Australian Fine Artist

Portrait Painting for Artists

Session Number Five of Five Workshops with David Chen

Basic Values

When you design a portrait you need to use enough values to help the subject to stand out. Values used correctly, help to bring out your sitter, and push the surrounding area and background back. By abstracting the surrounds with the right values, you can hint at the professiona or personality of the person without allowing everything around them to dominate the painting.

How this is achieved, is by careful use of just enough changes in values.

In a portrait there need to be enough values to hlep the ubject stand out without being too complex.

As little as three values can help to achieve this. Painters like Rembrandt use very few values in their dramatic portraits. The lights and shadows in Rembrandrt’s paintings created sombre moods and drama with little or no detail around the face.

Other artists worth looking at for their use of limited values and abstracted surrounds are Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955) and Andrew Wyeth (1940-2009).

In their paintings you may notice that they reduce the detial in the background and allow the subject to stand out. After the model has left, the painting remains, so it is up to you as the artist to alter what you need to, to make the painting work. this may mean lightening, darkening, abstracting or removing objects.

This method of painting portraits is not the tradtional Academic style, taught up to the 20th century, and you will notice more of this type of treatmetn of portraits from the Modernist period into the 21st century. Usng basic values, therefor is a more contemporary method of reducing details, altering the composition and reducing values to help bring out your subject as the feture in your painting.

Before you begin

Before you begin to paint get to know your subject. Design your composition and think about what you are about to include or delete. Take the time to sketch in pencil, your subject and your ideas to help to show them in the best possible light.

Think about how the light is working on the face, and what type of light you are using. You may need to adjust it a few times before you get it the way you want. Plus consider the skin colouring of your sitter, as some lights, especially yellow or green based ones from fluros can make a person look unwell. A warm or neutral light often sets off the skin better.

Move the light around to see what you want to highlight on the face and neck. Also think about which side to highlight, as people often have a ‘better’ side they would like to show.

As you draw, think about how many values you need to use to bring out the features, and how much you need to abstract or delete from the surrounds.

When you have a sketch you are happy with you can then move on to the painting.


If you would like to practice further, try doing some variations with abstracting backgrounds around a portrait. You can use a photo if you don’t have a sitter. Try a variety of values on the model, starting with about three and moving up to 5 or 6 to see how the increase in values allows for more information about light, mid tones, shadows and modelling on the body. You will also notice the difference in dramatic finish from one to another.

The Session

For today we had a lovely live model who went to the trouble of putting her hair up with some old fashioned adornments and a lovely pink dress and old locket around her neck. I must admit that I wasn’t at my best for the session, and didn’t really do her justice. For some reason noses and I were not on speaking terms, and even though I tried a few times, there are aspects of both my drawing and painting that I didn’t resolve well at all – especially the nose!

I have placed my drawing and painting below, with the area that David commented on circled in red so you can easily see what I am referring to.

As with all David’s workshops, they are booked out well in advance, and he is now organising his sessions for next year. If you would like to go on a list for any of his workshops, contact him via his website at and mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

Note that David does not allow photography in his workshops. if you wish to take a photo of the model or any work in progress, you need to ask his permission, and that of the model.

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