Figuratively Speaking: Painting Emotions in Acrylic

Four acrylic artists speak to their fascination with painting the human figure and face.

The Good Life (acrylic, 24×36) by Del-Bourree Bach

Painting emotions is a tricky business. But is there any subject that can communicate a mood or emotion as immediately or as powerfully as the human body? The feeling of a piece can move from enthusiastic to despondent with a minor shift of a person’s shoulders; a facial expression can, at a glance, express a full range of emotion. It’s no wonder, then, that artists have been posing, drawing, and painting the human figure and face for as long as there have been artists; it’s a way to communicate a statement not just about people, but about life itself.

Here, four award-winning acrylic painters — Harry Burman, Del-Bourree Bach, Jason Sacran, and John Walker — share insights and some of their best practices for painting emotions and capturing the emotional potency of the subject in acrylic.

Capturing Attitude & Atmosphere: Del-Bouree Bach

Artist Del-Bourree Bach spends a lot of time in and around marine environments in both New England and Florida. It’s no surprise, then, that in addition to shorelines, boats, and birds, fishermen frequently find their way into his work. “I love painting them, whether they’re in it for the sheer joy of it or they’re digging clams for a living — or just for supper,” Bach says. “But most of all, I just like to paint interesting people.”

The artist has been the recipient of numerous awards for his acrylic paintings, including The Ralph Fabri Medal in the 59th Annual Exhibition of the NSPC&A for his striking piece, The Good Life (top of article). Here’s what Bach had to say about the portrait, its subject, and the painting process.

What’s the story behind your prizewinning painting, The Good Life?

I met Senior, as he is called, on a cool February morning while fishing in Boca Grande, Fla., where I spend time every year. He’s a retiree from the New York City Transit Authority and enjoys many things about retirement, but fishing above all. The fog was heavy but lifting, and Senior stood right on the edge of the breakers where sea meets sand. The surf was fairly rough due to high winds, which explains his unusually heavy jacket for Florida. His dark clothing, powerful figure, and great face stood out against the color of the breaking waves. I spent a good deal of time talking with him, and I knew immediately that I would have to paint him.

Quahog Quixote (acrylic, 12×24) by Del-Bourree Bach

What was the biggest challenge in the painting?

Capturing the inner joy I saw in him at the moment. His subtle smile was an inspiration. I hoped that by having his head raised slightly toward the sky, it helped to put across this feeling. I wanted the viewer to share in his love of life. In general, I find that the most interesting challenge in figure painting is getting not only the facial expression right, but the gesture of the body. I feel this defines a person as much as the face. In fact, some of my favorite paintings have shown a person only from the back.

What was your working process for this particular piece?

I generally work back to front, so I first painted the sea as though that would be the entire painting. Then, I put in Senior’s figure, first drawing in the outline with a small round brush, then filling in with a flat color of ivory black (no, I’m not afraid of using black) and burnt umber. Next, I slowly worked in the basic shapes within the figure, working dark to light, and gradually added more detail. The final step was to add nearly transparent washes in areas to help bring the atmosphere to life.

I really enjoy working in acrylic, and — except for some adventures in transparent watercolor — I use them pretty exclusively. I’m a bit of a purist and enjoy the challenge of using only water and paint, no retardants. I also never draw on the surface with anything other than paint. Most of my paintings are done on panel, as I like the smoothness; I want to paint the texture.

How important is the environment in your paintings?

It’s very important to me, when I’m painting people — whether a more classic portrait or a full figure — to put the person or persons within their own comfortable environment. I want the painting to be about the entire atmosphere, not just the figure. With that as my goal, I hope to achieve a more universal feeling to which any viewer can relate.

Brush Tips

Bach uses a lot of different brush types — “some quite old and worn,” he says — to achieve various effects. The size of the brush is also important to the process. “I use as big a brush as possible for as long as possible, starting with a 3-inch flat brush to avoid getting caught up in the details too early on. This, I feel, keeps the painting from becoming too much about the technique. I slowly work my way down to working with small round brushes.”

Del-Bouree Bach is a signature member in a number of art organizations, including the American Society of Marine Artists, Society of Animal Artists, NSPC&A, Salmagundi Club, Artists for Conservation and Audubon Artists, among others. His work is part of the collections of the Albrecht Kemper Museum, in Missouri, and the Florence Griswold Museum, in Connecticut. Learn more about him and see more of his work on his website.


Celebrating a Life: Jason Sacran

Logan, Contemplation II (acrylic, 24×18) by Jason Sacran

Jason Sacran is interested in creating paintings that evoke an introspective mood, document the significance of ordinary objects, or celebrate simple scenes or expressions of daily life. His painting, Logan, Contemplation II, an award-winner in the 59th Annual Exhibition of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic (NSPC&A), captures his grandfather-in-law, Logan Green, in a moment of reflection. Here’s what Sacran had to say about the painting and the creative pro- cess behind it.

What was the inspiration behind your portrait?

My grandfather-in-law is one of my favorite people in the world — and one of my favorite subjects to paint. Having served in World War II at Pearl Harbor, he’s a man who has lived through just about all that life has to throw at a person. He’s also a retired music professor, a parent, a grandparent and a great-grandparent. Now, at the end of his life, he often contemplates and speaks of fond memories, noting how blessed his life has been.

What was the biggest challenge in the piece?

Saying as much as possible with as little detail as possible. And making him look contemplative, but not too sad.

What’s the biggest challenge in portraiture or figural works in general?

Probably trying to attain the overall feeling or mood of the piece — trying to get beyond a likeness while still keeping the likeness.

Describe your painting process.

Once I have an idea of what I’m going to do, I look for pleasing abstract shapes, finding the most significant shapes within my subject or scene. I then make compositional marks on my canvas indicating the placement of shapes.

Next, I begin blocking in the painting, finding the overall color (hue, value, temperature, and chroma) for the shapes. I try to stay within a mid-tone, making sure the color doesn’t get too dark, light, or saturated. I don’t usually make excessive adjustments at this point. This just sets the playing field for me; once the canvas is blocked in, I can begin assessing color relationships more accurately.

I then go into each color mass looking for smaller shapes, masses, or spots of color. I also pay attention to edges, texture, and the overall feeling of the painting. I evaluate and revise continually until I feel I’ve documented all of the necessary information to call the painting complete.

Sisters (acrylic, 6×6) by Jason Sacran

Was there anything unusual about your painting process in Logan, Contemplation II?

I went a little more abstract in the spots of color; and I didn’t attempt to modulate, creating form only by the juxtaposition of color spots. I enjoyed the visual texture and the energy that was created by doing this.

What do you find most gratifying about painting people?

I’ve always gravitated toward the figure as a subject. The human form and face offer an interesting subject in terms of shapes, planes, and color. And there’s something inherently mysterious, making you want to know more about the subject, to become more familiar, to connect. And, maybe I just like people.

Sacran’s Materials

  • Acrylic paint (various brands): titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, viridian green, ivory black. Frequent additions: cerulean blue, burnt sienna
  • Palette: 12×16 neutral gray palette paper in a 12×16 plastic box with a cover. He prefers not to keep a sponge in the palette.
  • Brushes: bristle flats and filberts in assorted brands and sizes
  • Support: linen or canvas panels
  • Other: Large spray bottle of water and rubbing alcohol to speed the evaporation of water and to prevent mold in the palette box; assorted palette knives; table tray; easel; stool; paper towels; facial tissues

In addition to his figurative work, Jason Sacran, of Fort Smith, Ark., also paints still life and landscape (both studio and plein air). Learn more about him and see more of his work at jasonsacran.com and on his Instagram page, @jasonsacran.


New Medium, New Horizons: Harry Burman

Me (acrylic on canvas, 15×91⁄2) by Harry Burman

Before making the decision to focus full time on his own personal artwork, Brewster, N.Y., artist Harry Burman worked as an illustrator for more than 20 years, painting cover art for romance novels in oil. When new technology essentially put him out of business, the artist began a gradual shift in his art-making, eventually finding his way to acrylics — a medium that provided just the creative catalyst he needed. His first acrylic painting, a self-portrait entitled Me, went on to win the Robert Sanstrom Best in Show award in the NSPC&A 59th Annual Exhibition. We asked the artist to tell us more about the favorable results of his work in the medium.

What’s the story behind your prizewinning self-portrait?

When I saw an ad for Golden’s Open Acrylics, it interested me enough that I bought a complete range of colors. I decided to start with a self-portrait, because I wouldn’t have to please anyone but myself. The paints were great; it was like they were formulated just for me. I used canvas mounted on board for my surface, which was also a departure; previously, I’d only worked on illustration board. I found the canvas had just the right resistance to the brush.

Describe your working process.

I like working on a toned surface so it’s easier to judge values. I don’t mix large batches of color. My preference is to look at a small area of my subject and analyze the color, intensity, and values, apply the paint, and then move to another spot.

Painting for me is a process of constantly correcting my mistakes. I don’t think in terms of rendering an ear or an eye or a button. To me, it’s about getting down a color, value, direction or edge that I’m observing. Drawing, in my mind, is the most important skill and has to become second nature — like breathing. I’m most satisfied with the process when I’m not actually thinking about what I’m doing. Strangely, it’s at this point that I usually find myself humming or singing.

Self Sketch (acrylic on canvas, 121⁄2×91⁄2) by Harry Burman

What constitutes a successful portrait?

I love painting the human face, but a likeness or good rendering isn’t enough. A portrait is successful, for me, if I can sense a thinking, feeling person when I look at it.

Change Is Good

Not only did a change of medium invigorate Burman’s painting, a change of schedule did, too. Once he’d acquired a set of acrylic paints, he started his first acrylic painting at 5 a.m. the next day. “This schedule was new to me, and I found it much easier to focus on my work at that time,” he says. “It was like I was alone in the world.”

Harry Burman earned a B.F.A. from Herbert Lehman College and was a scholarship student at the Art Students League in New York. He enjoys painting landscapes, still lifes and animals, but the human figure and face are his main focus. Learn more about him and see more of his work at harryburman.com.


Mining the Imagination: John Walker

Ginni Moon Prepares for Takeoff (acrylic on board, 22×28) by John Walker

John Walker has been a professional artist for more than 30 years, working in both fine art painting and illustration. But at heart, he says, he’s a storyteller. Although his approach to painting is representational, the thread of story he weaves into his work is usually pure invention. The subject of his NSPC&A award-winning painting, Ginni Moon Prepares for Takeoff, for example, isn’t even an actual person.

“She’s purely a figment of my imagination,” Walker says. We asked him to tell us more about how that creative process works.

How did the idea for Ginni Moon Prepares for Takeoff originate?

A number of my paintings come from combinations of new and old experiences. One thought leads me to another. There are flashes of insight or memories thrown in, and that mix eventually coalesces and becomes a rough painting idea. Some of these evolve further into story lines, and a few of those become paintings. That’s how the narrative quality winds up in my work. In the case of Ginni Moon Prepares for Takeoff, after doing some preliminary work and drawing in my sketchbook, I began asking questions: Who is this girl? What’s her personality like? Where is she going? I imagined her entire backstory.

Not every piece I paint has such a strong narrative quality, but the creative process I go through is pretty much the same. I’ve done paintings that came from cryptic scribbles in my sketchbook; others were generated from ideas that bounced around in my head for days, months or even years.

Describe your painting process.

I usually do some type of initial drawing — sometimes detailed, other times not much more than an indication. Then I create an underpainting, typically using a mixture of burnt umber and matte medium. These initial passes are thin glazes that dry quickly.

Next, I apply semiopaque veils of color. I strive to keep shadow areas transparent, and the areas on which light falls more opaque. The advantage with acrylics is that you can continually glaze transparent color over opaque, working quickly back and forth as many times as you like. I sometimes work with a hair dryer in my left hand to speed things up even more. You have no worries about “fat over lean” as you do with oils.

Do you have a preference in terms of a surface?

Most of my pieces these days are done on hardboard, because I like the durability of the surface. I manipulate paint applications in multiple ways, especially early on in my buildup stage. I might use sandpaper to lighten areas or correct a mistake; I might scrape the surface with razor blades or pound it with a paint-soaked rag — all techniques that could imperil a stretched canvas. On the other hand, I find a nicely textured canvas can promote easier blending of paint than a smoother hardboard surface. Each substrate and tool has its pluses and minuses. I rule nothing out.

So Alice Went Through the Looking-Glass Again (acrylic on board, 24×18) by John Walker

Do you have favorite brushes and other tools?

I used to use sable brushes, because I loved the finesse they allowed. But they didn’t hold up well to the way I paint, so I switched to synthetics. I like the Golden Taklons. But I also use some natural-bristle brushes, as well as rags, sponges, knives, and cheap disposable brushes. I try to consider the marks I want to make and then think about what tool will be most effective to create them. If a tool gives me the look I’m after, then it’s the best one for the job.

What do you think makes a painting a success?

Being a representational painter doesn’t always mean having to nail down every little detail. I often prefer to leave some ambiguities in a painting. I’ll provide a framework for possibilities and let the viewer take it from there. Sparking a reaction is where the magic lies, after all. If my work engages people to the point that they spend time with a piece — make a connection — then I feel I’ve done my job.

The Portrait Challenge

When it comes to the challenges of painting portraits and figures, “achieving a good likeness through solid drawing and value representation is right up there,” Walker says.

“You won’t get a lot of applause if your portrait painting bears no resemblance to the sitter. Drawing accurately is a skill that can be learned through instruction and practice, but painting subjects in a manner that goes beyond academic accuracy is another matter. That’s where individual artists have a chance to show something of themselves. It’s where we reveal our approach to a subject — our thoughts and ideas. You need the technical skills to communicate clearly, but it’s nice if you have something to say. I like to tell students that when they combine what’s in their hearts with what’s in their heads, they have a chance to create something truly outstanding.”

After graduating from The American Academy of Art, John Walker began a career in illustration. In recent years, he has shifted his focus to painting and exhibiting his personal artwork. He also teaches acrylic painting in classes, demonstrations, and workshops. Learn more about him and see more of his work at walkerbrushworks.com.


A version of this article originally appeared in Acrylic Artist magazine.

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