The art of portrait painting in oil colours
This informative book on portrait painting has been preserved for generations and fully deserves to to be available to all portrait artists online. While the art of portraiture has moved on, much of what was written is still valid and relevant to the modern day portrait painter.
Back to The Art of Portrait Painting
As the eye is the dominant feature, and its expression more forcible than even the language of the lips in arresting the attention of the beholder, its treatment naturally demands our first consideration.
The formal differences assumed by the eye at various periods of life are patent to common observation. It will, however, be of assistance to the student if we point out the character of these changes, and instruct him where particularly to look for them.
The progress from childhood to youth is indicated in the inner angle of the eye ; but as life advances the change is observable in the outer corner. And we may allude to the marked difference of character between the eye of man and that of woman : all that is epic and philosophical is becoming to the former ; but the latter is formed, with softness and brilliancy, only for the expression of tender sentiment. The expression of emotion in the eye of either sex is extremely difficult to catch, and the more intense tone of the male subject is at times especially so ; yet occasionally, when it is supposed to be least practicable, it may be realised with but a few touches.
The eye of the female is generally painted in a full light, which brings out every characteristic delicacy of construction and colour. When it is seen in such a light as to show the details of its structure, the desire to imitate all its perceptible niceties of form is extremely embarrassing to a student; but even were he to succeed in detailing these, he would find the result would not only be a feebleness of manner, but would be useless in portraiture.
We cannot deal with light and shade by simple allusion; they demand scrupulous trust and justice ; but where the delineation of minute formation is not necessary to resemblance, it is sufficient that it be only indicated.
When every minute portion of the structure of the eye is visible, every line must have its place in the painting, and every part must be signified, but without any degree of severity in the one, or spottiness in the other, unless there be certain points which cannot be omitted without injury to the resemblance.
The result of such treatment successfully carried out is breadth.
Again, if the light fall on the head at an angle of, say, sixty degrees or upwards, the eyes may be thrown into strong shade, whereby minute detail is lost; but the resemblance may, nevertheless, be equally well rendered. A light so high as this is not favourable for painting the heads of aged persons, because it shows too strongly the indications of age on the forehead, and wheresoever its traces may most prominently exist. In the preceding instances breadth is preserved by guarding against dark spots in the lights ; here it is maintained by subduing light spots in the middle or darker tints.
Every part of the eye must be balanced and adjusted with the most unquestionable accuracy, in order to convey the necessary impression of vitality and intelligence. The light reflected in the eye must be many tones higher than that of any other part, and it will yet be in perfect harmony with all around if its tone and place be observed. The effect is further assisted by the arrangement and opposition of the hair, the colour and shadow of which are of incalculable service in clearing up and forcing the lights of the face.
In dark complexions the eyebrows must not be painted as a hard and solid mass, cutting the brow with a sharp line. In the majority of cases, it is a good plan to paint them lightly over a prepared ground of the colour of the general complexion, in a manner to show the greater or less quantity of the hair, which can be readily effected by such means.
All that has been said in the way of caution against severity of line in drawing and painting the eyes is applicable also to the eyebrows. Almost any combination producing degrees of dark brown may be used, as the Umbers with Black and Red, or Black, Red, and Yellow. The eyebrow is frequently a strong feature, especially after middle age, and then more so in men than in women. The drawing, therefore, must be extremely careful, and the characteristics brought forward. In aged persons this feature assumes various appearances. The hair may fail, or, on the contrary, it may become bushy, or here and there tufted. In any case, whatever prominence occurs, it must be represented by a spirited touch ; for any attempt at individualizing the hairs will end in certain failure. The darker parts may be glazed, but if the eyebrow has been at all successfully treated, no retouching or hatching will be necessary.
We know that the eyelashes consist of hairs which fringe the lid, but no attempt must be made to describe them as formed of hair. At the distance at which a painter places a sitter from his easel the upper eyelash presents the appearance of a well-defined line, varying in form according to the position of the head, and always less strongly marked at the inner corner of the nose. The lashes of the lower lid are very slightly marked, except in cases where they are unusually large. The upper lash is a striking feature upon which much of the character of the eye depends j but the lower lash does not, in any great degree, contribute to the marking of the eye.
The error common with beginners, of marking the eyelash too strongly, must be particularly guarded against. The upper edge of the lash is softened into the lid, and the lower edge melts imperceptibly into the shadows which it casts upon the orb beneath it. Under the outward extremity of the lash the thickness of the lid is perceptible, and this must be represented as it is seen-that is, distinct from the lash, and extremely delicate in tone.
We see continually, in the essays of beginners, the visible parts of the orb which surround the pupil laid in with almost pure white. A light grey tint should be employed here, on the principle that it is easier to raise than to lower the tone of this part of the eye when it is once painted. The form assumed by the pupil depends upon the relative position of the head ; in the full face it is round, but in profile it is oval. The internal angle of the eye requires great nicety of drawing and delicacy of colour ; the extremity is of a bright carnation, heightened by the brilliant effect of the slight humidity which is always lodged there.
Immediately beneath the eyes, the skin being very thin and transparent, the prevailing tints are of the tenderest shades of grey and violet. In old age this part assumes a greenish hue ; but the characteristic, at all points of life, is that of an extremely delicate transparency.
About John Payne
I’ve been a professional portrait artist for the last 12 years but have been painting for a lot longer . I started out by painting nothing but seascapes and still do the odd one from time to time , I then moved onto landscapes and wildlife paintings before I finally decided to concentrate on portraits.
I get commissioned to paint a lot of pets , mainly dogs – but I also get to paint a fair amount of portraits of people.
more about John John Payne