Research Point: Portraits Conveying Mood and Atmosphere

Research Point: Portraits Conveying Mood and Atmosphere

Go onto the internet and find some portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere rather than simply a physical likeness.

(NB All images are reproduced for editorial purposes only and not for commercial gain)

Rembrandt’s Mother by Rembrandt

portrait of rembrandt mother - Google Search:

Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother

Rembrandt’s portraits are always more than just paintings of people’s faces. He seemed to look deep within their souls and put what he found down on the canvas. This portrait of his mother shows a certain weariness but also a life lived. The illumination of her face is mesmerising with the warmth in the shadow that gives a translucency. It makes you wonder what she was thinking at the time.

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap by Vincent van Gogh

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap - Vincent van Gogh:

Head of a Peasant Woman with Greenish Lace Cap – Vincent van Gogh


This portrait by van Gogh tells the viewer so much just by the way it has been painted. The brush-strokes are thick, angular and convey the pressures and worries of this woman’s every day existence. To me, he hasn’t made her old in years but has etched every struggle to feed her family with meagre means. I like the way it appears van Gogh has painted all the canvas dark and put in the mid tones and lights over the top, sometimes allowing the dark to show through. This gives an overall depth and mood to the painting.








Mother and Child by Picasso

paintings of picassos blue period - Google Search:

Mother and Child by Picasso (painting from his blue period)

Picasso’s blue period, by its definition, is one of melancholy and sadness following the suicide of his close friend. He has taken this tragedy and sought out subjects in which to pour his grief. This painting is so simple yet heartbreakingly moving. The mother is turned away and the baby is clutched to her with a gentle fierceness.  There is nothing around them apart from what looks like a basket of clothes or maybe it’s where the baby sleeps.  Apparently, during this time, Picasso used to visit a women’s prison to draw some of the inmates, many of which had young children incarcerated with them. Could this be one of these women?



Party in Paris by Max Beckmann

Party in Paris - Max Beckmann:

Party in Paris – Max Beckmann

What a mixture of assumed moods and characters in this picture! Overall, I don’t really pick up much of a party atmosphere in this snap shot of a social gathering. There only seems to be three or four people enjoying themselves and one of those is the singer lost in his own world. Having said that, Beckmann has picked up on common characteristics of party goers. There are those actually enjoying themselves on the left. However, the boredom of the woman rear right having to listen to her assumed partner and his friend’s lengthy conversation – about politics probably, has noticed she has caught the eye of the single man on the left. The way Beckmann has put these two figures at the same eye level connects them. The couple in the middle are ignoring each other’s existence as they ran out of things to say to each other 10 years ago! The eagle-eyed social climber is keeping watch for potential useful contacts and the gentleman who really doesn’t want to be there in the bottom right (or maybe it’s the volume over melody of the awful singing?). What triumph in observing and then depicting the scene so cleverly, and, in a way that colours, positioning of the figures etc are balanced so perfectly. The more I look at this the more I see and like it.


There are so many portraits out there that are more than just paintings of faces – it makes me realise how much more has to go into the work.  It is also apparent that, although the observational and drawing skills that allow you to produce an image of a person are very important, it is not just these things and sometimes not even, that renders a likeness of the character or occasion. It is a conversation between painter and sitter that occurs, and, some remnants of that conversation should be visible in the painting that is produced as a result.

Portrait: David – Small, Tonal Oil Sketches


Portrait: David – Small, Tonal Oil Sketches

Our brief for today’s class was to bring two small prepared boards, large brushes and either oil or acrylic paints.

2 x 10×12″ canvas boards prepared with mid-tone warm ground
1 size 12 & 1 size 10 hog flat brush
Ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and Naples yellow oil paint

During our tutor’s explanation of the lesson to come, he related to a recent trip to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester where there is currently an exhibition called Sickert in Dieppe. Another student kindly brought in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. We were to pay particular attention to the figures and the technique of creating tone that Sickert had used. Our tutor summarised it as “scrub and dab” (patent pending?).

Using a limited palette (above), we were to work in darks and mid tones exclusively for the greater part of the time and save the lights till near the end. Working in thinned paint, the darks were scrubbed in, then the mid tones covering the entire canvas appropriately as we saw them on the model. We were discouraged from leaving the “lights” but to build layers so that some of the darks may even show through. As we progressed, we used less dilute paint and evolved into the “dab” stage. Sickert had used little marks and strokes of paint to build up the tones rather than lines and sweeps. (Also reminiscent of Van Gogh in his mark making). The first sketch took us up to tea break, and I unfortunately, ran out of time to put my lightest lights down but the technique was coming.

David Tonal oil sketch in the style of Sickert Canvas board 10x12"

Tonal oil sketch in the style of Sickert
Canvas board 10×12″

With the second sketch we were to adopt a similar approach regarding the darks and mid tones. Working for as long as possible to build up the structure of the face and shoulders before adding the lights. This time we were to make considered marks – looking at the model and making a definite decision as to where they should be placed. Using a long-handled brush, I tried standing at arm’s length whilst painting – this gave me a clearer view of the entire sketch to decide where to make marks. Standing back, assessing and then confidently putting down a mark was excellent discipline. I had seen Nicky Phillips (who painted the double portrait of Princes William and Harry), and read that Whistler had (as I’m sure had/do many other artists) adopt(ed) that approach. Again, I ran out of time to add the lightest lights, however, feedback from my tutor was that I had worked up the entire sketch equally so that all parts were are the same stage. A little longer and it may have been quite successful?

David Tonal oil sketch Canvas board 10x12"

Tonal oil sketch
Canvas board 10×12″