Portrait: David – Larger than Life


Portrait: David – Larger than Life

First day of a new term! Typically, as I am nearing the end of the Figure and Portrait section in my painting course, we have just had our summer break from portrait and life classes.  Never mind – onwards and upwards!

As per usual, we started our first lesson of term with drawing, but today we had to go LARGE.  Well, A2, was the largest paper I had. The brief was to draw our model’s face, in extreme close-up, his features had to engulf the entire paper. The main lesson learnt was that where, in smaller scale, an expanse of cheek may be hinted at and not dwelled upon, in this size, it had a life of its own – it couldn’t be glossed over.  It was easy to start to reduce the scale as you moved through the drawing and many students did so – especially those sat down.  Those of us who were stood at easels, regularly stood back and could see when we were slipping in to small habits.  My main stumbling point was highlights, in my usual scale of working, these are small and less is more, however, at this size, everything had to be exaggerated. We made one drawing up to tea break, and another after – the second had less time. However, we were more comfortable with the scale at this point and managed to produce a more complete drawing, even with the addition of hands. Great fun – next week… smaller than A4 – oh dear!

David - close-up Charcoal on A2 paper

David – close-up
Charcoal on A2 paper

David - close-up with hands Charcoal on A2 paper

David – close-up with hands
Charcoal on A2 paper

Portrait: Chris (in 17th Century type costume)


09.30-16.30 Two sessions in one day

Chris is a regular sitter for our class, however, this time, he had brought props.  A small side table in dark oak, with what looked like an antique bible beautifully decorated and a chair. The chair itself was interesting as it’s back was in the corner with the arms making a right angle – I’m sure it has a special name for its design.  Chris himself appeared in a costume we assume to be reminiscent of 17th Century attire, which was expertly made by Chris’ late wife, he had rearranged his normal hairstyle and really looked the part.  After all that trouble, it seemed rude not to paint at least most of it so I tried a couple of quick sketches to decide on the composition.

Chris Portrait Class 04/06/15 Preparatory charcoal sketches

Portrait Class
Preparatory charcoal sketches


Although I mainly chose the left sketch and composition, as my canvas ratio was slightly longer to width than the sketch, I could include more of the figure.

Strangely, having more time seemed to slow me down and the resulting painting is more unfinished than I would have liked. The head is not yet complete in its form and I needed to find more colour in the tones on the costume.

Chris (17th Century style costume) Portrait Class 04/06/15 Oil on canvas (acrylic ground) 40x50cm

Chris (17th Century style costume)
Portrait Class
Oil on canvas (acrylic ground)


Portrait: Rosa


13.30-16.30 One session

Today was slightly different in that we had two sessions in one day – two different models – Joe in the morning and Rosa in the afternoon.

Rosa was a very impressive young lady, only 17 and on a student exchange from Germany, she spoke excellent English and was very enthusiastic about everything – I think she won everyone’s heart! Rosa was tall and elegant in a natural and unassuming way, she wore her denim jacket festooned with buttons and badges and a jaunty little black hat.  The challenge here was to try to portray a natural (no make-up) yet confident young girl.

Rosa Portrait class 28/05/15 Oil on canvas (acrylic ground) 12x16"

Portrait class
Oil on canvas (acrylic ground)

Portrait: Joe


09.30-12.30 One session

Joe was sitting for two morning sessions, of which I had, unfortunately, missed the first.  I decided therefore to paint only head to shoulders although slightly larger than life size.

Joe was from Mauritius with a lovely French accent – which I am using as my excuse for why I appeared to be painting a passable portrait of Tierry Henry right up to tea break! Having spent a few minutes chatting to Joe, I realised that he looked very different – however, Joe had an uncanny way of looking completely different from varying angles – this was very disconcerting and consequently I failed to really capture the essence of him. He’s promised to come back at some point so we can try again.

Joe Portrait Class 28/05/15 Oil on canvas board 25x30cm

Portrait Class
Oil on canvas board











Portrait: Jeanie


09.30-12.30 One Session

Reusing an old box canvas that had a mostly neutral green/burnt sienna acrylic ground.

We were given the choice of head and shoulders or full figure to paint.  Jeanie wore a vibrant jacket with pinks, cerise and mauve tassels and embellishments.  Jeanie was a lovely lady, whose face, as is usual when sitting still for a while, relaxed into quite a serious expression.  Every now and then, she smiled slightly at something that was being said in the class and her face lit up. When this was pointed out to her, she offered to periodically smile as she was sitting, which helped her general demeanour be light and content.

Jeanie 30/04/15 Oil on canvas (acrylic ground) 40x50cm

Oil on canvas (acrylic ground)

Initially, I was a little disappointed with the results of this painting – I hadn’t captured the colourful jacket and I should have added more darks to the left side of the face to give it more form. Every brush stroke appears exaggerated due to the scale which is larger than life. However, as usual, I propped the painting up on the side since the session finished and I quite like the unfinished appearance and the hint of a smile reminds me of the day.

Portrait: Andy


09.30 – 12.30 One Session

Andy is our sitter for today, his first time in the “chair”.  Andy is a carver of wood and some types of stone, he works purely in the moment with no pre-sketching or planning – I on the other hand, did my thumbnail as usual!

Today, I decided to recycle a used canvas, painting over an acrylic painting of three buskers in Gaudi Park, Barcelona.  This was quite an impasto (not to mention quite bad) painting that provided a lot of texture on the surface.  After a particularly heavy colour mixing/theory session, I decided to use the left over acrylic paint on my palette, predominantly red and green.  This gave quite a dramatic backdrop to my portrait study.

Initially I was really pleased with the result, it had drama and a wow factor but sadly little likeness. Andy had a very expressive face which often looked like he was about to burst into a big grin, he also kept his mouth slightly open for stretches of time during the pose. I tried to capture this, although I know teeth can be a tricky option, it did however, give more of a likeness.  After the previous week, I did try to paint from a distance with long-handled brushes and stood back often to judge progress. This was working well up to tea break – however, resuming work was when it went wrong and right! Trying to achieve the likeness, I tightened up and stepped back less but the real killer was the clothing. I really don’t like the colours on the shirt, Andy was wearing a patterned shirt with a white background and a blue and crimson design, which I tried to hint at but it all became too purple. I over blocked in the jacket, which although the right shade for the tweed cloth, was less effective than the initial loose, dripping effect from the shoulders that was there at break time.

Things that were unfinished:

  • The form of the head on the left is too weak

    Andy Oil on re-used box canvas 16 x 20"

    Oil on re-used box canvas
    16 x 20″

  • The hair needs more tonal contrast even though it was very short
  • The eyes are a little uneven – Andy was not boss-eyed!

Things overworked:

  • I feel the eyes are too defined
  • The tones between left (dark side) and right (light side) have become too similar
  • The shirt is far too bright and distracting
  • Everything below the shoulders worked better before the break

Things I like:

  • The original ground
  • The effect of light coming through the ear
  • The expression

Having said all that Andy himself, did like the painting – not to be sneezed at!

Portrait: Les


09.30 – 12.30 One Session

Over the next three weeks we have a different sitter per session, this week Les is doing the honours. He was asked to wear predominantly black clothing and dark glasses to test our mettle.

I used an approximately A3 sized canvas board with a mid tone acrylic mix of burnt sienna, ultramarine and a touch of titanium white as the ground colour.  As usual I made a small sketch to ascertain where to place the head and shoulders, deciding to put them slightly off centre to the right. The thinking behind this, as I was left with a profile view, was to give the sitter some space to look ahead, rather than cutting off his gaze with the edge of the support. Again, as usual, I blocked out the shapes with dilute raw umber, lifting out, smudging and reiterating tonal areas and shapes to gain an accurate under-painting.

As Les was quite tanned, which was enhanced by the dark glasses and clothing, he had quite a high colour. As the ground was not dissimilar, I decided to introduce an imaginary blue background, which worked well with the warm flesh colours. I have been trying to apply what I have been learning about colour theory and complimentary colours in both my mixing and painting. As is often the case, applying the theory can be hit and miss but I will persevere.

At the end of the session, we all put our work up for a group review and I could immediately notice a couple of things at a distance that passed me by close to:

  • The highlight under the eye was a little sharp and jumped forward, so I quickly smudged
    Les  Oil on canvas board A3

    Oil on canvas board

    this to reduced the contrast with my finger.

  • The ear had become too stretched and would benefit from lifting the ear lobe to be more in line with the top lip rather than the turned down corner of the mouth.
  • The nose, although correct in shape was a little too pronounced and would have benefited by cutting the background in around it more.

These points I would like to think I would have addressed given another short session – others in my class often take photos and finish a portrait from these at home. However, on the one occasion I did this, I completely flattened and killed off both the painting and the spontaneity of my work, so refuse to do this now.  Another lesson, is to get to class early – otherwise I may find myself wedged between easel and wall again, unable to move back to view my progress at a distance. Live and learn!


Portrait – Depression/Down and Out – (Chris)


09.30 – 12.30 One session

Today’s session was one sitting and concentrating on attitude and gesture, this time of dejection, depression and generally down on your luck.  Usually we wouldn’t have a lot of time to sketch first, however, Chris got into pose and character early, almost unnoticed.  He was raised up on a chair on a low table, so was a little higher than my eye level,  I made a quick compositional sketch and worked out where I wanted to place the figure and how much I wanted to include.

Composition sketch Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Composition sketch Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Starting as usual on an acrylic ground, this time of raw umber, yellow ochre and white mix.  I blocked out the figure and the general attitude of position in dilute raw umber, adding darks and mid tones.  Once happy with the position I began to add flesh colours and tones of his clothes.  Chris wore a baggy shirt that he seemed to have shrunk into with torn jeans.  It was important to create the background in a way that emphasised the down and out character, Mike suggested that vertical brush strokes can evoke that atmosphere, and that using a dark colour at the top and lightening it towards the bottom can also assist. I decided to use exaggerated dark on the left of the figure and run dilute paint down from the top right.  This gave the feeling I was after, symbolising a downward direction and maybe even tears.  All colours were kept sombre. I was particularly drawn to Chris’ hands, they were hanging in complete submission and were a little gnarled suggesting that they had worked hard all his life to no avail.  I was hoping to make more of them, however, in retrospect, the unfinished effect made the face the focal point.

Depression  Oil on canvas approx 14 x 20"

Oil on canvas
approx 14 x 20″


Portrait: Jo


09.30 – 12.30 Session One

The first in a two session sitting.  Jo wore a colourful and eclectic costume of a suede tan skirt, red velvet ruched sleeveless top, with a denim frilled waistcoat over, plus a stunning, felted and decorated hat.

We were asked to bring a small A4/A5 sketchbook and a light and a dark graphite pencil.  We made a 10 minute drawing of the entire figure with the lighter pencil, reviewed the composition and drew a light square/rectangle around the area we thought would make a good image.  We could change our mind if desired, once decided, the selected “frame” was made stronger with the darker pencil.  We all put up our drawings and discussed our choices.

A4 Pencil Compositional Sketch

A4 Pencil Compositional Sketch

Once decided, we began our painting.  As usual I mapped out the rough shape on the board with dilute raw umber.  I had scrubbed on a dark ground with leftover acrylic on my palette made up of ultramarine blue, alzarin crimson and cadmium red. This made a lovely textured ground of warm and cool purples.  At first it made the painting a little difficult as the raw umber was not overly obvious, however, when added a mid tone I could map out the initial shapes, lights and darks.  On my palette I had cadmium lemon, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, sap green and white. I also added naples yellow and raw umber for mixing.  At the end of the session, I had the main bones of the painting with the fabrics and hat needing describing more fully next time. Using a touch of cadmium orange in the background colour gave a little extra zing and was interesting against the purple ground.

Jo - Oil on Canvas Board Session One of Two

Jo – Oil on Canvas Board
Session One of Two


09.30-12.30 Session Two

The challenge this time was to avoid undoing what had worked previously.  Looking at our model and critically comparing what was already on the canvas with what I could see.  The main thing that needed adjusting was the the profile of the nose, the shape was fine but it was too large on my painting.  To avoid messing up, I worked on the background, chiselling out and refining the entire profile.  This also gave a nice light effect around the face, allowing me to keep the features soft and giving a contre jour appearance.

It was so tempting to fiddle about with the face, but self-discipline prevailed and I thoroughly enjoyed working on the fabrics, the frilled denim, the corduroy/suede skirt with netting beneath and the felted hat. I struggled with the flesh of the arm but found that by using a dry hog brush, I could soften my brush marks and tried to sculpt the muscles and bones in the hand.  Finally, the bracelets, necklaces and felted corsage on the wrist were indicated. I am very pleased with the result.

Jo - Oil on canvas board 40 x 60cm

Jo – Oil on canvas board 40 x 60cm Session two of two