You are probably saying, I haven’t heard from Sasha in forever...where has she been? I have taken a long hiatus from writing and researching over the last six months for two very important reasons:
One, I have been building up the Chartpak/Grumbacher education department for some exciting new developments in 2010. Although I can’t reveal all our special plans, I can say our network of artists has increased dramatically, and we will have lots more Grumbacher workshops to enjoy nationwide coming this summer. I will let you know more about this opportunity closer to its unveiling.
Two, I had a baby boy named Vincent Thomas on January 25th, 2010 - a whole new reason for painting portraits. Which leads nicely to some of my favorite observations about portrait painting below. These are all good reminders, whether you are a beginner or a professional, especially when you have had as little sleep as I have had over the last three months. (Photo courtesy of Adriana Lopotrone)
Portrait Painting General Observations, Techniques and Tips
I have definitely learned after years of evaluating artists’ work that you can always tell a good painter from an exceptional painter by their portraits. No other subject matter separates the masses of artists as portraits do. Why? Because portraits stretch our skills as painters to the very limits and use every lesson learned along the way. And unlike a still life or a floral, if you miss an element, the painting falls short.
When starting your portrait, don’t create outlines. Use highlights and shadows to define areas like the nose, mouth, eye cavity, etc. You are not creating a coloring book, you are capturing the essence of someone’s appearance; therefore creating harsh lines are generally unnecessary. One of my favorite examples of this is John Singer Sargent, and his portrait Madame X. If you have ever seen this piece up close (or any John Singer Sargent piece) you will see that very little is defined in realistic form and he has retained much of the painterly brush stroke. Yet, when you step away from the painting, your eye smooths all the lines out and the entire painting looks incredibly life-like and realistic.
One of the easiest things to do is create an unholy mess when trying to mix a flesh tone. Nine times out of ten you end up with a terrible solid color resembling gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. The most important thing I have learned over the years is to not overmix, and accept the fact that no two skin tones are alike. Some of my favorite painters put three or four different colors on their brush at the same time and go right into painting a portrait. Once I learned the courage to do this, I never looked back.
Some of my personal favorite colors to keep on hand during portrait painting are: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, paynes gray, cad yellow medium, cad red medium, and unbleached titanium. I seemingly always use at least four of these colors during a portrait painting at any given time. Here is an example of a portrait of me done by Chicago artist David Marinelli using multiple colors in the skin tone to capture my mischievous look.
Sasha DeMarino private collection
Make a decision about hair before you begin the head. Do you want to paint every strand like an Andrew Wyeth masterpiece or do you want the general idea of hair?
Do you want photorealistic hair, or do you want a few strands hinting at the whole? Too many times I started out wanting to paint every little hair on the head and found it overwhelmed the beauty of the facial expression. Other times I decided to paint every hair on the head and didn’t have the commitment to see it to the end. If you look at many of the great portraits of time, you will find the majority of them just give you the general idea of hair; the overall shape, the highlights, the shadows. The reason the Masters did this is to bring more attention to the face - the feeling and personality of the portrait. However, there are many painters who felt the movement and lines of hair gave the portrait some additional fire and realism. When it comes to hair, I always think of a man who was famous for his painted female locks, J. W. Waterhouse. Now there is some hair! The point is you need to know the direction you want the hair to go before you begin so that you can create a perfect balance by the end of the painting.
When I am painting a realistic portrait painting in acrylic paint, I have found Retarder is my best friend. Adding it into the flesh tone mixture (see about flesh tones above) helps me blend subtle tones and values into the flesh without harsh lines or transitions.
An ancient technique for painting portraits is utilizing the grisaille technique. Grisaille, or sometimes also known as verdaille orbrunaille, is the process of underpainting in near monochromatic style the entire portrait before overpainting with realistic color values. Grisaille helps define depth, shadow, and dimension before the artist worries about color, and often a simple glazing over the grisaille underpainting is enough to create a wonderful effect.
Verdaccio is another old technique that I think still holds a lot of value and was a favorite of Vermeer. This is the process of painting the skin tone in green before glazing over it with the reds and pinks of the flesh tone you wish to acquire. The green helps neutralize the red and pinks due to the fact that it is the complimentary color. Verdaccio helps avoid the “sunburn” or overly warm/orange appearance that can happen when attempting to create flesh tones without the green underpainting. Generally the best mixture for Verdaccio is Chromium Oxide Green and a little Mars Black. If you don't feel like mixing these two colors, we also offer Green Earth Hue which combines those two pigments.
Here is an example of Grisaille and Verdaccio by one of Chartpak’s favorite local artists, Fred Wessel.
Copyright of Fred Wessel, used with permission
One of the techniques I like to use for portraits is the solid color over-glazing technique for skin. Paint the shadows and highlights of the skin including the multiple colors you want to include. Then glaze over this with a thin mixture of unbleached titanium, titanium white, yellow ochre or other appropriate skin tone. The thin glaze retains all the depth and color of the under-painting but smoothes out the skin tone overall for a more realistic skin texture.
Don’t be afraid to obtain these methods above using acrylics or watercolors. Acrylic medium is perfect for creating a glaze with your acrylics for Verdaccio, Grisaille, or any other glazing technique. The translucency of watercolor is perfectly suited for glazing layer upon layer much in the manner as described above and will create depth in your watercolor.
My task for you this month is to go out and study portraits. What makes one good, what makes another great? What is the difference between an okay portrait and a captivating portrait? Join a life drawing class and brush up on your drawing skills. Do multiple quick studies of the face in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and gouache. Try a few new methods in your studio for creating flesh tones. You never know, you may surprise yourself with something especially fantastic for your upcoming summer gallery shows or open studios!
Grumbacher Painters - What are your favorite portrait painting tips?
Everyone has favorite portrait painting tricks and observations. What are yours? Please share by sending your observations here. We look forward to reading them!
One of our very special Grumbacher painting instructors, Mara Yeates-Trumbo, is planning a trip to Italy in 2011. Please read about this special event here, and let her know if you are interested!
May 2010 Trivia Question
Q: How many paintings, according to current experts, did Vermeer create?
The first twelve correct answers by May 31st, 2010 will receive samples of all four grades of our famous Grumbacher charcoal! When answering, please supply your mailing address (we cannot send to P.O. boxes) in the body of the email and send to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for all your support this year. With the help of your comments and suggestions, we hope to make some great new changes to Grumbacher paint products in the next twelve months. Please feel free to fill out our New Product Survey at anytime to pass on what you envision for Grumbacher’s future!
Director of Education