Learn to draw and paint portraits

Lesson 10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

Portrait painting in oil

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The day was originally slated for plein air painting - a trek through a frozen wood seeking out a scene to paint and reminding myself that I am to paint the idea, not the nature. One can quickly get bogged down in the overwhelming details of the natural world and lose the painting.

Several miles of bush and mossy birch yielded nothing of interest. At least not for today. So as not to waste the day and a long hike lugging my painting gear I set up and prepared my palette. Perhaps something could be salvaged.

It was at that moment, or very near to it, that a fellow hiker on the trail stopped to say hello. He immediately struck me as a character study out of a Frans Hals tronie.

A tronie is a character study, usually one with an exaggerated expression and/or costume and was a very popular subject matter in 17th Century Dutch painting. Many of the finest paintings by Hals and Rembrandt are tronies such as Hals' Gypsy Girl, 1665. In many cases they were done to showcase the artist's skill. They were, and are, an excellent skill-building endeavor. I highly, highly recommend devoting some time of your painting education to copying them.

Frans Hals Gypsy Girl 1665

Oil painting pochade

I only had a small 6x8" panel with me. It is well advised to work small with en plein air paintings. Especially in cold weather. Trying to cover a large canvas while shivering uncontrollably is a sure obstacle to doing good work.

Instead I leapt at the opportunity offered by this stranger in the loopy white hat. And seized the moment with sure, broad brush strokes.

It is a challenge to approach a head study like a plein air landscape. And just like the landscape you must paint the idea and not the nature. Ignore the insignificant details. The big design and shape, a compelling color arrangement and a straight-forward bravura treatment of the abstract structural surface - the brushwork must define the form structure of this small painting.

In the pochade, shown here, I limited myself to a restricted color scheme of Blue/Orange complementary, and a stark Black/White. Yellow is a primary compound complement of Black and fit quite nicely in this scheme.

Back in the studio, quaffing innumerable cups of steaming tea to thaw the cockles of my frosty innards, I embarked upon a larger canvas.

Those of you who study painting with me will immediately recognize the harmonic divisions of space - the rabatements, reciprocals, diagonals and with a stylus attached to a large compass the arcs and semi-circles - that so entranced the great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque. Picasso too embraced dynamic symmetry which is the term for this painter's 'secret' geometry. Picasso's Guernica is composed upon two overlapping Golden Rectangles; a subtle invocation of collapsing civilization.

The sanguine hue toning the canvas is an imprimatura brushed on with the energetic energy of a madman late for dinner. Which was actually the case. It is a diluted mixture of Burnt Sienna and Terre Verte which is allowed to dry before proceeding.

Good painting is incumbent upon good drawing. And good drawing is incumbent upon getting the big shapes right and within the large shapes fixing the proportions.

Oil painting portraits

Oil painting portraits 2

I am a painter, not an illustrator. As such I forego highly resolved drawings opting instead for a much looser approach that allows me to paint without contraints. Frankly, if you can sketch a head with graphite or charcoal you can do so as equally well, nay, better with a large brush loaded with diluted paint.

I deliberately offset the head from the center of the canvas. This is a compositional strategy I adopted from Andrew Wyeth. It adds tension to the picture. Mind you, Wyeth was not the originator of this, he learned it from his predecessors. To quote Melville: 'Verily, nothing is new under the sun.'

A good starting point is to be somewhat faithful to my pochade.

Using an extremely limited palette for the flesh tones and Vine Black to which I added calcium carbonate (an extender) I embarked upon the Ebauche. This is the initial dead coloring-in.

Painting, in my humble estimate, is much more than rendering an image. Oil paint possesses a materiality unlike any other medium and utilizing oil paint's materiality in your mark-making greatly expands the possibilities of expression.

Art making is about language. Painting is a visual language of symbols and marks that convey a message whether it be emotion, narrative or purely plastic.

Art making is also about play and invention. The greatest artists re-invent the language of painting. In the triad of creative process: craft, emotion, construct, it is the construct that is the most important. And the most difficult to contend with.

At this stage of the painting I am bedevilled by three considerations: first is the figure/ground relationship. As a painter I am constantly pushing myself, striving for a union of the abstract ground and representational figure. There are, of course, many possible solutions to pursue.

Second, is color. Color harmonies juxtaposed upon harmonious divisions of space undoubtedly push a painting to a higher level. And, yes, that vertical Yellow stroke is discordant. But I felt that need for a very powerful counter-weight to the broad Orange element on the figure's shoulder.

And third, and critically important, is Unity. Everything must contribute to the whole. And if it doesn't ... well, then you have to kill your darlings.

Oil painting portraits 3

Oil painting portraits
Michael Britton, Stranger in a White Hat, Oil on Panel, 12x20", 2021

Unity is not just about the plastic, formal elements of the picture. It demands sympathetic considerations to the subject and the medium.

It would be incongruous to render my subject with a fine, academic finish. The painting would be greatly diminished. He is not a woodland sprite prancing through a sylvan glade but a roughened outdoorsman tramping through a difficult and frozen terrain. Hence the subject demands a raw, bravuro abstract structural surface wherein I strive to paint with a tactile sensuality while carving out the form with a sculptural sensibility.

Of significant import, too, is our shared human condition. Why else would we draw and paint portraits?

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Painting Portraits in Oil | Foundation to Bravura

Oil painting art class

Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

In this five-session workshop you will learn how to paint a dynamic portrait in oil from a photograph.

The language of the photograph is different from that of painting. In this workshop you will learn the process of how to translate the photographic image into a painting that is much more than a mere copy of the photograph.

You will learn how to accurately block-in the big shape before fixing the facial proportions to establish both your composition and the likeness.

Learn how to construct value structures to render three-dimensional form and the practice of spotting color notes mix accurate flesh tones that breath life.

The full course description and materials list.

Materials List

Saturday, 10:00 - 1:00
Pacific Standard Time
September 18 to October 16, 2021
5 Sessions


'I've learnt more from your online workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney
Sydney, Australia