Creativity Workshop: The Secret to More Creative Portraits


More than just a face, the subject of every portrait is a living story that artists share with their viewers. The way in which the story is told is limited only by the artist’s creativity and imagination. We have many tools from which to draw as we begin to paint our portraits: Symbols, patterns, themes and colors are just a few of the elements we can use to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the portrait, but it all begins with that first spark of inspiration. As you follow the narrative thread of your portrait, bringing the idea of the story to your portraits will enliven and enrich the process—and the results.

Follow these simple steps to painting a portrait that strives to tell the story of your subject, as I have in Ophelia (above):

  • Step one: Choose a powerful subject. The first thing you see in a portrait is the subject, and it’s the subject that draws us to the painting. In Ophelia, the strong afternoon shadows on the subject’s expressive face, as well as the bright red scarf against her brown skin, dramatically convey her mood.
  • Step two: Create a theme. Let your imagination soar. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia slowly descends into madness. “Could a forlorn look on a model’s face as she stands against cracked walls and peeling paint echo the theme of Ophelia’s story in Hamlet?” I asked myself. “Why not?” I decided. “This is my story, after all.”
  • Step three: Brainstorm. Your paintings will flourish as you develop new ideas to animate your stories. For Ophelia, I read Shakespeare. You can study old paintings for new ideas, look through art magazines, create or seek out ideas for patterns, try out compositions by drawing thumbnail sketches or invent the unexpected for an element of surprise or humor—the possibilities are endless.
  • Step four: Play with your composition. Use a thumbnail sketch to arrange your ideas.  I inserted  words from a favorite passage in Hamlet and the colorful flowers (borrowed from a wallpaper pattern) within the peeling walls of the background. Painting these areas throughout the portrait helped distribute color and lead the eye through the piece. The similarity of colors between Ophelia’s blouse and the flowers brings continuity to the painting. The value contrasts on Ophelia’s face and the overall contrasts of light and dark between the subject and the background added the desired drama to the portrait.
  • Step five: Put it all together. I use gouache for my portraits for many reasons, but mainly because you can begin to lay in the structure of the painting with it. As the painting “talks,” or tells you what it needs, you can easily change color, value and contrast. When I added a crack in the wall of Ophelia to enhance the composition, I just painted over another area. In this way, the vivid opaque colors of gouache allow you to create your story or mood with a punch.

Try It!
Choose a subject that inspires you from a photo or from life. Decide what you want to say about this person, about yourself or life in general. What attracts you to this subject? Is it personal, or as simple as a red scarf? Use the answers to create a story with a theme. Brainstorm different ways you could express your theme. Read, investigate and open your mind to the possibilities of expression. Remember that you are telling a story. Once you’ve organized your thoughts and ideas, you’re ready to plan and draw your composition. Think about color, value  and contrast. Try painting with gouache, if you like. Let the painting tell you what it needs. You can easily add or take away elements with this medium. Have fun!

The deadline for this Creativity Workshop Activity has already passed. See a selection of reader responses to Adkison’s challenge here.

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