Assignment: First Portrait Painting

Our next major project for my Intro to Painting class was to paint a portrait. We had the option of doing a self-portrait, using a photograph of another person as a reference, or doing a masters study. I chose to reference a photo of my son when he was younger and came up with this:


I had a number of small learning gains that happened while working on this project. However, the two biggest takeaways were at the beginning and the end. First, for a painting that you want to contain a fair amount of detail, examine your subject and examine all the different considerations for your painting before you even start sketching on the canvas. I lost a lot of time because I changed the focus and how much of the original photo I was going to include after I had already laid out a grid on the canvas and completed the basic sketch.

Second, at the end, I realized not to get hung up on some of my expectations and just let the painting happen. The photo reference had snow everywhere, and I kept wanting to put that layer down and worrying that I wouldn't have time to do it. However, in the end, the painting was better served by leaving the snow out entirely and instead spending that time continuing to work on the face.

Project Details

Prior to this project I have never painted a portrait of any kind and I have only done some basic portrait sketching in pencil and one detailed drawing in pencil from my Drawing Fundamentals class. This was over a year ago, and was difficult even in this medium, so trying to do the same thing in paint was a bit intimidating. Nevertheless, I chose to use a photo of my son when he was younger. It has a real sense of childhood innocence about it that I have always enjoyed and thought would transfer well to a painting.

I purchased a two-pack of 18" x 24" canvas, and as the picture has the same aspect ratio, I quickly went about laying out a grid and then putting down a basic sketch of the scene.

Basic grid to help with sketching...

Start of first sketch with snowman, brick lamppost, and a lot of room for snowy background...

I hadn't quite completed the sketch when my teacher came by to take a look. He was excited about the photo, but when he looked at my sketch made the observation that the hard part of the painting was going to be the snow. The entirety of the background was filled up with these snow-covered bushes that would have involved a lot of intricate and time-intensive painting. We discussed options, and I settled on zooming in on the face, putting it closer to traditional portrait cropping.

However, changing the portrait involved re-gessoing the canvas. This was taking a lot of time to dry and then sand. Of course, I remembered part way through sanding that I had bought a two-pack of canvas. Cursing a bit, I retrieved the other one, deciding I'd finish sanding the original for a future project. The newer sketch was a lot more focused:

I immediately started color blocking, but even though I had removed most of the detailed background, I was still running behind by the end of the week.

In an effort to catch up I took everything home over the weekend and finished laying out the major color blocks and working through some of the details on the face. By the end of the day Sunday I was feeling a lot better about being on track for the due date.

Face detail.

That is, I was feeling pretty good until after the paint dried a little and Monday afternoon I could see the grid lines showing through. After a few moments of panic, I started remixing flesh tones and laid down some more paint until I eventually got the lines covered. Then I went to work on the background. By the end of the class period I was back to feeling good about the time table again.

I was still fixated on getting the snow in there, and that was the original plan for the last day of painting. But some subtle suggestions from my teacher kept me working on the face. Added better lines and shading around the lips, flushed out the checks some more, did a lot of work around the eyes. Eventually, I realized that the painting would stand better with this continued work than if I added the snow. So I kept working the face for the remainder of my time. Overall, for my first painted portrait, I'm pretty happy with the results.

I have one more project for my Intro to Painting Class, so I hope to report on that in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts, questions, or further advice.