Before getting the paints and palette out it is important to plan the composition of your painting. My home studio is in a semi-converted loft. For my self-portrait I positioned myself halfway up the ladder entering the studio through the loft hatch. To capture the image and provide myself with a reference I set up a camera on the floor of the studio and took a number of photos using the timer function on the camera. The resulting image shows my face and shoulders at eye level to the viewer but the studio appears from a worms eye view.
Having decided on a photo to base my painting on I used photo editing software to lay a grid over the image on my computer. Then it was time to paint.
Usually I paint on small boards or large canvases but I prefer the way paint and brushes move over the smooth boards so for my self-portrait I experimented with a new support which was an aluminium panel. This allowed me to work on a large scale but reproduce the smooth surface I like. After applying three coats of gesso I drew a grid on the 61cm x 61cm panel to correspond to the grid on my reference photo and lightly sketched the key areas of the painting.
Using acrylic paints I painted a mix of yellow ochre, cadmium red and titanium white for a warm coloured background. To add some texture to the under painting I dripped lucid mixes of ultramarine blue and cadmium red. The grid and sketch were still visible through the paint that had been applied so far.
Continuing with acrylic paints I mixed ultramarine blue, cadmium red and burnt umber to give me a warm black. I used this mix to build up areas of dark tones in layers, using the acrylic paint with lots of water. This stage is useful for establishing some of the drawing with paint and to generally familiarise myself with the image. This stage is all about providing guidance for the oil painting. This under-painting could be done in oil paint but I wanted to move onto the next stage quickly so I used acrylic which dried within minutes as apposed to waiting for hours.
When the acrylic paint was completely dry it was time to move to oil paint. I absolutely love oil paint! The smell, the feel and the resulting look – it just gets my art juices flowing so this is when it gets exciting for me. I used the following palette of colours for my painting: titanium white, cadmium yellow, naples yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, alizarin red, ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I used a mix of turpentine and linseed oil for my medium to help with the flow of paint.
To begin I blocked in the largest areas of colour which was the back wall of the studio. I was working in the studio so I was able to look at the actual surroundings when mixing colours and didn’t have to rely fully on the reference photo.
Gradually I blocked in more and more of the background until I was at a point where I could suggest areas of detail. I tried to use a minimal amount of brush strokes and marks – enough to make the objects look real but not overworked. I’m attracted to paintings that look realistic but are also obviously paintings. When looking at other artists’ work I like to be able to see how they’ve painted it and imagine each stroke being applied to the surface. This is something I try to achieve in my own work by using broads brush strokes.
Adding highlights on the stool and the screw-nut on the easel brought the background to life.
At this stage I also worked on the hoody so that the majority of the painting was well underway before tackling the portrait.
One of my favourite things about painting portraits is picking out unexpected colours like greens and blues. I spent some time really looking at my face and then mixed colours on the palette for different areas. Daylight from a window and a warm white bulb from a light on the opposite wall to the window made my skin look quite yellowy-green in places. I began the face by blocking in some areas of colour.
Once the initial blocking in of colour had been done the original sketch was no longer visible so I spend much more time studying the reference photo and comparing it to my painting than I did applying paint.
Taking part in regular life drawing sessions at my local art club helps with this process of looking, painting, looking some more, correcting mistakes and so on. It’s usually obvious when a portrait isn’t right but it is the practice of looking that helps realise what is wrong and what needs fixing. Also the more you study a subject and understand how it fits together the less likely you are to make mistakes in the first place.
The portrait came together reasonably quickly but I definitely found it useful to spend a bit of time away from the painting so that I could look again with fresh eyes. I also found it useful to take photos of the painting on my phone and look at these away from the studio as I quite often spot things that need correcting that I hadn’t noticed before.
This is the time to add some finesse to the painting. Giving the eyes some colour and highlights immediately brought the painting to life. I painted some paintbrushes on the desk in the background which helped emphasise the perspective and also added a skull underneath the desk as a little nod to artists of the past who used skulls to represent mortality. I’ve added symbols in portraits before and I like the added narrative simple little objects can provide.
Finally I debated with myself whether or not to add some detail to the area around the loft hatch. The mechanism and part of the ladder could have been included but I decided I would leave it as it is as I wanted to show some of the original transparent acrylic paint. There are other parts of the panel where this layer of paint can be seen too which can be a nice way to show the history and journey of the painting.
Thanks for reading. I hope reading about my process for painting a self-portrait has been useful to you.