Portrait painting

neil begining and end

Taking on a portrait is a challenging and daunting task, but can become a very enjoyable process with an equally enjoyable outcome. There are many things to consider that go into making your portrait both of good likeness to your subject , and  also into making the entire image into a strong painting. Capturing someones likeness is a technical endeavour, it comes down to having an accurate stencil made up of the person, laying down that stencil with pin point accuracy, than slowly building that likeness back up with a slow build up of tones. Not only must you get the shapes of each aspect of the face correct to the reference, but the tonal values must be balanced over the entire image, which means you have to be both continuously looking to your painting than back at your reference, capturing the likeness correctly, and you also have to be remembering how you are mixing your colours at the varying depths of the face. This process becomes quite intuitive after some practice, but is challenging in the first stages. Making the portrait a solid painting is another task, this is where personal style comes into play and it is why if you got a group of fantastic painters to all do a realistic depiction of the same person, each painting would come out completely different, though you may say each painting may look exactly like that person.


Making a portrait both have accurate resemblance and also into a solid painting comes down to many personal choices and can paradoxically even come down to clever and puposful deviations from the original image. It can be things as subtle as a choice to highlight the eyes a lot brighter than in the reference image, say with pure white, where your reference image may only have a subtle grey highlight. These kind of personal choices coupled with a solid duplication of details can make a person come to life.


At the core of it duplicating an image, be it a face or even a piece of fruit,  is just like going back to your kindergarten and preschool years when you were taught how to paint by numbers. As long as you follow your guide, and put the colours in the same place as the reference, your image will come out with a likeness to the original. The true issue with portrait painting and duplication painting in general, is that at the beginning, before you have trained your mind to follow the guide, you will automatically want to stray from the reference. And the brain does this quite subconsciously and without you even being aware of what you are doing. This is what stops a portrait from ever achieving a semblance of likeness. It is a main contributor to frustration and loss of motivation to see the painting to the end.  The mind will try to hasten the task by lazily starting to make up its own rules about where colours and even shapes should go, all in an ill attempt to hasten the process and to ease the pain that is put upon the mind by painstakingly duplicating every detail in both tonal value and the correct location on the face. The mind wants to stray from the process because it is hard and demands levels of patience and observance barely needed in normal day to day life. But if you can catch the brain early on when this starts to happen, and always bring your self back to the reference, you will win out. It may take 10-15 attempts at objects, faces, dogs, cats whatever you want, but once you can learn to stop the mind before it starts to make up its own rules, you will learn how to easily and most importantly, to enjoyably, recreate very detailed images.


Transfer outline of image


Prime the area with 2-3 layers of white paint, this is so the paint is not absorbed into the wood as you attempt the duplication.



Copy the stencil over the primed area, make sure this is done with accuracy as it will be the foundation of the image, and if these lines and shapes are out at all, the smallest deviation from the original can end up ruining the likeness being captured, even if you can technically duplicate all the details



Begin to build up the basic tonal values of the face, this take a lot of time and patience, and can also be disheartening as it is not until many more hours of work that any likeness will be observable. These values must be built up accuaretely by paying close attention to the reference image, but remember you can always darken and lighten areas if you start to see you have been deviating from the reference in particular areas



Keep building up tonal values and than when happy, start to move onto the small details that make that persons face. Note. you can work in specific areas, for eg. start at the nose than build it up to completion than move onto the cheek, build it up to completion, move onto the eyes etc etc..or you can work the entire image as a whole. This will depend on your own inclinations


Continue to build up value and detail



When you feel the likeness has been captured put down you brushes and enjoy the outcome. Capturing likeness does not mean a 100% degree of duplication has occurred, a painting at the end of the day is a subjective artwork and will be imbued with your own style of brush strokes and colour mixing choices, it will never be a photo. Be happy with what you have made but know perfection is never reachable, though it will always be the goal of a successful artwork. I hope you enjoyed this post if you’d like to learn more send me an email at elliotcrombie@gmail.com or send me a message on Facebook or Instagram!


Elliot Crombie

Published by Elliot Crombie

Elliot Crombie is a Qualified Tattoo Artist working full time in Brisbane, Australia. Elliot Tattoos out of Body Canvas Tattoo Tuesdays to Saturdays 10-5. Outside of tattooing Elliot is an accumplished Acrylic painter, making one off artworks for collectors the past 8 years. Elliot also holds both a Diploma and a Bachelor in Visual Communication.

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