painting of smiling lady

Painting portraits in Acrylics by Linda MacAulay

I believe we can all draw and paint any subject we choose. To me the subject is irrelevant. The most important thing is your ability to observe and accurately represent how light interacts with a subject. Once you do this you can draw or paint anything, be it a portrait, figure, animal, tree, rock or building.

I also need to let anyone know who reads this blog that I am not a portrait painter. Landscapes are my true passion and I really believe you must paint a subject your passionate about and have some direct experience of. Any great portrait artist will meet with their subject and paint them from life. Like any skill you learn, it takes a little time to master it and those who go on to be great at anything are not always the most talented to begin with but those who put in the hours of practice.

I am not up there yet… fact I don’t think I will ever be a great portrait painter as this is not my passion but rather an exercise in technique for me. I did paint this from a photo that I took and do have a connection to the subject and in hindsight it’s my connection and feelings towards the subject that shine through more than the technical accuracy.

There is a great book that explains how to we can all draw or paint anything called”Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. I use techniques from this book extensively in my teaching. I have seen these techniques transform not only the way that the artist draws but how they view their whole life. Learning how to observe what is truly there rather than what we want to see is a powerful skill. As an artist we must learn to know our subject intimately whilst also remaining objective.

This painting is primarily about glazing and tone…two of my favourite techniques. I have used Matisse flow paints on a cheap canvas for this exercise as I did not paint this picture to sell. I painted the whole picture over a weekend. It actually only involved 3 hours of painting and the rest was drying time in between the glazes. The use of numerous semi transparent glazes adds depth and glow to a painting and is worth the effort.

I start by mixing together Deep Rose Madder, Yellow Oxide and White to make a flesh tint. Add more Yellow Oxide to make a yellowish skin tone. Add more Deep Rose Madder to make a pinkish skin tone. I am aiming to make a mid tone flesh tint to base coat my entire canvas with. As this painting is in acrylic I can work from this base adding highlights in a lighter colour and shadows in using a darker colour.

Once I have got my colour correct I add some of my 50/50 mix of acrylic painting medium and water to make the flesh tint a smoother consistency which is easier to apply. Next I base coat the entire canvas with my mid tone flesh tint. I use different direction brush strokes to add some texture to the undercoat. I let this dry completely before moving on.

Using a mix of Cobalt Blue and Magenta diluted with my 50/50 acrylic painting mix I do a rough tonal painting to block in my darks. There is no detail here or deliberate variation in tone. Its either light or dark. My bushwork follows the contours of the subject. Note how I have used brushwork to suggest the hair. The trick here is to get the balance between loose and fluid work and accuracy.

Once my tonal underpainting has dried I am ready to start building up the flesh tints. I use my mix of Deep Rose Madder and Yellow Oxide. I dilute this with my 50/50 mix of acrylic painting medium and water to form a glaze. Notice how I have glazed some of the flesh tint into the hair line. When the hair is finished this will add a few warm highlights which will tie the picture together

When this stage is dry I go over my tonal painting with the same Cobalt Blue and Magenta mix to strengthen the darks. I have blocked out the background to define the hair, neck and shoulders.

At this stage I add some whites to my lightest areas. The structure of the face is starting to emerge although there is no detail yet. I am still just concentrating on getting my lights and darks correct and making sure they are where they should be.

Now it is time to start covering up the underpainting with more solid flesh tones. I do this gradually with glazes as I don’t want to go in too heavy and lose the tonal painting beneath. I also glazed in some Turquoise shadows to the chin and hair to reflect the colour of the jumper.

Here I have gone over the background again with a wash of Dioxine Purple. I vary the direction of my brush strokes. This layering of colour and brushstrokes creates depth and interest in the background. I have started to define the detail in the eyes, nose mouth and adding either darks or lights where appropriate. Notice how the whites of the eyes are not white.

Painting the nail holes

Looking at the previous picture there is still a little too much of the underpainting showing through especially in the dark shadows around the mouth. Here I add some more flesh tinted darks over the underpainting and paid attention to blending them well into the lights. I used my finger to blend the wet paint. I also added the shadow on the jumper below the chin using a glaze of my Cobalt Blue mixed with Magenta thinned down with the 50/50 painting medium. This gives a lovely transparent effect that dries to reveal the underpainting of the jumper beneath

Painting a straight line

Now that I am satified with the tones I can start to add the final details like the wrinkles and hair. For the hair, I have used a half inch flat brush fanned out slightly by pressing it down hard on the palette. I did not have to add much detail at all. Just a few grey hairs over the face and a little more detail below the ears. All my tones for the hair were already in place and a few well placed details just finish it off.

Frog outline

Another glaze over the darker flesh tints and some further blending of the lights and I am finished painting. I thought it had enough detail and choose to stop. Knowing when to stop is hard but I think is important to stop one stage before you think the painting is finished. Then take your time to carefully evaluate it…I find I need to leave it overnight before I do anything further and if it still looks wrong the following morning I will keep working. More often than not it looks fine and I leave it be.

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