02 August 2011

Portrait Painting Progress

"How long have you been painting (or drawing)?"  It's a common question art students ask each other.  We want to know how long it will take to achieve basic proficiency.  The answer for most of us is...a very long time.   Lots of students might not start if they knew what they were in for.  If you want to be an artist, you better love the learning process.  Michelangelo's comment on the subject..."If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all.”

Today’s post is a progression.  It’s proof to myself that I am gaining proficiency.  Since my focus is figurative, I take alla prima portrait or figure painting every term at Watts.  The oil portrait sketches below were painted in class a few months apart.  I got plenty of help on these from my teachers, Jeff Watts and Ben Young...but my work comes through, too.  Learning art is collaborative.

Painted July 2011 --- Zara, with help from Jeff Watts.

Painted May 2011 --- Rose, with help from Ben Young

Painted March 2011 --- Model with green rim light,
with help from Jeff Watts

And finally, here is my first portrait, painted back in June 2009.  I remember thinking at the time that it looked decent.  What did I know.

Painted June 2009 --- Micki, with help from Erik Gist

Current methods:
  • These were painted in 3 hours on 12x9" linen board, toned 2 days earlier with a mixture of ultramarine blue and transparent earth red, to a mid-tone gray.  I use Gamblin FastMatte, a line of fast drying oils, for toning.
  • Paint smaller heads (5-6"), they're easier to complete in 3 hours.  Seems obvious, but worth mentioning.  Also, leave room for the chest and shoulders...good for composition.
  • I like to use a viewfinder to study the model for a few minutes before starting the painting.  For me...a frame isolates the shapes and reveals the final painting.
  • For a good dvd on this subject, try "Alla Prima Portrait" by Robert Liberace.  I watched this dvd the night before I painted the July sketch below.  It was helpful.
  • I'm also thinking about Harold Speed's value approach every time I paint.  It's fundamental, but a good starting point if you need some guidance.


  1. Even your first portrait is not that bad, but there's still a huge improvement! I love the texture of your latest painting.

    I did a very similar blog post a few months ago, because I also took a portrait painting class!

  2. Wonderful Candace, I can see great proficiency in short order from the second and the first images, and certainly from the bottom up. I always enjoy when you do this. xoxo

  3. Tina, You're a kindered spirit. Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments. Always enjoy our exchanges.

    Kelley, Excellent progression. You laid down some really nice portraits, with rapid improvements. Your portrait drawing skills are showing up in your paintings.

  4. I enjoy your posts, thanks for sharing. These are great! I like reading about you methods, whats working, and what you're learning.

  5. All are great, as usual. Love the one with the green light outline.

  6. great post! Whoa....yes indeed....what wonderful progress! I had to laugh about the "what did I know" comment...I look at my old work and just cringe. Nothing cringeworthy here...but the "transformation" is fantastic

  7. Hey, Gwen and Celeste, Thanks for your comments. Always appreciate your visits.

  8. Thanks, Daniel. Always glad to pass along the methods. Seems like part of the artist psyche. Just visited your blog, I'm a big fan. C

  9. you are so right about the learning process. I just finished doing a 3 day workshop on gouache watercolor and heard the comment by the art center director about how easy I made my landscape work. As soon as I read your comment on the time sand work involved I reheard her words. The years and time put in doing it. If only those poor souls knew what they were in for to gain any kind of proficiency. And therein lies the talent I think. The continuous desire to keep doing it.