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Thread: Portrait advice

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    outer hebrides, scotland

    Portrait advice

    Could some of the experienced portrait artists give me some tips how to learn portraits? I mean where do I begin? I have tried a couple but what I don't get is how skilled artists can get all the skin tones of the face so perfect, no just digital art but acrylic painting. You all make it look so easy, I only started traditional art lessons in 2010 and gave up the lessons in 2013, my teacher only taught landscapes so he had no experience in portraits. I swear some of the paintings from the artists on this forum blow me away, I would give anything to learn from the masters on here. Thank you.


  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2007
    Hello Gordon. It's interesting that you often hear someone say I can paint a landscape, or a still life, but I can't paint portraits. The truth is they are all the same. If you can do one, you can do the other. I think people get immobilized by the subject when trying to do a portrait. "What if it doesn't look like the person it's supposed to be"? They put undo pressure on themselves. My advice would be this...If you want to paint a portrait, stop looking at the face. It is all just shapes. Shapes of shadows, highlights and mid-tones just like in a landscape or a still life. In the case of a portrait if you get the shapes right you will end up with a collection of shapes, that together, look like someones face. As far as the skin tones, again I would say you already have the experience of mixing colors for a landscape. Painting a skin tone is no different than painting the correct color of a field or distant mountain side. Painting the skin tone of a face is no different than painting the skin tone of an apple. Trust what you know and use that. Again try to forget your painting a face and break it down into lights and darks, highlights and shadows. If you are working from photographs, try turning the photo upside down while you work. That will help you forget the subject and focus on capturing the shapes and tones you're seeing. I think you will figure it out pretty quickly. Best of luck.
    Last edited by jmac; 07-30-2014 at 03:59 AM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2013
    Well, as for the right tones you may use the color picker or just try the color that looks right to you and then slightly make adjustments, I personally like to use some color picker for basic colors and after that I mostly play with colors that I see most suited. Painting a portrait is not like painting a landscape (at least for me), because it's more emotional, you're creating a human being from blank, it's like playing gods in a way , it may also be trickier because our brain is trained to map faces so even the slightest error won't pass unoticed, but the highest the challenge the more rewarding it will be to win it. That being said anybody can paint humans, you only need a good spirit of observation, passion and practice, practice and even more practice (keep in mind that to master it will take at least 10 years of costant drawing). Regards

    That's what art's about, isn't it -- at some point it's about the relationship between the art and the viewer, sort of like speed dating. (D Akey)

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    It's very hard to give advice,everyone is different.I struggle with portraits and most things I paint,it's not giving up and keep plugging away that will get improvements no matter how small.
    Maybe the key is pinpoint what part of doing portraits you struggle with the most.Sometimes Artist's will say Colors but it could be the values not the color at all,if you get the wrong values
    the colors won't matter or hold up.If your values are correct the person can have green skin or what ever color and the painting will still read.For me working on value studies really works wonders.So if your not confident with color you could use ArtRage to do value studies of portraits to get more confident with portraits.When your ready you can then use layers on top to practice color.I hope that makes sense and is of some help.Good luck , keep drawing and painting!

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2011
    If you want more specific lessons on facial features and drawing the human body in general then I've found Proko's site very informative.
    Likewise Sycra's site and Xia Taptara's site.
    Both free and payed video lessons are available from them.
    I would recommend going to a life drawing class too if you can.

    But key to mastering any endeavour is "DOING", practice, practice, practice!
    I'm often in awe of work I see posted here too and elsewhere but I know non of those artists just picked up a brush for the first time and produced what we see today of their work. Hundreds of hours of past work lie before it and there is no way around that.

    Maker Of Replica Macoys

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  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    All that above is good advice and shows that like with any art form, there are many ways to approach it precisely because it reflects the individual artist.

    The first thing is to dive right in and if nothing else it will show you what you need to learn. It will provide you with your strengths and weaknesses in a very visible way. Of course, that's the way of picture making in most all cases.

    And learning is a lifetime endeavor. That's why it's so much fun. It grows with you.

    One word of advice though, is pick a style you like from a teacher who is clear and paints the kind of paintings (or drawings) you want to do. Teachers tend to teach what they are good at (I wish it was true in all cases). And their past work will show you exactly what's down the road they're on. But just because someone can paint, doesn't insure they're a good teacher.

    Okay -- two words of advice. I have TWO words of advice:
    1) Find a good teacher (live or through a book or online or whatever) who teaches exactly what you want to learn.
    2) Focus on it until you learn it. It's faster. Then you can start branching out. But give yourself a good solid base. As was mentioned above, painting is painting, and if you learn it in one area, it can often carry over into another subject.

    Regarding portraits, they're requiring somewhat more precision than a landscape. With landscapes you have room to deviate and it could still look great. In fact, a landscape often needs adjusting to improve the composition. Human features and mechanical stuff if it's off will stand out like a flashing light. If we're looking at a human face, if the proportions are off, if one eye is slightly higher than the other or larger or looking in a slightly different direction, the subject will look completely wrong or ill or it will reflect on the artist. That precision for the most part is not necessary, and in fact it's often a liability, in landscapes. Etc etc. . .

    And this is why learning formula and proportions is necessary when working with realism. The viewer's mind, however undereducated, will pick up on flaws of this kind because that's what we do in life. We're wired to pick up deviation. It's a primitive survival thing because it catches our attention. If we're out in the tall grass of the African savannah, armed with a spear, and we're looking at the pattern of the grass, all's right and orderly until we see a little bit move and deviate from the rest. That puts us on guard against perhaps a jungle cat who sees us as dinner. So since that's how we're wired, and that's how your audience is wired, you work with that.

    Anyway, all that said, have fun with it. But you are responsible for your own artistic destiny, and it's on you to select and always evaluate your training, and teacher selection is very important.

    Andrew Loomis from the 1950s (give or take a decade or two) wrote many books on art of the old school illustration style in which he shows how to learn drawing and painting. And even though the hairstyles and clothes of his models are dated, the basic human form hasn't changed in 60-70 years. His stuff is available all over. There are so many places to learn now with the internet as well. And live classes with proper teachers are always good to keep us from falling into bad habits and creative ruts. It's more fun too usually.

    Speaking of which, HAVE FUN!!!!
    Last edited by D Akey; 07-31-2014 at 03:18 AM.
    "Not a bit is wasted and the best is yet to come. . ." -- remembered from a dream

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2011
    Hi gordon, D Akey mentioned Andrew Loomis. Here's a link where you can download his instructions (incl portraiture) for free, in pdf form:

    FREE Andrew Loomis Art Instruction Downloads

    All the best with your portraits. They're not easy and are a challenge but very rewarding.
    Last edited by hildee; 08-01-2014 at 02:00 PM.

  8. #8
    All of the above is fantastic advice for getting started. I think while all of it is worth keeping in mind, Jmac said what I would say and said it better than I ever could. If it's still too intimidating you could sign up for portrait/human body sketch studies. Sometimes local community centers or art colleges will have classes either free or a fee type thing. Keep in mind youtube and the myriad of books of available out there.

    Good luck in your endeavors.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    May 2013
    South Yorkshire, UK

    Fixed link to PDFs. Currently downloading them myself.

    I'm not particularly good at portraits but like most things in life: practice, practice, practice (if only I could follow my own advice)

    This will improve your hand/eye co-ordination and observational skills which are the key. As has already been mentioned, a lot of it is down to getting all the pieces at the correct sizes in the correct places. Get something slightly off and it looks wrong somehow. You could do quick studies before committing to a major painting to get a feel for the face and it helps to look at the space between the facial features as well as the features themselves. Look at the relationships between the features: sizes, shapes, distance apart, angles joining/between etc. Try to notice and be aware of how everything is in relation to the other elements.

    If you're struggling, you could try using a grid overlay on a photo. Divide it up into equal sized blocks, ensure your canvas is the same proportionally and overlay/recreate the same grid on a layer over your painting. You can then look at it square by square to see how the elements all relate and treat it a bit more like a jigsaw. Obviously this removes some of the artistic interpretation but is a great way to get started and ensure things are where they should be. If you'd rather get stuck in, you could always overlay a grid later and use it to assess how right or wrong you got things and see where you may need to make changes.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Apr 2011

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