Learn to draw and paint portraits


The Structures of Beauty

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#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

As painters we strive for Beauty and to engage an audience however large or small. Yet Beauty changes over time, sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly. What was considered Beautiful a century ago can now be seen as saccharine and banal. Of course, some standards of beauty are constant. The Baroque paintings of Rembrandt, Hals and Rubens come to mind. So, too, do the works of Degas, Van Gogh and Manet. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn also fit the bill. These are amongst many.

Each grouping of painters mentioned here expressed in radically divergent modes of painting and all met the 'standard' of Beauty.

A good painting can be defined as one that pleases you, that engages you in a dialogue of common spirit. The natural question to ask then is: How do I make a good painting? And what constitutes good painting?

I used the word 'good' rather than 'great' or 'a masterpiece'. 'Good' implies a material competence and mastery which is the realm of craft. Great art defies analysis.

The Nine Elements of Beauty

First, and foremost is Unity. This is the oneness wherein the expressive whole is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Everything that follows in these nine elements must contribute fully to the Unity of the painting.

I will devote an article to each of these elements.


Design is the underpinning of good painting. It establishes the overall relationship of areas, form and color.


The harmonious relationship of each element within the picture plane. Design and proportion often overlap (as do all of the other elements here). The harmonious divisions of space are the foundations of design.


Color is the prime material of painting.


Plasticity is defined as giving form to something. We usually think of this as three-dimensional rendering. It is more than this and can range from fidelity to the two-dimensional plane of the canvas to the space-invasive dynamics of the Baroque.


Color and form are dependent on Value.


Rhythm establishes movement and velocity in a painting through both repetition and contrasts of color, shape, line, spatial area, etc.

Surface Structure

The abstract structural surface (texture) is the sympathetic correspondence of mark making and the materiality of your medium (i.e., oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc.)


Every element of your painting must be subordinated to your defined intent. Your message should be clear. Simplicity in and of itself is meaningless. However, simplicity and clarity achieved through working through a wall of complexity acquires manifold layers of meaning. This working through is the creative process.

I withheld Drawing from this list. Drawing, however defined, is implicit to good painting whether it be realist or aniconic (non-pictorial as in color field paintings for example).

Drawing is a massive field of inquiry and for the sake of clarity I will limit myself to what I consider are the two germane approaches of beginning a painting. There is a huge difference between good drawing and good painting albeit good drawing will always be the underpinning of good painting.

Drawing, distilled to its essence, is Shape defined as how wide by how tall (proportion) and what are the angles.

Drawing is generally associated with Outline and Contour. Whereas Painting is associated with mass values and color.

You do not want a painting to read as a drawing, nor would you want a drawing to evolve into a colored-over painting. Yet this is what often happens when we take the illustrative approach to painting.

Rubens Clara Serena

Pictured here is my copy of Peter Rubens' portrait of his five-year old daughter Clara Serena. I began this painting with a cartoon (a preliminary drawing) which I then rendered with oil paint beginning with an underpainting proceeding to the full palette overpainting.

It is a competent work technically but a failure as art. It lacks the vitality of the original. This is the bane of copying. Yet copying is the most powerful and surest avenue to learning the language and processes of painting. Rubens, the most famous and richest artist of his time, copied Titian well into his fifties.

Beginning a painting with a well-resolved drawing is the common approach to both teaching and learning to paint. The drawing can quickly become a tyrant demanding absolute fidelity as we color-in rather than paint. The oft-result are paintings that lack vitality. That is the illustrative approach.

Of course we must learn how to accurately strike shape and fix proportion, especially within the facial matrix, and those skills are best acquired through drawing, but if you can do strike shape with pencil or charcoal you can also do it with the brush.

Rembrandt Laughing

I began my copy of Rembrandt Laughing with a very loose sketch using a long-handled 60 cm Escoda bristle brush. The long handled brush will feel awkward at first but the distance it avails from the canvas allows you to better see the shape.

Yes, the initial strike is clumsy and somewhat dismaying but you need to consider that painting is an additive/subtractive process of developing form and gesture. Rather than coloring-in my drawing my approach, like Rembrandt, is painting with a sculptural sensibility.

My experience is that it is much easier to render tighter from a loose beginning but nigh impossible to paint freer and expressive from a tight, illustrative beginning.

My Laughing Rembrandt workshop is a two and half hours download video.

Winter 2021 ZOOM Classes with Michael Britton begin soon!

Vancouver Seattle art classes 6

Portrait Drawing for Beginners

Saturdays, 14:00 - 16:30
Pacific Standard Time
February 6 thru March 13
6 Sessions US$225.00

Portrait Drawing - Beginners

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Alla prima portrait painting - Hanna

Portrait Painting

Sundays, 10:00 - 12:30
Pacific Standard Time
February 7 thru March 14
6 Sessions US$225.00

Portrait Painting

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Michael Britton

About Michael Britton

Michael Britton is a New York City trained artist (New York Academy of Art) who has taught several thousand artists (some of whom have gone on to full-time art careers as painters and teachers) in his several decades long career. He was the Artistic Director of the Vancouver Academy of Art, Canada for six years and has also taught drawing for Walt Disney Studios, amongst numerous other appointments throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He is also the author of several art-training videos including Painting Clara Serena.

If you have any questions regarding the courses please feel free to contact me at michael-britton-workshops@artacademy.com