Australian Fine Artist

Portrait Painting

First of Five All Day Workshops with Artist David Chen

Painting from Live Model Alla Prima

Painting a good portrait is not just a matter of anatomy. It is capturing the character and personality of the sitter as well as their likeness. If you are painting in an Impressionist style, it will also mean not getting stuck on any minute detail, but looking at the broader look of the person.

For example, what heritage has the person? They could be European, Asian or African in racial background, or any mix of these. This will determine the shape of the skull, the brow, nose, cheek bones, shape of eyes, lips and skin colours. This overall structure of the skull is the foundation of your painting. Then of course follows hair colour and type (EG: curly, straight etc).

On top of this is the lighting and surrounding colours in the background and around the person. Do you have a spotlight lighting one side of the person, is it a warm or cool light, is light coming from any other source? Is colour being reflected on their skin from around them (EG: their clothing)?

When placing your model to paint, you need to think about all of these for when you set up your palette. Remember also that you are painting the person, so getting them in a comfortable pose that reflects who and what they are is very important.

Remember to give your sitter regular breaks as sitting still is more tiring than you may think. Most artists and models agree on a break every twenty minutes. You can use masking tape to mark where to put arms and where to face when you return to painting from a break. Give your sitter a minute to relax back into the pose and suggest any adjustments they need to make to get back to close to what you had before.

The Mechanics

There are several methods of drawing in the shape of the head to begin building a likeness. One is to draw a cross shape to show the middle both across and down the face and work out from there. Another is to draw a square or rectangle (depending on the overall shape of the head) and to divide it up into halves or thirds for the approximate placement of eyes, nose and mouth. It doesn’t hurt to try all of these to see which one works best for you. Keep in mind that these are generalities, every human has the same basic structure but we are not all exactly the same so check every measurement against your model.

Really look at the colour of your model’s skin. The darks, mid tones and lights on your palette must reflect their overall colouring (slightly pinkish skin, pale yellowish, or brown tones). Your master colour of darks mids and lights will be the main “puddles” that you dip into with other colours spreading across your palette. The same goes for the hair.

Remember that colour theory comes into play here as well, so if you have a colour that isn’t going to work around your model, change it. For example, if your model has a cool pinkish skin and brown hair, putting a lime green around them would look out of place, check your colour wheel, if you need to select a complementary colour, that will relate to all your other colours.

On the human face remember there are places where the blood vessels are closer to the surface. Parts of the face are cooler than others. Generally you can make the forehead warmer with yellowish tints, the cheeks, nose and lips warmer with more red and under the brow, around the eyes and the chin cooler with a blue or green tint. Remember to keep these subtle and the colours relating to each other.

As you build up your image, remember structure. The face, like any subject in still life, has planes (surfaces). Keep in mind where the bones are, where major muscles are so that you know where to soften and where a harder edge may fall. You can use one stroke to create form and keep the painting fresh in some areas, or place a few well thought out strokes in others to help build structure.


Enjoy the process. Relax and your model will also. If you are like me you will be on a learning curve with portraits, and there is always another day to try again and learn something new.

My lessons from this session were:

  • To increase my tonal values
  • Add some higher key colours to give more drama (EG: lips, hair)
  • To be bolder and less fearful with my brushstrokes

I will add my attempt below and an altered version closer to what David was looking for from me.

Modified in Photoshop, to create more warmth, drama and reflect the colour of the skin better.

Modified in Photoshop, to create more warmth, drama and reflect the colour of the skin better.

My Original Painting.

My Original Painting

If you would like to go on the waiting list for workshops with David Chen, you can contact him though his website at:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

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