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.
(Yes, I'll Say it Again)
Painting 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: Creating 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.
First 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.
Second 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: "Fleshing Out"
the Form With Mid-Tones
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.