'Perplexed' 10" x 10"
watercolor by Crystal Cook
Sometimes I just get an itch to paint a simple portrait. I am endlessly fascinated with expression, especially the eyes. I took this photo on a cloudy day, when me and my three boys were at the park a few years ago. While the two oldest boys ran around the playground, my youngest and I sat under a pavillion where that soft, diffused light bounced off the cement on the ground and back onto his face.
He was about six months old, and by this point was pretty used to me taking pictures of him a million times a day. But still, he gave me this confused sort of look. Like, why in the world are we sitting in this pavillion taking yet more pictures when we could be out sliding and swinging? Hmmmm?
Suzanne Berry asked me what moves me to paint a specific subject and I guess it's almost always those two things: lighting and expression. Lighting is something I absolutely will not compromise, it has to be inspiring to me or else I will hate the painting process and then the painting will be. . . eh, *shrug*, so-so. Which is really not what I'm going for. ;)
Suzanne also asked me what my feelings are prior to the first instant I put brush to paper. I would say, excited. Because that's when I still have a perfect image in my head of what I want this painting to be, I'm still having all those giddy feelings that prompted me to start the painting in the first place. I can't wait to get started and put all those images, thoughts, and feelings into this piece.
Step One: This is the most important step. I start out by painting the lightest values in the darkest areas. In other words, I start by painting the shadows that give the face shape and contour, but I use a very light value to do it. Here I've used burnt sienna because it has a long range of values that's easy to adjust to just about any skin tone. This is where I flesh out my line drawing and start to develop a likeness.
I go over the burnt sienna with a neutral grey color that I mix out of either burnt sienna, cobalt blue, and permanent red, or brown madder, raw sienna, and french ultramarine. So basically all I'm using to make this grey are three primary colors in varying strengths and intensities. I want this to be a neutral grey, neither warm nor cool, so that later, near the end, I can push the shadows one way or the other.
Then I block in the basic shapes of the lips, eyes, and hair, paying attention to color temperature shifts.
The two main things I'm thinking about right now are: color temperature and facial structure shapes. If I get those two things right then I've already got a head start on the two most difficult aspects of painting a portrait (at least for me).
Step Two: Once I have step one done I tend to relax and play a little bit more. This is probably my favorite part, strengthening the color and picking out areas that I want to exagerate, like the blue on the sides of his nose and between his eyes. Every color that I lay down now will show through in the end (at least to some degree) so this process is a little bit like chess, thinking ahead to my next move and how that will affect the next move and on, and on to the end.
The colors I've used for the skin tones are permanent rose, raw sienna, rose madder, pthalo red, and cobalt blue.
I like to get the eyes finished right away so that I know I've got them right. It motivates me to finish it and to pay attention so I don't mess it up!
Step Three: This is pretty much the same as step two, just taken even further. I'm darkening the values and refining the shapes. I'm being extra careful to just get in and get out when I lay my brush down. So far this has been painted wet on dry paper, softening the edges with clear water just slightly after I lay the color down.
Step Four: The finish! This part takes the most time because there are all those little things that need finishing. And because I set the painting up and step back and look at it about a hundred times to see what else it needs.
I finished the hair with some lifting (I use a stiff oil painting brush that I've cut the ends off of so that it's kind of a little stub) and then some pastel for a few highlights. The colors in the hair are brown madder, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, raw sienna, and sepia.
Something that I'm thinking is important lately is to paint quickly, confidently, and then to not go back in and fuss around. Ok, ok this is something that I've always thought is important, but working with acrylics has helped me understand this even better, and has given me the practice I need to really be able to do it.
So, while there are some things I would have liked to have turned out better I restrained myself from going back in and touching it up because I knew it would lose that sparkle and freshness and I knew that I wouldn't make it any better, possibly worse.
And I like it like this anyway. That's my baby, looking perplexed at something his strange mother is doing. :) I hope you guys aren't getting tired of seeing his portrait, because I'm not going to be stopping anytime soon.
That's my portrait painting process in a nutshell. Hope you liked it. :)