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 relief of the features, and the apparent roundness of the head, depend entirely upon the manner of lighting the sitter, it may here be necessary to offer a few observations on the matter. A little knowledge of this will facilitate the labours of the painter, and give life-like force to his study.
The portrait .should be painted under one light, obtained from the upper part of a window facing the north or east, the lower part being closed.
In the best male portraits there is always a sufficient proportion of shade to give force and substance to the head. It is distributed under the eyebrows, and thus the eyes become the striking feature of the mask; it is partially broken about the mouth, and under or on one side of the nose, according to the pose of tint sitter with reference to the light.
But if the subject be a lady, it is usual to place the features in a broad light, and paint the portrait with only just sufficient shade to secure the roundness of the head and the relief of the features. The same observation applies to studies of aged persons ; if they be placed under a high light, the traces of years become prominently marked.
As the painter stands at his easel to work, the eye of the sitter should be raised to the level of that of the artist, or in a small degree higher, in order that the head may be nearly on the same plane as that of the painter. This adjustment is effected by raising the chair of the sitter by means of a small platform, about two feet high, which together with the chair is called a ‘ throne.’
It is the practice of some authorities to make a careful chalk drawing of the head on paper, and this, as a first step, might be useful to the student, since it would serve to assist him in preserving his outline, which is frequently injured or lost in dealing with some of the subsequent difficulties of the study. It must, however, be acknowledged that such a method of commencing and conducting a portrait may lead to that tameness of execution which is the frequent disqualification of copying. Hence the work might be altogether deficient of that spirit, freedom, and decision which it should be the earnest object of the painter to secure.
The sketch is commenced on the canvas with charcoal, a material admirably adapted to this purpose, in consequence of the facility with which the drawing may be corrected. The first sketch having been satisfactorily made, the loose particles of the charcoal are carefully swept off with a soft silk handkerchief, or anything else sufficiently light to leave the outlines and markings distinct. The drawing is reproduced with black or red chalk, with all the care and nicety necessary to secure as perfect a resemblance as possible.
The whole is then retraced with colour, the outline being repeated with lightness and delicacy, and all the markings and gradations laid in. The tint employed for this purpose may be almost any warm, transparent combination, as Umber and Lake, Umber and Indian Red, Black and Indian Red, or even Umber alone.
In the practice of some artists, the chalk is succeeded by a warm, water-coloured tint, to which ox-gall has been added, to make it flow and work freely ; in either case, the tool employed is a small sable pencil.
The utmost care should be given to accuracy of drawing, and any errors in the delineation of the eyes, nose, and mouth should now be corrected.
The colour should be laid in a manner free and transparent, similar to that of a wash of Sepia, or Indian ink, with an effect like that of mezzo-tinto ; in those parts of the study where the lights fall, the tint will be driven very sparingly, but of course with deeper gradations in the parts that retire into shade.
The sketch being brought forward according to these instructions, it must be allowed to dry, after which the first painting, or dead colouring, may be commenced.
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