Self-portrait using acrylics


Medium: Acrylic paint
Support: Galeria acrylic paper, 300gsm (140 Ibs)
Colours: Burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson, titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, phthalocyanine blue
Brushes: Daler Rowney System 3 – 1” short flat, Daler Rowney System 3 – ½” short flat, Daler-Rowney size 4 round brush
Lighting: Natural daylight from the right
Size: 28 x 44 cm (11″ x 17″)

Prior to attempting a self-portrait in acrylics I worked on two larger sketches using chalk pastel. This was to try and get myself over a feeling of ‘where to start’ with this module. The results weren’t particularly impressive but my attempts did bring home to me how much I had to learn in this area. As a result I had a period of feeling overwhelmed but, eventually, by talking to a friend who is an artist and reading around the subject I felt that I had more of an approach.

Initial sketches

I started with some smaller, rough line sketches just trying out the positioning of my head and features. I liked one of these poses in particular where my head was tilted to the right and decided to work this into a more developed tonal and colour study.

Initial sketches for self-portrait

Initial sketches for self-portrait

Self-portrait sketches and tonal study

Self-portrait sketches and tonal study

Tonal study

Detailed tonal study

Detailed tonal study

When I started the tonal study I was looking quite solemn and as I got into the drawing decided to introduce a slight smile – note to self: decide on an expression from the beginning. Making this slight adjustment made me realise the impact that even the smallest change has, particularly around the eyes and the mouth. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the glasses but the tonal study did make me aware of the shadows and reflections from them on the face.

On a practical note it was difficult working with my glasses on as facial details weren’t particularly clear when I looked in the mirror though, on the plus side, this did help me to focus more on variations in tone.

Colour Study

Colour study for self-portrait

Colour study for self-portrait

Based on the sketches and tonal drawing I made a more developed colour study. With previous work I have produced colour studies but these have tended to be very quick, loose works with brief notes on colours. For this exercise I felt that I needed something more involved to give me an idea of how the modelling of the face would go and to help highlight any potential problem areas in advance of the main painting.

Having done some reading on selecting colours [1] I decided on a palette of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson, titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow and phthalocyanine blue.

For the colour study I smiled slightly from the beginning to explore the effect of different muscles in the face. To create more areas of light and shade I decided to pin my fringe back.

I found myself focusing mainly on my upturned lips then noticed the changes on the shape of the face around the eyes and mouth, in particular:

  • Less space and detail above lips
  • Shadows under eyes reduced as cheeks rise
  • Lines at the corner of the eyes more pronounced
  • More definitive areas of light and shade on the cheek bones and around the mouth and chin.

Once I started recording these specific details I began to get an expression more like a smile. Overall I felt I managed to capture a more accurate expression though the study makes me look older.

Initial painting sessions

I started off by making an A3 charcoal drawing and going over the lines in paint. I was working under a bit of pressure with time and it was only as I blocked in the colour that I noticed that my face was not at the slight tilt that I wanted.

First version of self-portrait

First version of self-portrait

I did a bit of adjustment, going over the paint with charcoal to see if there was any way that I could correct this without major changes. After a bit of debate I decided it wasn’t possible as, without the tilt of the head, the position of the eyes to the left made no sense.

It was, literally, back to the drawing board and a re-draw with better positioning of the head.

Take 2: development of self-portrait

Drawing for second version of self-portrait

Drawing for second version of self-portrait

For the colour study I had created a blue background using a wash of phthalocyanine blue over yellow ochre. For the main painting I wanted to use the same mix of cool over a warmer colour but make them darker and more intense as a contrast to the warmer colours of the skin. For the background, at this stage, I used layers of yellow ochre and alizarin crimson.

Revised version of self-portrait

Revised version of self-portrait

I then concentrated on blocking in the light, mid and dark tones to build up the shape of my face. For these tones I used:

  • Light – alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, titanium white and cadmium yellow
  • Mid – alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, titanium white and yellow ochre
  • Dark – alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, titanium white, ultramarine blue and yellow ochre.

Finally, I blocked in my tee-shirt using a mix of alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and titanium white.

Final session

Development of features for second version

Development of features for second version

Reflecting on work in previous sessions I felt that my face looked fuller than it actually is and started the next session by trying to address that.

I started by working on the left-hand side of the face, reducing the jaw line and creating more detail of the tonal values. Having done the colour study I felt that pulling my hair back from my face looked a bit stark and added more of a fringe. 

At this stage I felt that my nose and glasses on the right-hand side seemed out of synch. My nose needed to be further to the right. I attempted to make adjustments until I felt that I was in danger of over-working this area and that it was better to note the issue and focus on other parts of the painting.

Development of background and clothing

Development of background and clothing

I softened other areas of light and shade particularly around the mouth, chin and the neck. During the previous session I had thought that my right shoulder wasn’t at quite the right angle and tried to make adjustments to this. I roughly blocked in additional colour and shadow on the clothing but wanted to deliberately leave this loosely worked to focus on the face.

I used a wash of phthalocyanine blue over the background making this darker on the left-hand and lower right-hand side to complement the flesh tones of the face.

Detail of face

Detail of face

Finally, I added more detail to the eyes and took a wash of cobalt blue and cadmium yellow over the eye area to reduce the whiteness of the eyes and represent the glass lenses.

Learning points

This was, I’ll admit a struggle. It has been a long time since I have done any form of figure drawing and I got very distracted with ‘where do you start’. While I had tried doing some initial larger sketches using chalk pastel I still wasn’t sure about how to tackle a more developed figure painting.

On the plus side all that angst resulted in some insights:

  • The lesson of ‘where do you start?’ is…just start. I thought myself to a standstill at the beginning and, in future, just need to get something on paper and keep going even if it seems not to be working. I spent too long panicking and not enough time trying to see a way through – I need to get out of my own way.
  • I’m more aware of the value of smaller, rough sketches as a way into thinking and working.
  • I found the more developed colour study was really helpful as, at an early stage, it highlighted areas I had to think about or resolve.
  • I’m going to try not to rush steps in the process. Feeling under pressure with time at the thought of all the other exercises needing to be done I made mistakes with positioning that could have been worked out at an earlier stage.
  • It’s good to talk – showing my work to family and friends resulted in a range of responses some confirming my own thoughts and others providing food for thought.


[1] Gair, A. (1992) Hands, faces and figures, London: Quatro Publishing


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s