Portraiture is, in my humble opinion, the domain of artistic masters. All the greats, such as Velazquez, Rembrandt, Goya and Sargent, can be counted as incredibly skilled and innovative portrait artists in addition to being pretty brilliant at everything else they chose to paint.
How Do They Do It?
Their portrait art was so great because they were great. They took their vision and unique perspectives and applied it to their compositions no matter what they were painting. For example, I have always been in love with the way Sargent would put together a composition. That goes especially for his portrait paintings.
His ability to capture a person’s personality in the way that they sprawl on a chaise or simply stand at the base of a staircase? How does he do it? And it’s the same with Velazquez’s paint treatment, or Goya’s subtle, muted tones.
Portrait Painting Expert Process from Daniel Greene
Contemporary artist and portraitist Daniel Greene has been teaching the same master practices of the artistic greats, and his insights can put your portrait painting practice a head above the rest, no pun intended.
Greene treats every step of a painting as a building block, coalescing the parts into a unified whole that is individualized and memorable. To give further insight into how he does what he does so well, he’s offered his step-by-step painting process to us.
Create several studies from life. When working on a large canvas, think about beginning with pastel studies before moving on to working with oil.
Initially, Greene uses fast-drying earth tones and lean mediums containing little to no slow-drying oils. With the successive layers, he increases the oil content in his medium. He starts with a diluted raw umber base coat, applying the paint slightly darker than the tone he wants as he wipes down the canvas surface and removes some of the pigment.
On the semidry surface, Greene uses raw sienna mixed with black to rough in the composition, and then refines the painted sketch using burnt umber. He attests to “beginning with a broom and finishing with a needle,” indicating how he migrates from painting loosely and leaves details for last.
Work from dark to light, painting in layers. Throughout the process check yourself by evaluating the painting with mirrors and keep your initial studies on hand for reference. Once you move on to full color, your aim is to create visually interesting cool-warm relationships within your colors.
Oftentimes, Greene will oil out. Oil out is a process of laying down a layer of medium and allowing it to dry, so that the painting is ready for final detail work.
Life and Art
For more expertise on painted portraits, I would seek out more time with Daniel E. Greene: Studios and Subways.
His career as a portrait paint is captured within this book. It is an all-encompassing resource for us to master learning how to paint people. Turn the page and watch this natural painter at work throughout the years. Enjoy!