Like many artists, regardless of their mastery of the brush, pencils or pens, I am too drawn towards portraits – and just like most of them I fail miserably almost every time. Almost, because today I had a good day, which means it was a day when I managed to paint a portrait that I am actually pleased with.
Some time ago I purchased “Drawing and Painting Portraits in Watercolour” by David Thomas – a master of his craft – and I must admit it’s one of the few books of its kind that I actually read (not only browsed it, like I usually do). The guy is superb – a linework to die for, simple and incredibly expressive washes and an overall stunning result. Couple of step-by-steps and many tips and exercises, really recommend it to a
nyone interested in portraits. But what this book has is inspiration – so much so, that I woke this morning up determined to paint a portrait (despite that I still have to do another landscape to finish a series of 15 for a charity event) and let me tell you that I didn’t lose too much time to get started.
For this exercise, I used a reference photo on the Flickr’s Creative Commons, by Joel Bedford (for which I thank him very much) – but I refuse to start a debate about the pros and cons of using photos as reference when painting. If they are good enough for Master David Thomas, they are certainly good enough for me.
I usually have problems with the proportions – no matter of what – they always seem to be skewed somehow, distances too big or too small, even though I practice long and hard. So much so that I actually started to believe there must be something wrong with my eyes! This time though, the differences were minute so I declared the sketch good for painting.
From all my previous tries, I realised the problem with portraits in watercolour is not the skin tone colour as much, but the tone itself, the saturation with colour, the correct contrast. As you know, watercolour dries into a much lighter tone so one has to be mindful of this. Personally, sometimes go a bit overboard and get a bit too much saturation and contrast (as it is the case now) but that I can easily rectify.
To get to the amount of colour that you see here I put many, many washes (I can’t remember how many) although I usually refrain to max. of three, and the colours were basically the ones Thomas recommends for a white skinned person – raw sienna, burnt sienna and cobalt blue (he actually recommends ultramarine, but I find it too striking). To this, I played into some rose violet and indigo.
I usually start with a nicely loaded background which will give me the base of the tones required for the painting – this time, having none, it was quite difficult to know when to stop loading with colour as to not get overwhelmed by a too strong contrast.
The last touches were the eyes and the freckles, with a small, 0 size brush.
The result is much closer to the model than any of my previous portraits, although it does remind me painfully of a very young John Travolta. Not intended, I can assure you, but at least it is a lively representation of a young man.
I hope to hear from your experiences into the difficult art of portrait painting. In the meantime, keep practising!