apply all of this information.

Quick Tips

  • If your shadows look "chalky," you likely have too much white in your mixture.
  • Sometimes you need to move around the color wheel like a clock. Sometimes you need to move across it like a spoke. Often, you need to do both–move diagonally to make a shift in both intensity and color.
  • Red is cooler than yellow.
  • If a color looks muddy, check its value first, before changing its temperature.
  • Usually, it's only a subtle shift that's required to fix a bad temperature relationship.
  • If you are illustrating a child playing in a mud puddle… by all means, use muddy color.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate these principles on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

If you're longing for a "skin-tone recipe book" like the one I mentioned earlier, I can't help. But next week, I'll share the next best thing—My Simple Method for Mixing any Skin Color.

Until then,

How to Make Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D (Part II)

Last week, I left my poor model with very graphic, hard-edged shapes on her face! Today, I'll talk about how to soften the edges between those shapes.

In the previous lesson, I shared how to accurately paint the lit and shadowed regions of the model's face, as well as the mid-tones in-between. These 3 regions of light, dark, and mid-tone can be seen in this first image.

(Note: If you haven't read the previous lesson yet, I recommend you read it first: How to Make Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D (Part I).)

The image below shows my next stage… the hair, scarf, and shirt are painted with just 2 values each–1 value for the lit side, 1 value for the shadowed side ("value" describes how light or dark a color is).

Now, Let's Address All
Those Hard-Edged Shapes

Even at the current stage, things are beginning to look 3-D. However, value alone cannot completely describe form. To do this, Value needs his trusty co-worker Edge.

"Edge" describes the quality of the boundary between two adjacent shapes. Together, value and edge create the illusion of form.

TIP: Don't be tempted to grab your softest brush and obliterate all those unseemly hard edges too quickly. Edges have a delicate hierarchy that must be observed carefully. There are razor-sharp edges, there are softer edges, and there is every other type of edge in-between.

Two Trusty Guides To
Traverse Edgy Terrain

  1.  Identify the very sharpest edge in
    your subject and paint it first

    Painting the very sharpest edge first establishes a
    standard against which you can compare all other edges.

    (In my subject, the sharpest edge happens to be
    the edge between the collar and chest.)
  2. Before painting each edge, ask yourself,
    much softer or sharper is this edge
    than one I've already painted?"

Two Ways to Soften an Edge

Of course, there are many ways to soften an edge, but here are the 2 main methods…
  1. Drag one shape into another with a clean, dry brush
    I softened her hair by dragging its shape into the background and the background into the hair.

  2. Paint a transitional value along an edge you wish to soften
    Look at the narrow, grayish-violet shape along the cheek between the it and shadowed regions. The value of this shape falls in-between the lit and shadowed regions, too.

    Even though I chose not to use additional strokes to soften this shape, our eye automatically "blends" the shape into the adjacent shapes, especially when viewed at a distance.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate these principles on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

Next week, I'll talk about Avoiding Chalky & Muddy Skin-Tones.

Happy painting, everyone!

How to Make Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D

Last week, I gave 3 Steps to Starting a Successful Portrait. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you read it before reading this lesson.

I had an embarrassing moment a few years back.

I had the opportunity to paint for a week with a master artist I really admire. The first day, we painted a young girl outside. She had beautiful sunlight rimming the back of her golden hair and reflecting into her face. The lighting was anything but "flat."

And yet… I managed to make her head look as flat as the plains of Kansas (we live next door in Missouri. I would know).

When the artist saw my problem, he very kindly suggested, "Adam, why don't you paint the darkest dark and lightest light first?"

I couldn't believe my mistake. If there had been one mantra repeated over and over at art school, it was "paint the darkest dark and lightest light first." I had known better. But that didn't change the fact that the artist was absolutely right… I had managed to neglect this important step. And as a result, I had painted the shadows and lights too similarly, and my painting looked flat.

Do you struggle with portraits that look flat? If so, you are not alone–painting the shadows and lights too similarly is one of the most common difficulties.

The first step on the road to making your flat paintings look 3-dimensional is to paint the darkest dark and lightest light very early on.

Step 1:
(Yes, I'll Say it Again)
Paint the Darkest Dark
and the Lightest Light

In the last lesson, I left off with a drawing that looked very similar to this one. But this image also shows the next step. I've painted two very dark shapes under the hair and scarf, and a very light shape on the cheekbone.

These simple shapes represent the very darkest and the very lightest shapes in my subject.

TIP: To establish the widest range of darks and lights in your painting, make the very lightest shape as close to pure white as possible. Likewise, make the darkest shape as dark as possible.

Step 2:
Create the Illusion of Light…
With Just 2 Shapes

It is usually a good practice to illuminate your subject in a way that gives a definite lit side and shadowed side.

1st Shape: First, look at the shadowed side of your model's head. Envision this shadowed region as one general shape. Then, ask yourself this very important question…

How much lighter is this shape than the very darkest shape?

Paint the shape accordingly. Also, paint the shadowed side of the head as one general shape, and with one average color. You can add the variations inside this shape later. For now, just focus on laying a simple, strong foundation of light and shadow.

TIP: The shadowed side of the head is often much darker
than you might expect—even if the model has fair skin.

2nd Shape: Now, look at the lit side of your model's head. Envision this lit region as one general shape. Ask yourself, How much darker is this shape than the very lightest shape?

Paint the shape accordingly. Also, paint the lit side of the head as one general shape, and with one average color.

Step 3:
"Flesh Out" the Form With Mid-Tones
(Pun Intended)

The mid-tone region provides a beautiful segue between the lit and shadowed sides of the subject.

Ask yourself, How much lighter and darker are the mid-tones than the shapes I've already painted?

Answer this question in your mind, and then mix up one average color for the mid-tones. Paint the mid-tones as large, general shapes. Even after Step 2, your portraits will start looking less flat and more 3-D. But painting the lit and shadowed sides accurately can be very difficult without first painting the very darkest and lightest shapes for comparison.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate these principles on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course
So far, my portrait above has very hard-edged shapes. I'll talk about how to soften these edges next week in How to Make Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D (Part II).

3 Steps to Starting a Successful Portrait

Oil • 10" x 8"

Do you dream of painting Rembrandts, but always seem to end up with Picassos?

Maybe your past attempts at portrait painting have looked “flat” and formless. Perhaps you had “chalky” or “muddy” skin tones.

If these are familiar struggles for you, I’d like to tell you you’re not alone–My early attempts at painting portraits from life awarded me big fat “C’s” in art school!

But, I also want to share with you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is possible to learn how to paint portraits, and I'd like to share how.

This email is the first in a series of art lessons on portrait and figure painting that I’ll be sharing over the next several weeks.

Of course, I can’t promise you’ll be painting like Rembrandt by the end of this series, but I will share the foundational info about portrait painting you need as you build up your skills through dedicated practice.

Your portrait will not end well if it is not started well. This lesson is about how to start a successful portrait. So let's get started!

Step 1:
Drawing a Basic
Shape for the Head

Picasso’s rearrangement of facial features was intentional. But if you’re like me, you’d rather place a model’s features in the correct spots. There’s nothing more maddening than spending hours painting an eye, only to realize later you placed it too high–I know. I’ve been there many times!

This business of putting the right shapes in the right places is what I simply call “drawing.” And this type of drawing is the foundation of a representational painting. For this reason, your portrait will only be as strong as the foundation of drawing upon which it is built.

Let's start building!

From the front, the head is basically an oval or egg shape. I usually draw the outline of the head with basic angles as shown above.

As you draw this initial shape, look at the subject and ask, “how tall is the head compared to how wide?” Do your best to draw the shape accordingly. Don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect on the first try–you can always modify the shape later as needed.

Tip: Use a charcoal pencil
or a flat brush with a fine edge
to draw with thin, precise lines

Next, draw simple lines for the boundaries of the hair to help you further envision the head. Notice that, even though I erased most of the outline of the head that passed behind the hair, I kept a mark for the very top of her skull. You’ll use this important mark to make a few measurements in the following steps.

Step 2:
Establishing the Tilt and
Rotation of the Model’s Head…
With Just a Single Line

In this case, the model's tilt is very slight. Still, the tilt can be seen when we hold up a brush handle vertically for comparison (right).

Also, note how much her head is rotated side-to-side. Although her eyes are looking right at us, her head is rotated slightly away.

Keeping these bits of info in mind, draw a line down through the center of the face.

Notice my line slightly curved. Even in this early stage, I’m trying to envision the head as a rounded mass—not flat.

This line establishes the tilt and rotation of the model’s head and helps place the features correctly.

Step 3:
Placing the Eyes, Nose and Mouth…

Perpendicular to this line, other lines can be drawn to place the center of the eyes, the base of the nose, and the mouth opening. First, the center of the eyes…

The following 3 rules of proportion are a huge help for drawing accurately:
1. The centers of the eyes are halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top of the skull (left).

(Left: Once a guide is drawn for the eyes, estimate where the brows should be placed between the eyes and hairline.)

2. The base of the nose is about halfway between the brows and the bottom of the chin.

3. The mouth opening is at the top 3rd between the base of the nose and the bottom of the chin.

Tip: The eyes, the base of the nose,
the mouth and the bottom of the chin
should all look parallel to each other.

With just a few marks, you can establish a solid foundation for your painting. If you start with a strong foundation, you will have a much higher chance of ending with a successful portrait.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate on video how to paint a portrait from start to finish in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

Now for the next step in this series of lessons: Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D.