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  • Helen English Artist

How to paint a portrait...

This week’s blog was sparked by a friend who paints beautiful pictures of flora and fauna. She asked where I had learned to paint portraits and how to do them. As I searched for a coherent answer, I told her that it was amazing that an artist of such gorgeous work is still pushing to learn more skills.


In general, I think that people who don’t spend time creating art often think that you are either an artist or you are not, and that artists can draw or paint anything without any forethought. The truth, I believe, is that if you are motivated to learn and practice anything in life, you will become skilled. This is equally true of art making as of anything else. Artists tend to focus in on things which they are most drawn to, and therefore practise most often. They consequently become most skilled at this work, and then these are the artworks which we see.


I was taught art as a high school student and that is the extent of my formal art training. In saying that, I made the most of art class at high school and art classes comprised a third of my class time in the last two years there. I remember the class where we were taught the specifics of the ‘average’ person’s facial proportions. At the time, it was a total surprise to find out that eyes appear halfway down the length of your head, although less so that the face is relatively symmetrical. I was then told that everyone is different so you can’t rely on those measurements. How irritating!


Proportions are obviously the first thing which you work on with a portrait. Once proportions are correct, the next stage is light and shadow to create the lumps and bumps which three dimensional objects have. If you can identify the direction of light and observe how this creates shadow, you will see shape and texture emerge in your work. The last element is colour. I limited myself to pastels at school and didn’t use colour in my work outside of class for many years. I wanted to paint, but paint made me nervous. It appeared uncontrollable. But that simply isn’t true. It’s much easier that it might seem although it is certainly another skill which it takes a while to develop.


So, here’s my advice to anyone interested in learning how to create portraits. I would learn how to draw a portrait first – it’s always fun to attend a class but you can find very good video tutorials. Then practise, practise, practise. Use your own clear and close up photos, or pictures in magazines. Observe how real people’s faces are a little bit different from each other – just comparing two different faces next to each other can help you to start looking harder. Add shadow – see how you can shade more lightly or deeply, how you can blend with your fingers, and also how you can lighten or remove shadow with a rubber. Then experiment with colour – either colour pencils or paint or another medium. Finally, stand back from your work to figure out what you do like and what you need to work on. There’s always stuff to work on!



Finally, be kind to yourself. You will always have your own particular style and that is how art should be. Accept that you should be able to recognise your work as different from anyone else’s and enjoy that. In terms of making realistic portraits, Rome was not built in a day and you will not become an expert on the first day. Well, you may but that wasn’t my experience!

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