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 we’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!
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 placing 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.
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.
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.