I was recently approached by a friend of mine to create a portrait of her. Not to toot my own horn, but I think this might be one of the best pieces I have created as of yet, and I wanted to share the process of painting it with everyone. (I’ve always thought “how it’s done” kinda things for artwork are really cool). So today I’m going to go over my entire process from start to finish for painting this portrait.
So, for painting portraits, it is pretty much a no-brainer that you need some sort of reference. After dancing around a few ideas, we decided on a picture that we both liked, and I set out to work. A lot of people seem to think that using a reference is cheating, but in actuality, it is one of the best ways to create realistic art in my opinion. Using a reference is no different than looking at an actual model in front of you for a still life, and some of the greatest painters throughout all of history have used them. They can be really helpful, especially since there are no ways we can easily memorize every single visual element that could be in a painting.
Choosing the Colors
To start out, I selected a color pallet that I felt would be appropriate. She is also an artist, and uses a lot of reds in her pieces, so I figured it’d be cool to incorporate that into the piece some how. Thus I selected a few colors from my normal pallet to serve as the base. I settled on a soft pastel yellow, and a dark vibrant maroon color to contrast it. I pretty much used these two colors exclusively for the entire painting, all the way until the very end. The colors work very nicely together, and create a very soft feel, which is what I wanted to emulate. They also have enough contrast between them that they are able to create many different visual ideas when combined together, placed next to each other, or spread apart.
Laying the Foundation
For no particular reason, I decided mountains would look nice in the background. I thought that they contrasted nicely with the colors I selected, and honestly I just like mountains haha. But anyways, once I had the idea of mountains in my mind, I set to work painting them up. I began by laying out the basic form of the mountains. As you can see, the closer mountains are dark maroon, but they become increasingly yellow as they move farther away. This is because the atmosphere almost always begins to color things far away in the shade that it is. So the farthest away mountains are colored almost the same as the sky.
Details Details Details
Next I began adding some details to the mountains. I decided to stay true to my reference image, and keep the light source on the right side of the image. I colored the mountains with some highlights to make them really start to pop out. Now they’re really beginning to look like some real mountains! I also darkened the recesses of the mountains in order to create more contrast.
Quick Tip: For mountains, I like to create a “snake like” texture that flows down from the peak of the mountain, all the way to the base. This snake like texture makes the most realistic form in my opinion.
Clouds are Soft and Fluffy
Next, I decided that something was missing from the mountains. Since the piece is a limited color pallet work, I did not like how there was a lack of contrast between the different layers of the mountains. So, I decided to put some clouds in between each layer moving forward. This not only accounted for the lack of contrast in the piece, but it also made the piece a lot more comfortable to look at. It makes it feel almost soft and calm, giving it a whimsical mood.
Generally, I like to make clouds starting with the darkest layer, and then moving forward adding highlights as I go. Clouds have a very voluminous form, and they have a lot of variability within their shape. It is important to make them look random but structured at the same time, while also creating a three dimensional projection.
More Clouds… Also, Clouds Have Hard Edges!
Moving on, I decided to finish up the clouds around the base of the mountains, as well as add clouds to the sky. I painted all of the clouds in the same colors to create uniformity, however, the clouds nearest the viewer, on the mountains, have a few hints of maroon in their darkest parts to differentiate them from the clouds above. Something very important to remember when painting clouds, is that they also have some hard edges! Not all of their edges must be hard, but generally the place where the light hits them the most will not be blended much with the sky, but will instead appear like a sharp line between the edge of the cloud and sky.
Additionally, I decided to add more lighting to the mountains at this point. I used the same shade that the sky is painted in for the highlights on the mountains. It helped to bring the entire piece together, and really tie the mountains into the clouds to make it feel like one cohesive design.
Finally, the Actual Portrait!
Then I set to work painting the actual portrait. Using the reference image I had been given, I set out to draw her as closely as I could. Using the rules of anatomy, and observation, I began painting the basic form of her head. I continued to layer on shadows and lighting, until it looked just right. This was probably the most time consuming part of the piece, but I think it payed off!
For the majority of this part, I decided to paint it mono tone. I like to get base tones first, and then add color afterwards, slowly layering it on. I think it allows me to see the shadows much more easily, so that I can create the form more accurately, without muddling up the piece with too many colors too quickly.
After a few finishing touches, I completed the piece. Near the end of it, I decided to add a few more colors to provide interest and really tie the piece together. While limited color pallets are nice, they can work even better if you correctly implement other colors into them as accents. For this piece, I actually added some green and some blue to it in order to make the shadows and lighting pop even more. The blue is glazed over the darkest parts of the shadows on her face and shirt, and the green is very lightly glazed over the edges of the blue. This creates a very soft and whimsical affect in the piece, and makes it very pleasing to look at.
Additionally, I added shadows behind the highlights of her face that project onto the background in front of her. While shadows like that would not actually exist in real life, in painting it is sometimes necessary in order to make things really stand out over other elements. Overall, I think the piece turned out great, and I’m excited to get to work on my next project!
Thank you so much for reading this post, I hope that you have a wonderful day!