Tips for Painting Adolescent Portraits

Portrait artist Chris Saper explains how to use strategic lighting to help identify the characteristics that distinguish youth from age.

Beauty (oil, 8×10) by Chris Saper

There are certain aspects of the adolescent face that convey youth but don’t create the impression of childhood, and I look for these in setting up my subject’s pose and lighting.

  • For example, both young women and men have a certain fullness to the forms of the face, particularly in the lower half of the face.
  • Nasolabial folds are typically shallow and often incomplete; they don’t yet extend from the outside of the nostrils all the way to the mouth when the face is at rest.
  • There is generally a noticeable lift on the upper edge of the mouth—just above the vermilion border (the line between facial tissue and lip tissue)—that catches light directed from above.
  • Jawlines are simultaneously soft and crisp, in that the bony structures of the jaw are grown, but there is still a plumpness to the tissues that they support.
  • I look also for the plumpness at the outer parts of the lower lip, just under the corners of the mouth.
  • I also pay close attention to the eyes. The sclera, or white of a young adult’s eye, tends to be cooler in color, in contrast to an older subject’s, in which the sclera becomes warmer in color.

Photos of Three Ways to Light Your Young Subject
Lighting the subject in a classical manner—that is, from above and about 45 degrees to one side—will enable you to see the forms of the lips and mouth very well. Moving the light source from left to right will give you options to show or to de-emphasize the nasolabial folds. Alternatively, when using a natural light source, you’ll just need to rotate the subject as you watch what happens to the light and shadow patterns.

Use strategic lighting to help identify the characteristics that distinguish youth from age:

Mouth 1: Artifical light from an almost overhead position emphasizes the upper lip lift and the absence of any nasolabial fold—but does less to emphasize the plumpness under the outer edges of the lower lip (see below).

Mouth 2: Natural light reveals the plumpness surrounding both upper and lower lips and emphasizes the strong jaw structure of this young man (below).

Mouth 3: Evenly lit from below, the lift and shape of this young woman’s upper lip and smooth jawline are apparent.

Once you have your subject lit, posed and photographed, you’ll be able to paint the head, observing the anatomical characteristics of young adulthood, while you emphasize or de-emphasize the features you wish.


To read Saper’s entire article, “On the Threshold,” see the January/February issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


Learn about the print version of the January/February issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Find out about the digital download of the January/February issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Order Saper’s book Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color & Light.

Check out Saper’s instructional video download, Capturing the Beauty of Monochrome Oil Portraits.

Learn more about Saper’s instructional viseo download, Painting Oil Portraits in Warm Light.

Meet Chris Saper
Saper has portraits in more than 250 private and corporate collections. She is the author of Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color & Light (North Light, 2001); her work has also appeared in Strokes of Genius: the Best of Drawing (North Light, 2007). In 2005 Saper’s portrait Mayra received a Certificate of Excellence from the Portrait Society of America, where she now conducts classes. She also teaches at the Scottsdale Artists’ School and at Mountain Artists Guild in Prescott, Arizona. Visit her website,


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