Painting a portrait and don’t know where to begin? Most people think that painting portraits is nearly impossible and the hardest thing to paint. Master portraitist and Evolve Founder Kevin Murphy teaches us where to start a portrait. Hint: it’s not in the details!
Kevin Murphy's Portrait Experience
I (Evolve Founder Kevin Murphy) have been a portrait painter for 20 years. It's an area of expertise for me. I have built a career that spanned 20 years doing nothing but portraits. My experience has been that the thing that trips people up the most is that they think differently about portraits than they do about painting something else.
Mistake #1: Treating Portraits Differently
If we paint a still life, it's pretty simple. When we tackle it, it's pretty straightforward. Our approach to where to start a portrait can be simple and straightforward too.
Mistake #2: "Paint What You See"
For most people who haven't been trained in how to make art (and sadly, for a very large percentage of people who have been to colleges and learned to make art), they've been taught to paint what they see. That is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
For example, when you put a ball and a cube on a table, it's very easy to see the objects and make sense of it. There is no overwhelming number of details or decisions to make.
However, when you try to paint a portrait that way, the amount of information that you're taking in is almost incalculable. If you were trying to paint what you see, it turns what could be a very simple painting into an unclimbable mountain.
Step 1: Simplify Your Process
When you're deciding where to start a portrait, the first thing you need is to have a process that equalizes complex subject matter and simple subject matter so that a portrait and a ball and a cube are basically the same things. The same tools are applied.
At Evolve Artist, we start in grayscale and we think in terms of shadows and lights and then the edges that connect them.
A ball and a cube are comprised of shadow shades and light shades, and they have edges, either sharp or grade, that connects them.
A face is exactly the same. Exactly the same. It doesn't have any extra parts if you're doing it in grayscale.
If you're painting a red cube and an orange ball, you're now dealing in color value decisions. You'll be making decisions about how dark or light the red is and how dark or light the orange is. However, you're still dealing in lights and shadows as well as the edges that connect them, and a portrait is no different.
The idea is that if you have a structured approach to moving through a painting from blank canvas to finished art, it should work equally for simple and complex subject matter. That's the starting point.
Bad Advice from Art School
So many people go to art school and they spend a couple hundred thousand dollars and all they are taught is to "paint what you see." They're basically being given things and being told to see stuff. However, they're not taught a clear-cut process for simplifying the information that's in front of them, such as, how do you break down a face?
What happens then is that some people end up burning the candle at both ends and constantly working and pushing their skill further down the road. They start with simple things and they get a little more complex and a little more complex. Eventually, they work their way up to something like a portrait. But it's not a big jump.
They don't have a process that works. What they have is a process for the simple things, a process for the moderately complex, and another for complex things. They have different approaches for each subject until they've got some years of experience under their belt and they start to see how they connect.
For most people, the way they learned it is the way they teach it. This is common in art school.
Step 2: Start With Structure
In short, to be able to paint a portrait, you need to have a process that neutralizes the complexity at the beginning. This allows you to build the structure of the head of the face before you get into the details.
If I were to paint a cube, it'd be very simple. One side is a shadow, one side is a light, and there's light on top. It starts out as a box.
Now, let's say that that cube is cut from wood and maybe it has some wood grain. Once I've got the structure of the cube in place, then I can turn my attention away from the structure that tells us it's a cube and start putting in the details.
With a face, if you start with the structure and get the structure right, it already looks like the person before you start dealing in details.
It’s Not in the Details
I want to show you just how irrelevant the details are compared to the structure. As I mentioned, a simple cube has, one shadow and two light shades, one on the side and one on the top.
Similarly, a face could be broken down into one shadow shade and one light shade.
Daniel Folta of Evolve Artist did a wonderful job of explaining how to break down a face. See his video HERE to see the simple step-by-step process in action.
If you can create a shadow and a light and just get the shape of the shadow and the light right without any concern for the details (the eyes or nostrils or the mouth, or the ears), you'll be able to recognize the face right away. That's not even including any gradients. With just the two values following the contour of where the shadow and light meet, the structure of the face will be clear and recognizable.
Conclusion: Simplicity is Key
When you're deciding where to start a portrait, simplicity is key. Don't try to make a finished portrait. Develop the first stage. Get really good at it so that you've got confidence.
This is the first post from our Master's Guide to Painting Better Portraits series. Subscribe to stay posted!
Read the next posts in the series here:
Master's Guide #2: How to Simplify Portrait Painting
Master's Guide #3: How to Build Confidence in Portrait Painting
Master's Guide #4: How to Get a Likeness in Portrait Painting
Master's Guide #5: Quickest Method to Level Up Portrait Painting Skills
Master's Guide #6: How to Price Portrait Paintings
Master's Guide #7: How to Get Portrait Commissions
Master's Guide #8: Are Today's Portraitists Better Than the Old Masters?