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
RELIEF OF THE HEAD OR THE FIGURE
It is frequently the practice of accomplished painters to finish the head entirely before touching any other part of the work. The head or figure being completed, or nearly so, the most careful consideration must be given to the background, which must be subservient to the points and character of the portrait. Nothing so materially aids the effect of a picture as a judiciously disposed background, and nothing so readily destroys the best-intentioned production as negligence or injudicious treatment in this particular.
The background must support the figure in such a manner that the latter may not have the appearance of having been cut out and pasted on a dark or a light surface-an effect continually seen in the works of the fathers of the art. The lines and the light and shade of the figure determine what parts are to be relieved and what parts sunk in the background.
All passages of beautiful form must be relieved and brought forward, a precept which naturally suggests that less successful or agreeable parts -those which are incorrigibly heavy, angular, or inelegant-should be lost in the ground.
No painter with any love of his art could be satisfied with painting his figures in one pose and employing one stereotyped background upon all occasions. Were it so, it would not be difficult to copy almost every circumstance from good pictures. In the course of practice every painter is continually experimenting ; and as it is admitted on all hands that even the most exalted genius is extremely unequal, he will be content to err in such society in the course of his researches.
Sir Joshua Reynolds has said that no painter knew so well as Teniers what proportions of sharp outline to leave in his compositions. The amount and distribution of this is of the utmost importance in every picture. It will be found that the cutting outline in pictures of which the chiaroscuro has been successfully studied bears a limited proportion in contrast to the softened and sunk lines. The principle of a complex arrangement is applicable even to a single figure, the effect of which will be enhanced by a few cutting lines.
Sometimes it may be advisable to continue the lights of the figure into the background, the result of which is breadth; in such a case, the treatment of the dark side of the figure is frequently to sink it into a yet deeper background.
Experience will teach the student the immense importance of a judiciously adapted background. He will soon recognise the value of that which, to a person entirely ignorant of the principles of art, might seem to be caprice or accident-that is, the opposition to the features of colour, hot or cold, according to circumstances. For the temporary relief of the head, and the definition of outline, it is necessary in the progress of the study to rub in a little colour, Red, Blue, or Yellow, that which will best suit the complexion; and should the effect be successful, such a composition may afterwards be introduced as will maintain the colour in its place.
When the student has acquired a perception of the comparative value and merit of a background composition, he must not blindly adopt materials from works of acknowledged excellence. He must not appropriate a drapery and a pillar, or an open background, or a group of trees with foliage because it looks well in this or that picture. He must study the principle of the composition, and if he makes himself master of that, he can compose a background upon the same principle without absolutely appropriating the materials. He must observe the most advantageous means of carrying out this part of his composition, by considering the purposes of melting and sinking passages of the outline ; the means of supporting the flesh tints and giving them their true value, by the harmony or contrast of warm or cold colours ; and the manner of communicating richness, depth, and natural truth to the glazings. He must study every means of concealing poverty of line or form in the figure with the aid of the background ; and by close attention to the resources which it affords, he will in time be able, in dealing with figures possessing but few good points, so to relieve them by their surroundings, that the forte and not the faible of such figures shall be the characteristic.
In the treatment of a half-length portrait there is much more space to dispose of than in a three-quarter or head-sized canvas. This space must be broken up in various breadths of chiaroscuro and lines that, in opposition to those of the figure, shall form as great a diversity as the composition will allow. And these lines must be treated in the same manner as those of the figure-that is, now absorbed in some parts of the composition, now relieved by opposition to others.
We sometimes see heads tolerably well painted presented with a form of background which in these days ought to be entirely obsolete : we mean the artificial arrangement of being dark on one side of the head and light on the other. Artists who have extensively practised this arrangement in simple bust portraits cannot extend the principle to a full-length figure-a circumstance which ought to demonstrate its fallacy.
It has been a rule with many of the most eminent portrait painters of our school to sacrifice everything to the head. According to this principle, the greater the field of canvas to be covered, the greater the sacrifice. In a full-length portrait, for instance, every object of the composition is kept low in tone j and as the eye descends, the lower portion of the canvas presents only the sombre tones and indefinite forms. Every part of the composition is carried out in the precise degree of force that it might be supposed to represent when not directly viewed ; that is, the lines and parts of the composition bear that proportion to the head which they would have if, in supposing a tableau vivant of such a composition, we should fix the eye upon the features, and paint every object according to the degree in which it appeared without being directly viewed. This principle, when understood and judiciously carried out, as it may be seen in pictures not intended to vie with the exhibition portraits in glaring colour, will endow the head of a full-length figure with all the force due to it as the life and soul of the work.
A general manner of relieving the head is to bring that part of the background immediately round it down to such a tone as shall sufficiently throw forward the high lights and middle tints of the features, being at the same time so much lighter than the drawings and markings of the head as to be cut by the darker outlines. No precise rule can be given for any standard degree of tone. Every intelligent student will see at once how entirely this depends upon the treatment of the head. In this manner the appearance of depth and distance is obtained, which may be further promoted by the introduction of some object removed from the eye.
In a simple bust portrait the introduction of any accessory is, to say the least, injudicious. Nothing will be found so becoming to works of this size as a plain background ; but in works larger than this accessory frequently becomes indispensable. In Kitcats and half-lengths, where the arms are necessarily introduced, some object, as a chair or table, or both, may be necessary to account for the pose ; but everything should be withheld that does not either assist the composition or relate to the dignity or position of the person represented.
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