Head and shoulder portrait


Medium: Acrylic
Support: Fabriano acrylic paper, 440g/m², 185 Ilbs
Colours: Burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, titanium white, cadmium yellow, phthalocyanine blue and permanent rose
Brushes: Daler Rowney System 3 – 1” short flat, Daler Rowney System 3 – ½” short flat, Daler-Rowney size 4 round brush and Proarte Acrylix Size ‘0’
Size:  28 x 44 cm (11″ x 17″)

For the head and shoulder portrait exercise the brief was to focus on visual accuracy. My friend, Jean, proved a willing victim as a model which allowed me to create a series of sketches and line and tonal studies to help decide on a final composition.

Initial sketches

Initial series of sketches

Initial series of sketches

To begin with I made a series of quick sketches by moving around and using different viewpoints. 

Line and tonal studies

Line and tonal studies

Eventually there was one pose that I preferred over the others with Jean looking into the distance to the right of the picture and I developed this into larger line and tonal studies.

As I wasn’t going to be able to do all the work in the time available for the sitting I took photographs to use for reference at a later date.

Light was coming from a large window behind me and also, indirectly, from the hallway to the right.

Colour palette and colour study

Colour study for main painting

Colour study for main painting

In the sketch book I worked out a range of skin tones using a palette of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow, permanent rose and titanium white. From these I worked on a rough colour study to see how the skin tones would work with a dark background.

Initial development

Skin tones blocked in

Skin tones blocked in

Working on Fabriano acrylic paper I blocked in the darker skin tones before adding lighter and mid tones.

For the background I used a mix of phthalocyanine blue, alizarin crimson and burnt sienna to create a deep purple that, I hoped, would contrast with the paler tones of the skin. For the background in particular I found it harder working on the Fabriano paper than previous types of acrylic paper. I had to use a lot of water to make the paint cover the surface and the brushes seemed to skim across the surface.

Further development

Change to a lighter background

Change to a lighter background

In the next session I worked more on the skin tones. In the previous session the different tones were becoming muddied and needed greater contrast. I worked on the left-hand side of the face creating darker shadows around the ear. At this stage I felt that the nose was too long, particularly as the viewpoint was looking down on the model. This, in turn, was making the angle of the mouth problematical and more of a pout than serene smile.

One of my main aims was to capture the curves of the hair and make a feature of this. To do this I used pure colours – burnt sienna, phthalocyanine blue, cadmium yellow and titanium white applied directly onto the paper.

I began to feel that the face was merging too much into the background and used a paler wash over the background to see how that would look.

Detail of hair, neck and clothing

Further detail added to hair, neck and clothing

Further detail added to hair, neck and clothing

To balance the work that had been done on the face I used the next session to work on the background, neck and clothing. I stayed with the lighter background at this point using a mix of burnt sienna, phthalocyanine blue, cadmium yellow and titanium white. Having applied it across the surface I gently rubbed over this with damp kitchen towel to ensure that some of the texture of the paper still showed through.

The hair seemed to be sitting on top of the head rather than part of it. I used a thin brush to highlight the hair around the hairline and added more shadow around this area.

I worked more on the neck developing the skin tones and areas of light and shade. For the t-shirt I worked on creating more detail of the folds in the fabric.

I also worked on the right-hand side of the face as I felt that the eye was a little too small. I worked around this area creating more subtle changes between the different skin tones.

To move away from that pursed look around the mouth I lightened the shadows around the nose and made adjustments to the size and positioning of the mouth.


Darker background added to contrast with face

Darker background added to contrast with face

After a bit more debate I felt that the face was now strong enough to contrast more with a darker background. I built this up in layers of increasingly darker washes again rubbing through the layers to maintain some of the texture of the paper.

I began to work on the detail of the ear, earring and hair. On the right-hand side of the face I added a light wash of darker red tones to the shaded area near the nose to balance with the left-hand side.

Final session – work on hair

Final session

For the final session I did more work on the hair adding more strands of pure colour at the sides of the face and a mix of phthalocyanine blue and alizarin crimson for the shadows. I lightened the pony tail which had been too dark.

Detail of face

Detail of face

Finally, I worked on the neck creating subtler changes between skin tones on the left-hand side and made slight adjustments to the shadows around the ear on the face.

Learning points

  • As ever I find that I am taking a long time to work through these exercises and, whilst not skimping on them to the extent that I lose out on learning, I do need to find some way to work through them more quickly. This is particularly important when using models who may have a limited amount of time to spare for sittings. It would also allow me more time on the main assignment.
  • I also need to really focus on that initial, large scale drawing. Often I think I have the proportions right but it’s not until I begin to paint that I realise that proportions are a bit out.
  • While the initial sketches were done at one sitting the majority of the work was undertaken from a photograph for reference. This had the advantage of giving me time to study and rework parts but is not a substitute for working from life.
  • When using Fabriano paper again I’ll try stiffer brushes for comparison.

Overall I feel the image is a reasonable likeness of Jean. As a model she seemed relaxed and lost in her own thoughts and I think that I managed to capture this to a certain extent.


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