8-Step Portrait Painting Demonstration | Alexandra Tyng

“The way Sargent applied paint was expressive, but also economical. His approach looks spontaneous, yet it’s actually well thought out,” says portraitist Alexandra Tyng (featured in The Artist’s Magazine). The following is an eight-step portrait painting demonstration that illustrates the thorough preparation and meticulous brushwork that go into her art.

Work (Lots of It) in Progress: Portrait Painting Demonstration
Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

1. When I began working on Young Harpist, I asked “E” to practice her harp while I made a series of pencil sketches. While I sketched, I tried different variations in the composition. This one shows a music stand, but I decided against including the stand because it obscured the view of the harp and the dress. My main concerns at this point were keeping the composition simple, creating dynamic movement and spatial depth, not obscuring the triangular shape of the harp, and lighting the subject in the best way possible.

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

2. In her original position, the natural light came in over E’s shoulder. I wanted more light to fall onto her face and dress, so we moved the harp almost parallel to the window. Then I took about 100 reference photos. This oil sketch was done in about 45 minutes, in the same light as the photos, while E was practicing. Since she was moving, I wasn’t trying to get an exact likeness but to take color notes. In this case, the colors of the wood, dress and wallpaper became fused in my mind with the sound of the harp (synesthesia).

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

3. I chose one photo, which came closest to what I was envisioning, to create a mock-up of the portrait composition. I taped the photo to a piece of cardboard and added space around it with colored pencils, paint and markers—anything that happened to be around. I used the mock-up to decide on the final dimensions of the portrait. (This was not my only reference. While I painted the portrait, I used between 10 and 20 different photos and the oil sketch.)

Painting Portraits in Oil, Step 4:

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

4. To give myself some reference points, I drew a grid on the canvas and another on my reference photo. I then sketched in the outline of the forms with a small brush and burnt umber, keeping my grids large because I detest the feeling of “connecting the dots” and love freehand drawing. Notice the harp is at a slight angle to the picture plane. Even though I took the photo at a distance to minimize distortion, I knew it would distort the perspective slightly, so I “fixed” the distortion as I drew. Then I blocked in the basic areas of color with a large brush and a thin wash of oil paint.

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

5. On the second day of painting, the first color wash was dry, and over this I put down thicker paint and more accurate color. I moved all around the canvas, keeping all areas worked up to approximately the same degree. Even though nothing was detailed, I began aiming for a good likeness. As I painted the edges, I was constantly improving their accuracy and thinking about how the colors and values looked next to each other in this portrait painting.

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

6. At this point, I lowered the top of the harp slightly so it wouldn’t form a tangent with a frame later on. I began putting in the wallpaper pattern to see where it would hit the head and hands. I’d already changed the position of E’s foot and the color and style of her shoe because I thought her foot and shoe looked clunky in the reference photo. But then an artist friend thought the foot was boring. This disturbed me because I felt it was important to show the strength and coordination between the arms, head and feet that go into playing the harp.

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

7. Now everything was moving toward a higher level of completion. First, I changed the problem foot to an “up” position, giving it more potential energy. Then I began adjusting the values in select areas. For the wallpaper, I wanted the look of deep shadow with a glimmer of the gold pattern in certain places. So I let the pattern dry and then worked over it with thin, dark paint. In some areas I completely repainted the pattern. I also lowered the value of the pink dress gradually towards the bottom so that E’s torso and head became the center of focus.

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Portrait painting demo | Alexandra Tyng, ArtistsNetwork.com

Young Harpist (oil, 68×44) by Alexandra Tyng

8. The most difficult part in adding the final details was putting in the harp’s pins and strings. The strings had to be evenly spaced, so I used a homemade cardboard guide with parallel lines as a tool, along with a straightedge. The strings had to line up with the pins, which were at changing intervals on the curved frame. I got everything to meet up by trial and error. Then I realized that the fingertips didn’t meet up with the right strings and didn’t make real chords! I had to completely repaint E’s hands and arms to finish Young Harpist (oil, 68×44).


Alexandra Tyng, of Narberth, Pennsylvania, has received several distinguished awards from the Portrait Society of America. She is also known for her landscapes, many of which are inspired by scenic midcoastal Maine, where she paints en plein air in the summer months. “Being able to work in different genres keeps things fresh. You can jump-start your learning by trying a new direction or by approaching something in an unexpected manner,” she says. The self-taught artist earned her bachelor of arts degree from Harvard University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania before devoting herself to becoming a full-time artist. She is represented by the Fischbach Gallery in New York City, the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, and the Watson Gallery in Stonington, Maine. To see more of her work, visit www.alexandratyng.com, and click The Artist’s Magazine cover below to read her full feature article.

Portrait painting in The Artist's Magazine

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