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: 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.


My Own Projects: Ideas for Development

Ideas for Development


060315 Prelim sketches

060315 Prelim sketches


Series of self portraits as a comment on global events. Rather a grand statement but the intention is to simplify opinion with gesture and facial expressions.  Initially, making sketches in preparation – I have a high level composition in mind. Work in progress.




Lino Cuts using Life Drawings
Loose idea of three colour or tonal scheme of lino cuts using life drawings from classes.  Inspired by article in Artists & Illustrators magazine, April 2015 issue 350 by Chris Daunt using a technique explored by Picasso.

Last year I attended a monoprinting workshop ran by my portrait and life drawing tutor, Mike Bragg.  He thought it would be good for me as it is a more painterly way of printing.  I had never done this before but found it a most enjoyable day.  We were encouraged to work into these prints further at home to make each original from the master. In the workshop, we had a life model in the morning to work from, and then worked with our sketches in the afternoon.  I have an embryonic idea of combining this technique with still life with a Patrick Caufield inspired twist – it may or may not work, it may also work better with lino cut. I was very inspired by my research into Patrick Caufield in Drawing 1 and like to include cast shadows in my work if appropriate.