Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!

My first tentative foray into portraiture

I have tremendous admiration for anyone that even considers tackling portraiture. This admiration rises even further for anyone that tackles portraiture in watercolour! I think it’s partly to do with the pressure of achieving some semblance of likeness. I can’t help but think that portraiture is a most unforgiving pursuit.

It has, however, long played on my mind that I should be able to ‘indicate’ faces and figures better. Quite often, my figures are suggested with a quick daube of paint, usually some mix of yellow ochre and burnt sienna with absolutely no distinguishing features.

I marvel at artists that are able to capture facial features and skin tones and, while I will never compete with them, I do think I should at least have a better understanding and with this, might come improvements to my own figures.

Who better to get some advice from then than the great Charles Reid. I already have a few of his books, and I’d always admired his treatment of faces and figures so he seemed like a good starting point. I decided to add to my library with this instruction manual:

It’s a lovely little book, full of step-by-step demonstrations. My fidgety attention span means that I struggle to start at the beginning of books like this and work my way through them methodically. I’m much more of a dive-in have a look at everything and see what takes my fancy kind of person.

I know that skin colour, and how to achieve it fascinates me so I ended up starting halfway through the book on ‘colours’

Charles Reid’s suggested palette

Here’s the list of colours that Charles Reid suggests in this book:

  • Cadmium red light
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium orange
  • Cadmium yellow lemon or cadmium yellow pale
  • Hooker’s green
  • Sap green
  • Cerulean blue
  • Phthalo blue
  • Yellow ochre
  • Raw sienna
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber

While I’m keen to improve my understanding of skin tones, I’m not currently inclined to revamp my palette! I’ve already recently made some adjustments to my palette that I’m keen to become more familiar with before I make any further changes.

Looking at Charles Reid’s list, here it is again with the nearest approximation from my palette:

  • Cadmium red light = Pyrrol red
  • Alizarin crimson = Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium orange = Hansa Yellow deep
  • Cadmium yellow lemon or cadmium yellow pale = Winsor Yellow
  • Hooker’s green = Viridian
  • Sap green = Viridian
  • Cerulean blue = Cerulean blue
  • Phthalo blue = Cobalt and French Ultramarine
  • Yellow ochre = Yellow ochre
  • Raw sienna = Yellow ochre
  • Burnt sienna = Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber = Sepia

Hard to know the exact differences that some of these colour changes might make but they seemed as good a starting point as any! I started off following some of the suggest combinations in the book.

It was really interesting to do these little colour swatch exercises, especially as I was used the paint in very diluted form, which really shows the transparency of the colours.

Having played around with a few colour swatches, it was time to follow one of the many little step-by-step exercises:

I was interrupted mid-way through this effort, but when I came back to it, I liked it so much as it was, that I didn’t want to risk losing it all with the addition of any further details! I quite like a lot of the elements in this little sketch. A nice mix of soft and hard edges and I think some of the skin colours and tones are passable.

I’m looking forward to continuing these little exercises and hope that my confidence in mixing skin tones will develop as a result. Maybe one day, I might even be able to build up to a nose or a mouth!

I’m aware that there are many more accomplished painters out there than I am so please, if you have any advice for me as I take these first few tentative steps towards portraying faces and features, please do let me know!

Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind

Sometime ago a local gallery space put out an open call for submissions for an exhibition to be held during the summer.

The exhibition is open to anyone from Sussex or living in Sussex and is open-themed too.

In my usual spirit of having nothing to lose, I promised myself that I’d pop something in and made a mental note of the deadline. Immediately after making this promise, I promptly forgot all about it.

I only realised last Friday that the deadline was midnight on Sunday! I already had two paintings that I’d earmarked for this exhibition but, as each person is allowed to submit up to 4 pieces, I was keen to see if I could improve my odds with another painting.

Sometime ago I did an A5 sketch of Brighton pavilion that turned out surprisingly well:

A5 painting of Brighton Pavilion

I’d wondered on and off whether this would work at a larger scale and somehow, the time seem right to give it a go and find out.

I did look back at the original sketch before starting the painting but then filed it away in my mind and went back to the original reference photo to sketch this out from.

I knew that I wanted to do a larger painting of this scene but without necessarily adding in too much more detail, which I think is often tempting to do when scaling up from a smaller study.

My main focus when I started to sketch this out was to capture an accurate-ish representation of the Pavilion’s domes and minarets. The closer you look at them, the more utterly mad they seem to be, and so many of them too!

Half Imperial painting of Brighton Pavilion

I think that paying greater attention to some of the architectural details did in hinder my approach when it came to painting this, which does feel quite ‘tight’ in places. That aside, however, I was quite pleased with how this turned out. It may not be as loose as the original sketch, but I think it’s richer in other ways and has greater depth to it. I also think that the colours and tones are also a little more convincing.

Anyway, I was pleased that I was able to get this painted and submitted ahead of the deadline, even if it was only just! The organisers hope to inform people whether they’ve been successful or not sometime over the coming weekend so at least I don’t have to wait long to get a verdict on my entries. I’m not holding out that much hope to be honest as I think they’ll be inundated with entries and the space is quite modest in size. What does feel good however is to have a selection of paintings that I feel sufficiently confident about to be able to enter them, and that I saw it through and actually got them submitted on time!

Nothing else to do now but keep my fingers crossed!

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Thoughts on Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!

6 thoughts on “Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!”

  1. A magical painting, John, though it lacks a bit of the excitement of the greens in that original version. Well painted! As for portraits, I’d say make sure you start with the eyes, nose, mouth in the right places and the right sizes. After that I’d be fairly tentative with pigment until things start to work and you think, “Yeah. That’s a good effect; I can go a bit stronger with that.” Then stop when it looks anything like the person it’s supposed to resemble. But what do I know!? You seem to have made a pretty solid start already. And, by the way, the actual pigments you use don’t matter a jot. I reckon you should be able to mix convincing skintones from any 2 blues, 2 reds and 2 yellows. But what do I know?!!?

    1. Hi Rob and thanks so much for this. You’re a much better and more experienced painter of portraits than I’ll ever be so I’m more than happy to take your advice and recommendations! I especially like ‘stop when it looks anything like the person it’s supposed to resemble! I wonder if I’ll ever get to that point!?

  2. Barbara Halsall

    Good luck, do hope you get accepted. Your portraiture has got off to a very good start, well done. Looking forwards to seeing many more

    1. Hi Barbara and thanks so much for this! I haven’t done any more portraits yet but will try to make them a more regular part of my ‘playing around with paint’ activities!

  3. Hi John, best of luck for the exhibition!

    I have painted portraits in the past, but in oil paint not watercolour, even the thought of using watercolour for a portrait is enough for me to have to lie down in a darkened room! But trying something new is good, and I think will lead to improvements in unexpected areas. In my case, I’ve been using some old hot pressed paper: to me this means having to allow the paint to do what it wants and to paint much more quickly. The paint dries so rapidly and any reworking becomes obvious – one stroke and that’s it. So I need to get the tone right first time. But in doing so, the transparency achieved makes the painting really glow.

    1. HI Ray and thanks for this! I must confess that I’ve not had much experience of painting on hot pressed paper – I must admit it sounds mildly terrifying but, as you say, it’s good to try something new! I seem to have a glut of Open entry exhibitions that I’m trying rustle up paintings to enter into them so I’m having to hang up some of my experiments, such as the portraits, while I try to rattle out some exhibition-worthy entries!

I'd love to hear any thoughts you have about this

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