13 June 2011

Gesture Portrait Painting

Gesture painting is the name Jeff Watts gives to paintings completed in less than an hour.  It's not a unique approach, many artists use quick oil sketches for various reasons (see here, here, here, and here, to cite a few)  It is, however, less common to see whole classes devoted to the gesture in oil.  In the Watts class, we paint 3 40-minute gesture portraits per session.  The first painting is a warm-up.  The second and third are usually more successful.

The goal is to capture an impression of the model (or landscape or still life), and learn something in the process.  Brief time limits require an intuitive approach, with no opportunity to go back and rework.  The results are loose and fresh.  If you're a beginner or want to break out of a rut, gestures will accelerate your progress.  They are great training for brushwork, paint mixing, and color harmonies.  Decent drawing skills are helpful.

Methods and Materials:
  • If you try this in your own studio, paint for 20 minutes, take a 5 minute break to assess, then continue for 20 more minutes.  Pick a focus like color, value, temperature, or brushwork.
  • To make cheap canvas board for gesture painting, take a larger purchased canvas board and cut it to size with a razor.  Score 3 times on each side, then gently break at the cut line.  Some students paint on small pieces of canvas taped to board.  Easy to store, if you want to keep your work. 
The pairs shown below are from 3 class sessions.  Each painting is 6 x 8".  The first of each pair is my work.  The second is my start with Jeff's improvements.  Teachers at Watts demo directly on student work.  Click to view brushwork.

Sabrina with cool light
Sabrina, with Jeff's improvements

Male model with strong side light
Male model, with Jeff's improvements

Zara with strong side light

Zara, with Jeff's improvements

Jeff  recorded an instructional dvd on gesture portrait painting through Liliedahl Video.   I have this dvd and recommend it.  It would be a good substitute, if you don't have access to a live gesture class.  Watch the YouTube preview at the link above, to learn more.


  1. Great idea. I like the idea of cutting apart a canvas board. I can't tell much difference between your work and the second image. Good job!

  2. Thank you for the link and the post, I really like the idea of doing a gestural portrait. I've been trying to figure out the gap of gestures and a successful portrait kind of what Sargent achieved and the way you described it can be a vehicle to my answer. Nice paintings to, great to see how Jeff was able to add his touch to your paintings and still keep the soul of the painting you provided. Great post!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Deborah. Seems obvious, but I hadn't considered it until I saw it done in a workshop. I've been buying large canvas boards, which are much cheaper by the sq. inch, then cutting them to the size I need.

    Best regards, Candace.

  4. Hi, Jonathan. I'm glad you connected with the gesture concept. Gesture exercises are the antidote to my personal tendency to overwork a painting. I am trying to find that balance between spontaneous and deliberate. Sargent is a great example of an artist who could go both ways. His oil sketches and watercolors are incredibly loose and fresh...but I'm sure he was employing many of those moves when working on his studio portraits. Thanks for visiting. Candace.

  5. great post! I love seeing the side by side and thanks for the link too. You are uber talented.

  6. Interesting about the board - and the canvas! (guessing thats pre-gesso'd?)

  7. Hi, Jane. Yes, it is primed. Some artists seem to use unstretched primed canvas, taped to a board, for everything. Actually makes sense. You can crop it (before or after painting), it stores and travels well. If you like the finished painting, you stretch or mount on board at that point. If not, store it flat for later, or toss. I think I just convinced myself to switch over. Thanks for your comment, Jane.