A Portrait in 5 Steps, or First Oil Painting of the Year

One of the things I’m most thrilled about being back in Canada for is having access to my paints again. It breaks my heart being away from them, but it’s just not practical to lug pounds worth of oils, paintbrushes, and palettes not to mention a bulky easel wherever I go around the world.

It also makes me appreciate them a lot more when I’m here – or at least, that’s my plan for the next many months.

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My lovely brushes on my dried out palette just begging to be used.

It’s a bit tricky for me to paint here because you need really good ventilation, which my house doesn’t have, so I need to wait for weather good enough to paint outside. Oils taking sometimes up to a few weeks to dry, I need at least a couple of days being able to strictly leave them outdoors. So no rain, crazy wind, or super cold weather in the forecast.

Fortunately the sun has been out and the temperatures climbing these last few days, so I decided it’s time at last to break out the box of art supplies and install myself on the back patio.

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My oil tubes all lined up and ready.

I set up my paint tubes, brushes, palette, palette knives, a small cup of turpentine, some rags, a reference photo I’d be working with, and of course my easel with a blank canvas.

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So ready to paint!

And so let the painting begin!

Step 1:

First I block out my subject to roughly give myself an idea of the space I’m working with. I make it a point of choosing a darker colour that I plan on using for shadows anyway. It’s also totally okay for it to not look perfect this time around. It’s the spacing, proportion, and general shapes that matter.

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Step 1: Blocking out the subject.

Step 2:

Once my main shape is blocked out, I add the background. My art teacher in Cheongju always recommended choosing the complimentary colour to the one you plan on using on top later because it’ll add nice contrast to make it pop. The subject I’m working with is a redhead, therefore green is what I’m going for.

It’s also my personal preference to have fun with the background – don’t just fill it all in evenly with the same colour. Use 2-3 colours, give it some texture, and make it interesting. Paintings are more captivating if there’s life in every corner of the canvas. Don’t make it so busy that the subject gets lost, but have fun.

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Step 2: Blocking in the background.

Step 3:

Now I fill in the face and the other white space remaining. It’s good to layer here for more natural skin tones. I like following the rule of thirds for understanding the colour zones of the face, which I learned about from James Gurney’s art blog: yellow forehead, red middle cheek band, and blue bottom chin and mouth area.

I’m going more impressionistic, so I went for a cold pale blue everywhere and used my palette knife to pull the coloured layers on top for a more dramatic look. I develop this in Step 4.

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Step 3: Filling in the face and extra white space.

Step 4:

Work in the facial details and shadowing to give depth to the subject. Use black and white sparingly and play close attention to the gradient of lights to darks. Ideally you shouldn’t use black and white in their pure form at all, rather using them to darken/lighten other colours, but I like to save it for the eyes giving the pupils a deep contrast and the highlights a more noticeable sparkle.

Oils (and acrylics for that matter) are the opposite of working with watercolours; in the latter, you start pale and work up your shadows since you can’t layer highlights. In the former, you start dark and layer, layer, layer on the lighter tones. That’s why portraits done in oil can look so realistic: you’re basically aiming to paint the veins, subcutaneous tissue, and the dermis all before you put that top layer of skin on.

I of course did not attempt such realism. For hyperrealist portraits, you need to work on the piece over weeks if not months and I’m just not that patient.

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Step 4: Adding shadow, depth, and detail to the face.

Step 5:

Add the hair. I chose a combination of cadmium red, cadmium yellow, sienna brown, and violet to give depth according to shadows and highlights. Not actually sure how much I like how it turned out – think it was probably more striking in Step 4 – but I had a lot of fun playing with the hair.

I used a palette knife to pull the warm tones over the green, wiping it on a cloth after every stroke so I didn’t muddy the colours. Since oils don’t dry quickly, you have to either work delicately or wait a few days in between layers. But ain’t no one got time for that. (Except, you know, real artists).

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Step 5: Add in the hair and other overlaying features.

And there you have it – a portrait in five steps. I’m hoping to improve a lot over the summer by working on the landscape of the face, but I had a lot of fun and I’m so glad to have my paints back.

That said, I think I need to order some latex gloves because even with me taking painstaking care to keep the paint off my fingers, it ended up everywhere. And I’d prefer not to die of toxins.


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