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How I Got Into Portrait Painting

April 11, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 150

I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't love to draw. Even as a little girl, when my brothers and sister were away doing something else, I always chose to amuse myself with paper and pencil -- drawing horses, dresses, people. I was always comfortable with pencil, sticking with that medium when I was creating my pictures. While color media was intriguing to me, for a long time I was reluctant to get into color because of all the considerations that come with color that I never had to think about with pencil; it seemed a little daunting.

But after years of sticking with pencil when I tried to draw faces - my favorite subject - eventually, I knew it was time to take it further. There were things like shading and highlights that I could easily achieve with pencil, but beyond that, I needed more than pencil. Well, a great place to start something new is a class, so I enrolled in an oil portrait painting class at my local community college. I remember the teacher observing the first portrait I painted in that class and asking several times if I had taken a portrait class in the past because she felt my work was so good. Wow! I felt like she didn't believe me when I said I hadn't. (Although I had two university degrees in art, those curricula hadn't ever encompassed a portrait painting class.) The students would crowd around my easel to look at my progress, but when they started asking for my opinion on their work, that was a little uncomfortable for me because I didn't feel like it was my place to take over the teacher's. I remember one model who had sat for the class brought her mother in the next week to see the portrait I had done of her.

I could see my skills were more advanced than the other students, but it took me a while of continuing painting before I realized why: I had already had years to refine my drawing skills before I ever picked up a paintbrush. However, the other students struggled with their portraits for one reason: they did not have their drawing skills mastered and were in this one class having to tackle two challenging disciplines at once - drawing AND painting.

Understandably, they became frustrated and thought they didn't have as much talent as I had, or had no talent at all, when quite simply, they had put the cart before the horse.

But my years of drawing had allowed me to develop a solid understanding of what it took to achieve a good likeness in a portrait. I knew it entailed a detailed study of the sitter, as well as the ability to measure proportions and distances visually. I also needed to be able to drop imaginary plumb lines to align the features. Those years of pencil drawing had taught me that no detail of the face - from the size and shape of every feature to each shadow of the face - could be overlooked. I understood that something as subtle as drawing a shadow too dark, too light, too wide, or too short would leave me with a face that looked nothing like the sitter.

Years of concentrated focus and study had taught me this, a benefit the other students hadn't gotten.

Because I had those drawing skills already mastered, I was able to focus entirely to combining colors in oil, which is no mean feat! So it was fun to move beyond my pencil drawing skills and learn how to apply the paint in a certain way to give my subject's face a luminous quality that can only be achieved by oil paint. I learned the eyes (my favorite part of painting a face) are the focal point of a portrait. The highlight of the eyes, the sheen of the hair, the glint of the teeth, the color changes in the skin - these are extremely important to get right when painting a portrait. When all these elements are in place, the face on the canvas seems to come alive!

There is so much to learn I think I'll always consider myself an enthusiastic learner and student. However, I have learned so many things over all these years that I wanted to bring them together in one course that could help many other developing artists who don't have the skills they need. That is why I created "Drawing Secrets Revealed," an online video drawing series that lays everything I have learned in an organized, easy-to-understand course that is clear enough that a 14-year-old can follow it but will challenge even an experienced artist. Information on my course can be found by visiting You can see my own work, much of it oil portraits to show you what I've been talking about, at

Source: EzineArticles
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