08 October 2013

My Portrait Process: First Step is the Value Study

There is no single way to create a portrait.  Each artist's process is unique. It's not learned in a class or workshop...it can only be developed through trial and error.  What I show in this post and several upcoming, is my current process.  For me, success relies on the work that happens before paint touches canvas.  It's not about copying a photo.  It's about hard work, careful technique, and artistic interpretation.

I'm preparing to paint an oil portrait of Kirk, 20-year-old son of a friend.  He's at that great age where he has a lot of freedom...trying to find his place in the world...not yet a cog in the machine.  I want that to come across in the final image.

Kirk in Youth, 16x12", charcoal and white chalk on Strathmore 400 toned paper.

First step in my process is a charcoal drawing.  This helps me work out the value structure.  Kirk sat for a 1-hour oil sketch so I could record true skin tones, then I shot about 400 photos of him.  This sketch is a composite of 4 photos, drawn freehand.

This step familiarizes me with all the subtle shadows, shapes, and edges...so when I get to the real thing it goes down much easier. I strategize how to use those subtle features to make the big image more interesting.

As you can see, I'm having trouble with the closest forearm and hand.  The anatomy and value are wrong and the hand is too big.  Cover them and the whole drawing looks better.  I will do some studies to work it out.

After that comes a small color sketch, to work through the color palette and make any final changes before the big painting.


  1. Beautiful drawing. Thanks for sharing your process. I'm not quite sure why you need four hundred photos...but, hey! You know what you are doing! :)

    1. Good point, Celeste, thanks for bringing that up...it does sound like a lot. I actually bracket my shots for exposure, so I only really have about 130 unique poses with a light, medium, and dark exposure for each.