Exercise: Conveying Character

11 & 14/09/15

Exercise: Conveying Character

This study could be a portrait or self-portrait. Whichever you choose, the aim is to convey character through facial expression… Choose your sitter then decide what aspect of your character you want to convey – gentleness, moodiness, humour, etc…You don’t have to paint someone you know, you could choose to paint a television personality, for example, but you’ll need to decide in advance what aspect of their character you’re aiming to convey and think about how you’re going to achieve this.

I relished the opportunity to paint a well-known person, and when talking about character, I decided to concentrate on politicians.  Whether it be consciously or sub-consciously, we make up our minds about people by the way they look and their physical attitude a large percentage of the time. There is one politician in particular that I can never fathom. Boris Johnson often appears to play the bumbling fool, however, you don’t get to the position in life he occupies by being so – I was tempted to try to capture both sides of the coin. I made two drawings in my sketchbook and I think they are fairly successful likenesses, however, we are conditioned not to trust politicians and this one was too good an actor.

Conveying Character Boris Johnson Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Conveying Character
Boris Johnson
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Politicians like to give the impression of saying exactly what the electorate appear to want them to say. However, sometimes, their facial expressions give them away, and there is one in particular, in my opinion (other opinions are available), that has the perfect, sanctimonious sneer.  Again, I tried a drawing first in my sketchbook, concentrating on tone as much as I could from the photo reference.

Conveying Character George Osbourne Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Conveying Character
George Osbourne
Pencil in A4 sketchbook

The expression comes over in the drawing and as noted next to it, the impression given is one of a self-satisfied thought that’s showing through.

I struggled with the likeness, however, this is the one I decided to paint as I could have fun with that expression.

I again used a canvas board 10×12″ as I wanted to zoom right in on the face. Likewise, a dark background would emphasise the features. I have exaggerated the slant of both mouth and nose purposely, not to the extent of a caricature but enough to accentuate the expression. I also decided to work in oil again to keep the fluidity of the paint and brush marks.  I initially worked only from the sketch to set the positioning of face and features, and to try to achieve a three-dimensional appearance. I then used the photograph for colouring, returning to just the sketch for more tonal modelling, and final touches again from the photograph, particularly the eyes.

Again, I haven’t wholly captured the likeness, however, it does make me think of a politician’s sneer, which was my objective.

Conveying Character The Politician's Sneer Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Conveying Character
The Politician’s Sneer
Oil on canvas board

When you have completed this exercise, review all your portraits and consider which ones are the most successful.

I think the most successful of the portraits ie ‘self-portrait’, ‘head and shoulders’, ‘mood and atmosphere’ and ‘conveying character’, are the ones where I was working from observation. I am particularly pleased with the head and shoulders painting of my husband, although, it is more of an oil sketch than a complete painting I suppose. The limited amount of time I had, plus obviously seeing him most days, made me look hard and record what I saw but not to overwork it. As soon as I saw a reasonable likeness, I stopped there. This is also the one I had the most positive feedback about.

What technical demands did you encounter?

Technically, I found the self-portrait the most challenging.  The very fact that I had to stay still as a sitter, yet keep moving back as the painter threw me out all over the place. I also, in hind sight, was less enamoured with the acrylic paint. At the time, I enjoyed it as I could over-paint easily where I needed to make adjustments, yet now it’s dry and I’ve had time away from it, it has a tendency to look flat and harsh.

How hard did you find the interpretive element of portrait painting?

With the exercise, creating mood and atmosphere, I struggled because I chose the wrong mood and went against how I was feeling. Had I acknowledged this at the time, I think it would have been more successful.  The quick, unplanned and spontaneous ink and pastel painting I did afterwards was much more evocative.  The final exercise, conveying character, was difficult when trying to achieve a likeness, however, the character was there and I enjoyed the experience. This time I had chosen the right subject and media and worked fairly quickly, so all the best elements came together (apart from the likeness).


Exercise: Creating Mood and Atmosphere


Exercise: Creating Mood and Atmosphere

For this exercise you can choose to paint a full figure portrait, a head and shoulders portrait or a self-portrait… should be unusual or expressive in some way. It can be true to life or not, depending on the effects you wish to achieve… Decide what you’re trying to achieve at the outset and make some notes in your learning log. Come back to this when you’ve finished your painting and assess the extent to which you’ve achieved your objectives.

Instead of working this through in my learning log initially, I decided to use my sketchbook and then photograph both notes and scribblings/sketches so that the thought process can be followed in both.

Creating Mood & Atmosphere Sketchbook notes and sketches 1

Creating Mood & Atmosphere
Sketchbook notes and sketches 1

Creating Mood & Atmosphere Own mono print from life model used as reference noted in sketchbook

Creating Mood & Atmosphere
Own mono print from life model used as reference noted in sketchbook

Creating Mood & Atmosphere Ink drawings with stick from mono print reference Sketchbook notes 2

Creating Mood & Atmosphere
Ink drawings with stick from mono print reference
Sketchbook notes 2

Below are attempts (using another life class drawing) to produce a 70s psychedelia mood and atmosphere drawing on the thumbnails in sketch book notes 1.

Wet in wet acrylic inks, figures and motifs building on previous thumbnails. Sketchbook notes 3

Wet in wet acrylic inks, figures and motifs building on previous thumbnails.
Sketchbook notes 3

Rethinking using life figures only are not really portraits, imagined or realistic.

Rethinking composition notes, sketches and thumbnail. Sketchbook notes 4

Rethinking composition notes, sketches and thumbnail.
Sketchbook notes 4

Reference material for inspiration that I looked at and notes in sketchbook notes 4 above.

Reference material mentioned in sketchbook notes 4.

Reference material mentioned in sketchbook notes 4.

Media and colour swatches, objectives and decisions in sketchbook notes 5.

Media and colour swatches, objectives and decisions in sketchbook notes 5

Media and colour swatches, objectives and decisions in sketchbook notes 5

1970s make-up reference photo, colourful, big eyelashes.

1970s make-up reference photo

1970s make-up reference photo










Sketchbook notes showing decisions made, draft image, review and amendments.

Sketchbook notes and draft image sketchbook 6

Sketchbook notes and draft image sketchbook 6

Although, I appear to have gone to nth degree to plan out my painting, I still allowed myself some experimentation with the final image. Positions were lightly marked in with an HB pencil so that the flowers may be outlined with masking fluid.  I usually avoid using this as it is too rigid, however, in this case, the whole idea was to use the flat, opacity of the gouache for the intended pop art feel of the flowers. I then washed in clean water in the area around the petals so that I could drop in the purple acrylic ink. This, in effect, obliterated the pencil marks which caused mild panic, until I realised that I had drawn the figures several times already so knew where I wanted what, so just painted them in with orange ink. This, into the still damp purple, fused and merge nicely, which alleviated the perceived problem of how to treat the figures with less importance. The face was painted with a mixture of acrylic inks (purple and orange) and some gouache for the nose shape and mouth. Tones were built up wet in wet.  The irises of the eyes, which I wanted to be “startling” in colour were painted with the only blue used – Process Cyan acrylic ink and enhanced with gouache using its opacity. The flowers painted last, with care taken over which colours went where.


Mood and atmosphere planned – flower power/psychedelia/pop art/happiness/mysticism: Achieved? Absolutely not! I had created an interesting but in-cohesive image that didn’t really say anything. It’s not unattractive but looking back, my objectives were not really moods, they were an era.  I had initially been drawn to a darker subject and should have stayed with that, I had tried to force a feeling and mood onto myself that wasn’t really there. I seem to be drawn to sadness in people’s eyes and even the face in the finished painting can’t be called happy, she actually looks afraid.

Feeling deflated, I went to have lunch and ponder my next move.

On  my return, I picked up my black ink and stick again, looking at Marlene Dumas’ portraits that I was looking to for reference before. In fact all the reference material I was trying to use, should have told me what I really wanted to paint!

I started to draw with the stick and black ink, roughly following the head position of my previous self-portrait, then sprayed the ink with clean water. I worked like this for several minutes, drawing and spraying. There was definitely a mood there, even if the drawing was crude. I decided to let the paper dry completely and then work into the face with pastel and charcoal. Working spontaneously I reformed the features and let it happen, the runs on the left eye (as happened with my own self-portrait) gave a haunted look to the face. I decided to leave this and worked around it.

Glancing down at Dumas’ portrait Julie – the Woman, where only the eyes and mouth are naturalised and the rest of the face is blocked in red, I picked up a dark red pastel and rubbed it all over the face. Leaving the left eye, nose and mouth, I started to see fear and distrust in the expression. Enhancing both eyes slightly and darkening around the head, the hair could have been a head scarf. I decided to leave the ambiguity and let the viewer decide.

Creating Mood & Atmosphere Painting 2 Black & sepia ink, pastel and charcoal on paper.

Creating Mood & Atmosphere
Painting 2
Black & sepia ink, pastel and charcoal on paper.

I now feel I have fulfilled the brief.

Lesson learnt

Just as feelings can not be truly explained in words, mood and atmosphere can not be planned – they have to be felt. It is not just in the imagination, it is in the soul.


Exercise: Head and Shoulder Portrait


Exercise: Head and Shoulder Portrait

We were asked to make several decisions on how we wanted to represent our sitter ie scale, position, background and light source, what they would wear ie what effect would a black jumper have on the impact of the face and the relationship to the background of the picture?

I’m sure I’m not the only student who, quite frankly, is grateful for what they can get when it comes to having someone sit for their portrait. My husband, who sat for me, is currently doing some studying of his own, so I took the opportunity to grab him while he was fairly still. My main conscious decisions were:

  • scale – as I only had a short time, I chose to work smaller than usual on a 10×12″ canvas board
  • media – having used acrylics exclusively for several exercises, I was missing using oils eg their subtlety, wet into wet techniques and softening edges
  • focus – I wanted to zoom into the face so that there was minimal background – the background colour is similar to the wall colour which gave a calming effect
  • palette – raw umber, ultramarine, burnt sienna, cadmium red, cadmium yellow and titanium white

I only had a maximum of two and a half hours including set up time due to having to be somewhere at 4.30. I also had to allow for a couple of breaks as cups of tea was the bribe used.

Head and Shoulders Portrait Glyn - work in progress Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Head and Shoulders Portrait
Glyn – work in progress
Oil on canvas board 10×12″

I started off in a traditional way by blocking shapes with dilute raw umber and removing lights with a rag. Next working in darks with a mix of ultramarine and raw umber, making sure I had the level of the shoulders correct as Glyn was looking down at his books. This was a good start and I was pleased with progress so stopped for tea break number one.

On returning to the painting, there was a bit of rearranging to obtain the same pose and then off we went.  It transpired that Glyn is a little unusual to most sitters, in that his head lifted up as he relaxed not drooped down. After initial suggestions at returning to the original pose met with gentle opposition, I changed my rendition, only fair I suppose.

Head and Shoulders Portrait Glyn - on the easel Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Head and Shoulders Portrait
Glyn – on the easel
Oil on canvas board

Another difference to most sitters, is that a small smile drifted on and off his face, which helped give me insight into his expressions and subtleties of his features.

Glyn was pretty pleased with the result and I thought it best to stop when I did to keep the freshness and the likeness instead of trying to make it the perfect painting.

After finishing, I posted it on Facebook for both my and Glyn’s friends and family to review for likeness. Had the thumbs up on the whole. His mum recognised him (which is a bonus), along with his young niece and nephew, who are around 6 and 8 but don’t hold me to that, who knew who it was straight away.

An enjoyable couple of hours, and glad to be back to the oils.


Head and Shoulder Portrait Glyn - Oil on canvas board 10x12"

Head and Shoulder Portrait
Glyn – Oil on canvas board 10×12″


Exercise: Self Portrait


Exercise: Self Portrait

Make a self-portrait of just your head and shoulders. You can choose to work in natural or artificial light… Make sure that your face is lit from one side with the other in shadow… Choose light, dark or mid-toned background…

A dark background was chosen to throw the portrait forward. Instead of making preliminary sketches, I decided to work directly on to the board and see what happened.  I chose to use acrylic again for its quicker drying time and the ease of over painting and adjustment. This, it transpired, was a good decision as the lower half of the face in particular, but not exclusively, was repainted 4 or 5 times. Again, I chastise myself for not taking “in progress” photographs, however, I became so engrossed it didn’t even cross my mind.

I find self portraiture the most difficult and arduous subject. It is not a comfortable process as it should be as I see myself and I really don’t think about it that much. Other than applying make-up which is now so routine, unless for a special occasion, it’s a quick check for smudges of charcoal and no cabbage between teeth!

Previously, in the Drawing 1 similar exercise, I had a surreal experience of morphing into different family members during the process, this time this wasn’t so prevalent. Initially, I was just trying to map out bone structure, level of shoulders, head shape etc and was feeling fairly confident. That was until I had to answer the phone and stepped away from the painting – just as well because the distortion I was introducing was unbelievable! Repaint number one! On the second day, my xxnd birthday, it was pouring with rain, dark and miserable and I was on my own until evening. I didn’t realise how low my mood was dipping until I used some overly dilute paint on my eye and it began to drip like a tear – I then felt even lower and the whole expression and aura of the painting became depressive. Over painting the lower half another couple of times, the rain eventually stopped and the sun started to come out, a small smile began to appear. However, I left the eyes as they were because they said something of that moment. Over the next few days, I added and subtracted here and there after sneaking up on the image and seeing it afresh each time. I have a very tricky nose, and I learnt the lesson of keeping the mouth subtle last time. My last touch was to fill in the dark background that was my initial choice as I am quite pale. Sorry for the lengthy explanation, but there is always a hint of therapy when I do a self-portrait – luckily not that often – I empathise with Vincent Van Gogh even more now!

Self portrait Acrylic on board 14x18"

Self portrait
Acrylic on board 14×18″

  • Is your self-portrait a good likeness? How do you know?

I think the features are pretty close, however I’m not sure of their placement. This is the most difficult part of the process, painting then looking back at yourself and adjusting/readjusting, even a few millimetres difference can throw the likeness. I think my eyes are spot on for shape and expression (see above outpouring), however, they should be a little closer together on reflection.  I bravely asked friends what they thought and other than being supportively positive, my best comment came from a guy who said that my eyes were too sad. This was exactly what I wanted to hear, capturing that moment.

  • Which aspects of the face were hardest to tackle?

Positioning of features in relation to each other.

  • What technical and practical problems did you experience and how did you overcome them?

As above. Getting the mirror and then my seat the right height, not only to see myself but also to be comfortable enough to paint. I probably should have stood up too, as it was so tempting to plough on without standing back and I normally stand in my portrait class where it’s more natural to keep assessing at a distance. I began to see better when I was satisfied with the general shapes and structure and I could dip in and out to make adjustments.