Sunday, 30 November 2014


I am not a portrait painter, but occasionally I am asked for advice about particular when the likeness is good, but the picture is still rather dull.     We have a wonderful programme on our televisions here in the UK right now...Portrait artist of the Year...and watching the artists work got me thinking.

I am not about to go into details about portraiture here, this is a blog post, and the subject is far too huge to go into details.  What I will say is that it is more than getting the likeness right.  There is a lot to consider.  for instance, You need to think about the way the sitter is "lit".     you need to think carefully about the temperature of the prevailing light, as well as the kind of skin tone that individual might have.   You need to think about how to position the portrait on the canvas or paper.  You need to consider the background.     

  If you find yourself thinking "what is she on about?  Surely I just need to get a good likeness" I hope you might feel that this blog post will show that a good likeness is only part of the effort.    Of course, a good likeness is to be applauded...but you want it to be a good painting TOO, I am sure.

Lots of artists pick up, or are given, a photo to work from, and they crack on with it.   I would like to encourage you, if you decide to try portraits, to be prepared to spend time studying how other artists work, before you leap into the water and start frantically paddling upstream.  

Today I came across a painting which I used when trying to help someone who had painted a portrait using a palette of simple flesh tones...every shade of peach and apricot they could possibly mix.  She had achieved a good likeness....yet - that portrait looked dull.  How can this be?  She had used skin tones.......and had a good likeness....isn't that enough? 

Well, you can go out and buy flesh-coloured paint.  And you can get boxes of pastels in "portrait colours".  So why don't they do the job well enough?

This is the painting I showed. I normally do not like smiley portraits ....but this one is painted so well, and the artist has such a wonderful palette, I want to share it with you:

  • The artist has stuck closely to the rule "warm light = cool shadows". - although it is not very warm light, just enough to give us SOME cool colours in the shadows.    Just look at those lovely blues, lavender, and cool blue-pink. 

  •  And see how the artist has remembered that where skin folds in on itself, deep warms the ear, and inside the nose, and in the corner of the mouth.

  • Look at the eyes.  We really "feel" the roundness of the eyeball, and the fact that there is an "eye socket" in the skull, which the eye sits in.

  • Look at the colours in the hair.  touches of brown, lavender, pink, raw sienna, burnt sienna, pale cream.  

  • And notice how soft is the edge of the cheek on the right, even tho it is set against a lighter background...there is one particular area where the artist has perhaps "softened" the edge with a there is no hard, dark line to bring that cheek forwards.

  • Finally, look at the pose.  So nice to see something rather unconventional. This "glancing over his shoulder" is a pose which captures a moment in time, which we all know will only have lasted for a second or two and is thanks to a camera, but in this instance it works because it really captures the cheekiness of this little chap.
  •  Also look at how the artist has cropped right in, bringing the portrait right up to the edge of the rectangle at the top, rather than positioning the portrait in the centre,  with loads of space/background all around.  As a result, there is a lovely sense of intimacy here. 

It is a beautifully painted portrait,   modern in approach yet so sensitive. The artist is Talya Johnson.

A browse on line, or time spent in a library, studying the work of good portrait painters, to see how they handle light on skin and analysing what they did and why, is time SO well spent.  Also, do spend time learning about the underlying structure of the skull and the muscles of the will make all the difference to your work. 

PLEASE don't just imagine that all you need is a good photo to work from - and that if you get all the features in the right place, and get a good likeness, you will have a good painting.  there is more to it than that, as I hope I have been able to explain.




  1. A wonderful informative. .thank you for sharing and a beautiful portrait by Talya Johnson.

  2. Thank you for this article. The question in the title is exactly my issue :)


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