The art of portrait

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.

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In a course of practical instruction, it is embarrassing to a student to propose to his consideration anything beyond a series of simple precepts whereby he may attain a desired end. As, however, in painting, no two artists arrive at the same conclusion by precisely similar means, we advert briefly to a few of the endless varieties of method pursued in painting a picture or a portrait. It is these marked differences that constitute excellence or imperfection in the execution of works of art.

A portrait may be admirable in colour, but defective in drawing. It may, on the other hand, be perfect in drawing, but dry and unnatural in colour. It may seem as if it would yield to the pressure of the finger, or it may be repulsively hard. Indeed a picture may be characterized by a multiplicity of properties and disqualifications which no description could render intelligible to a student. We will simply mention a few of the methods by which the best qualities are secured.

It is said to have been a principle with the Venetian school -by the members of which colour was carried to the utmost excellence-to lay the dead colour of flesh with a series of cold or grey tints, and this method is practised by many modern artists. When understood and properly treated, this dead colour preserves, throughout the last stage, all the tints of the finishing process cool and transparent. This dead colour, like all others, must be laid lighter than it is meant to appear when finished. The opacity and substance of these tints being overlaid with transparent colour will produce an effect of great brilliancy.

When the finishing colours are the same as those with which the preparatory painting has been executed, the effect will be heavy, opaque, and altogether devoid of the lifelike brilliancy observable in nature ; but a succession of warm tones upon cold produces a result inconceivably beautiful.

No opportunity should be lost of examining and, if possible, of studying meritorious works. It is by close observation that we learn and see more than can be communicated either verbally or in writing. In describing the process of painting a head, it is impossible to lay down rules which should meet the emergencies of even one case, for every subject presents different varieties of practice. In the absence of experience, a careful observation of the practice of others will always supply something available and worthy of imitation, either in dispositions of form, light and shade, or in colour.

It is, and has been, customary with many very eminent portrait painters to glaze their works twice, or even three times. The charm of a glaze is so seductive that it frequently tempts to glaze too deeply, in which case all the fresh, natural, and cool tones of the picture are destroyed. To avoid this, there is no other criterion than nature ; the picture should not be glazed in the absence of the sitter. It is glazed generally at the commencement of the second painting, which is immediately proceeded with on this wet ground, opaque and transparent colour being employed as required, but the finishing glaze being always kept in view-that is, the tone of the whole being kept some degrees higher than it is intended to be when finished.

Colour is a great desideratum in portraiture ; in proportion to the number of portrait painters there are but few who may be called fine colourists. Colour is the quality which has contributed to the preservation of the works of our eminent portrait painters. Many of their works are valueless as portraits, but inestimable as pictures. When Reynolds, speaking of colour, told the students to * think of a ripe peach,’ he very pithily described the tendency of his own thoughts when painting ; and when his picture was finished all acknowledged that the peach was there, but in the realization of this the resemblance had frequently been forgotten.

Likeness is, however, by no means incompatible with fine colour, as we see in valuable examples of Reynolds himself, and of every eminent painter before or since his time. But in ‘ thinking of the peach ‘ the likeness must not be forgotten. It is a common and successful practice to make a perfect study of the likeness entirely with a view to a finishing glaze, which is then worked simply as a study of colour, the only care necessary being to preserve entire the resemblance already obtained. A student might attempt this method with great probability of success, because his attention would be occupied by only one at the time of the two great qualities of portraiture. Likeness is sometimes extremely difficult to obtain, and in such a case repeated corrections and repaintings are sure to result in heaviness and opacity ; then the only resource is to recommence the study, and to endeavour so far to profit by the failure as to avoid a second embroilment.

In works of the best class we always find the colour and effect admirably enhanced by the darkest markings about the head. We always feel their presence and influence, but we do not see them individually until we look for them. The effect of otherwise highly meritorious work is in a great measure destroyed by want of natural force in these valuable points. They are frequently put in, in the first sketch, with great spirit, but as the work proceeds they are sometimes superseded ; yet they are never lost sight of by the judicious artist; he makes these points instrumental in rounding the head, in clearing up the shade tints of the flesh, and forcing the higher tones into light and brilliancy. If we studiously examine any head which we are about to paint, we shall find the relation of light and shade so nicely adjusted that no portion of either can be reduced without manifest injury to the study; and supposing the head to be advantageously lighted, there is no trick of treatment that ought to supersede the truth of the real relations of the light and shade.

We say advantageously, because the lighting of the subject is a most essential point. For instance, the experienced painter regulates his light according to the age and characteristics of the sitter. He will never place aged persons under a high light, because the markings of the face-such as the furrows on the brow, the falling of the mouth, and other indications of years-become more conspicuous than in ordinary daylight, by which they are commonly seen.

It may be well supposed that, as the facilities of execution are acquired by practice, even the first painting may, in skilful hands, be made to approach very closely to life. The accomplished artist has no difficulty in studying at one and the same time the drawing, colour, and character of the mask; and very often there are passages of a first painting laid in with so much felicity and truth that they are never again touched upon, because they cannot be improved.

Whatever may be the state of the first or second painting, whether much or little relatively may have been done, we find those works which have been effectively brought forward assume, at the last painting, the resemblance of the sitter as seen at a little distance. It was a practice of Sir Thomas Lawrence to place his easel by the side of the sitter, and so work upon the portrait, retiring to examine his work, and then advancing to touch upon it when he had determined what was to be done. One valuable result, at least, of this will be breadth, which is frequently lost by working near the sitter and keeping the picture always immediately under the eye.


About John Payne

Pet Portraits     Art for sale - oil paintings

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       




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