Painting the Portrait Head

Painting the Portrait Head

   This month we share an introduction to painting the portrait head with these three different methods. We hope that these quick demonstrations will inspire you to consider the many different approaches artists can take when interpreting a subject.

Susan Blackwood

One Way of Getting Started – Girl with the Red Earring

   Years ago, when I was jut getting started in oils, I took a workshop from Master painter Zhiwei Tu. One of the many points that I carried away with that workshop was: 
“Don’t get stuck in a rut. Start your paintings in many different ways. That will bring freshness and growth to your work”.

   photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood Step 1.  I try to start my paintings in a variety of different ways. For this portrait I put a thin wash of various colors of oils combined with Gamsol onto the canvas. This then became the basis of the background. I used warm tones where the face would be and cooler tones in the background. Much of this original wash will be the final background for the painting.

photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood   Step 2.  I paint the wash quickly with a 2" flat brush. Then, before the wash dries (and it will dry quickly), I use a small brush that is slightly damp with Gamsol and draw the portrait, lifting off the wash with the brush. I lift a line and wipe my brush, drawing, lifting and wiping as I go. Besides the brush, a Q-Tip could be used as well. Draw with the Q-Tip then rotate to a clean spot. When it gets dirty, use a new Q-Tip.

 photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood   Step 3.  Next, looking at the light and shadow of the portrait, I use a 1” flat brush to lift off the large light shapes on the face. Again, I stroke the canvas and wipe the brush over and over until the light pattern on the face is showing the canvas underneath. Finally I follow this with wiping those white areas with paper towels. Thus I have drawn the portrait by lifting out lines and I have created the light and shadow shapes on the face by wiping out big areas.

photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood   Step 4.  Building the darks.
Now I have a great light shadow pattern for the face. Portraits rely on the exact lines of the face as well as the light shadow patterns. Both must be accurate to give the portrait the specific likeness. Why do I do this? Good Question. By lifting the wash down to the bare canvas, I have clean surfaces to paint the light areas of the face. The color stays clean and fresh.

photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood   Step 5.  Laying in the flesh tones and starting to fine tune colors, values and shapes overall.

photo of Susan Blackwood painting a portrait © Susan Blackwood   This final photo is the finished painting. Note the lines have been adjusted where needed. The light and dark patterns on the face are clean and clear.

Susan Blackwood OPA AIS
Blackwood and her husband, artist Howard Friedland have online classes at
They teach workshops around the USA, Europe and New Zealand

   Read more about Susan Blackwood and see more of her paintings in our interview with her:  Voices of Experience - Susan Blackwood.

C.W. Mundy 

The Scholar

   This is an example of one of the very few times where doing a portrait, I tried to execute the awesome and talented Richard Schmid's technique of getting one thing correct.

   For example, I started with the right eye, then I went to the next form, the nose, then the mouth, then the beard, then the Left eye and ear. Then I found the sides of the face and the hair and hairline. Again, my confidence was that if I got the first eye correct, I was truly ready to conquer the next shape. By the way, the eyeglasses were the very last registration.

photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy    photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy

photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy    photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy

photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy    photo of oil painting portrait © C.W. Mundy

photo of oil painting portrait, The Scholar, © C.W. Mundy
                             The Scholar 

Read more about C. W. Mundy and his work in our interview with him:  Voices of Experience - C. W. Mundy.

John Hulsey

The Street Musician, Venice

drawing for The Street Musician, Venice © John Hulsey   This painting had to be worked up from photo reference that I took on a trip to Venice. I came upon this diminutive entertainer in one of the busy squares common in Venice. He was playing multiple instruments and wearing a unique funnel cap with brass bells attached. A natural subject for a portrait!

   Before I asked permission to take photos of him to paint, I put some Euros in his cup. As I did so, I noticed that he was well dressed with tailored, expensive trousers and shoes. I could see that, rather than a sad figure eking out a subsistence living on the street, he was a successful entertainer, and I would paint him that way. I took several pictures of him playing and selected two to work with—one with him looking away, and one with him looking straight at me.

   My first step was to do a quick tonal drawing on a large sheet of paper. As you can see he is looking off to the side, and from this drawing I decided instead to paint him looking straight at the viewer. This is more dignified and engaging.

John Hulsey's oil portrait palette   Step 2.  I transferred my drawing to a 40 x 30” linen covered panel I had prepared with an umber wash. Then I mixed all my skin tones on a small palette. I used Transparent Oxide Brown and Red, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Cobalt Blue and Titanium White and a bit of Ivory Black for these mixes.

oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey   Step 3.  Starting with the head, I laid in the largest areas of mass tone, both warm and cool, with a long flat hog bristle and established the features and eyes with some darks. I also put the white funnel hat in and a bit of white along his cheek to give me a way to judge the values better. I left the bells as simple blobs of tone.
 As long as the paint is still wet, I didn't need to be too concerned at this stage with getting the exact shape of the tonal planes perfectly. I could shove them around or remove parts of them as I went. The main thing is to get the paint on the panel!

oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey    Next, I broadly massed in the musician’s shirt before I began to break the large masses of tone in the face into smaller variations of value, shape and temperature.

oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey   Step 4.  Once I had blocked-in the musician’s clothing and instruments, I returned to the head. First, I wiped off most of the white paint along the cheek before going any further. Switching down to smaller bristle flats, I continued to break the planes of the face into smaller and smaller shapes. This helped to create a sense of details. Generally, I prefer to work dark to light, saving the highlights for last. This is also the place where I really began to refine the edges of color masses by either softening areas into each other or adding textural strokes.

oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey   This image shows the entire figure almost complete. All the clothing details and instruments are about done, but those little bells hanging around the hat remain, along with the background.










 oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey   Step 5.  The head in its finished state with the first version of the background in. Not happy with the background values or colors.

            oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey    oil painting portrait of a street musician in Venice © J. Hulsey
                                                           The Street Musician, Venice 

   In the first version above left, I generally followed the bland and rather gloomy colors of my original photo reference. Anticipating changes, I kept my paint thin so that I could overpaint as I felt my way toward a solution.  In the second version, I have created much better contrast between the figure and the background, but I am still not convinced I have it exactly right. Sometimes pictures have to age for awhile for the solution to appear. It is not an exact process, but feeling one’s way through a picture is a good method for finding out what really matters to us in a painting. Unlike driving a car, we don’t always have to know where we are going when we start out to wind up at the right destination in the end.

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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