Portrait of Mike


Last summer Mike Lucas and his wife took my son David and me out on their 26 ft. sailing boat on Georgian Bay, Ontario, and this portrait of Mike seems to symbolize that day: bright sunshine, a slight breeze and gentle waves. I decided to start our 2014-15 art lessons with this project as we have never tackled a portrait before. I chose this image as beginners have difficulty with the eyes, and if the eyes aren't right the portrait rarely succeeds. Image size 10 1/2" x 14 1/2" on 300 lb. Arches cold pressed paper using W&N Artist Quality colours.

I rarely do portraits so I had to experiment before I could break this down and teach it to my class. I started with the carefully drawn pencil image, and I indicated some dark areas around the mouth and teeth as this area needed accuracy to make a realistic portrait. I chose to leave out the distracting rope and make this a more horizontal format.


I decided not to put any background in first as I thought it might influence the choice of skin colour, so I began with the cap. I used a pale mixture of Alizarin  Crimson and Antwerp Blue to replicate this faded material.


For the shadows and stitching I used a stronger version with a little shadow colour and softened and lifted some of the edges. Notice the stitching takes the shape of the cap and thus helps define the shaded areas.


Here is the finished cap with the shadows clearly defined.


Next I had to mask the areas I wanted to leave white before starting on the skin tones. This can be tricky and is hard to describe and demonstrate, but I used a Fineline Supernib with a fine tip to map in the random white parts of the beard. I'm showing an American product but I'm sure similar products will be available elsewhere in the world. Notice I've made one or two quite big blobs by accident but the eventual painting in of the beard covers them up, so you don't have to worry. You can do all this with a fine brush I guess, but it would be tedious and prone to thicker lines. I tried to follow the lines of the actual beard and give them random curves. I also mapped in the metal sunglass frames, but I used small brush for this.


I did several quick sketches to establish skin tones and how to handle the white pepper and salt beard. This last one came close to what I wanted and enabled me to start on the final version.


We're ready for the first skin wash.


The first skin wash goes on, carefully avoiding those white teeth. I used a mixture of Burnt Sienna, Brown Madder and a touch of Alizarin Crimson which seems to make a nice summer tan colour. Later I will soften the chin area so it's not quite so definite.


Another extreme close-up showing how I like to soften those hard edges and follow the contours of the face. As Mike is smiling in this image it's vital we keep that expression as we blot and lift or scrub those edges. This is hard to demonstrate and teach as so much of this is the feel of the brush, the amount of the water and the facial tissue. I urge you be patient and to experiment as I did on scrap paper before you venture to the main painting.


An extreme close-up as I start on the mouth and teeth. It's important to keep this accurate as most of our likeness hinges on this smile, the teeth and the way the tongue just shows up a little.


These are extreme close-ups and look messy as the normal viewing distance would be six to eight feet away, but I'm trying hard to be accurate as I map in the darker areas of the mouth to allow the teeth show up as they actually are.


The teeth are impossibly white of course and in spite of the toothpaste commercials most of us simply don't have such dazzling choppers, so I've covered them with a very pale wash of raw sienna being careful to leave the very tips whiter as they are in the original image. The lower teeth are slightly darker and I've covered the original very pink tongue to knock it back a bit.


I started to get a bit antsy about those dark glasses as they are such a dominant features of this portrait so I removed the liquid masking and painted those in next. Notice I put some blue in the top LH corner of the frame in case I want to put in a background later. The metal frames actually pick up the colours surrounding them so I dull  down that pure white page left after the masking was lifted.


Here is another image of the beard mostly finished but I will lift out certain areas with a knife later. I'm trying to keep that smiling cheek by making the beard appear to follow the contours of the face.


Here is the first undercoat on the jacket with a few wet-in-wet strokes to indicates folds. I used a bluish grey made from Antwerp Blue and Brown Madder.


I've jumped ahead a bit here and completed the jacket with the folds and cast shadows. With this type of very commercial art technique you can often get startling contrast by combining a mixture of shadows, reflected light and shadows within shadows. At this point I decided to tackle a possible background as it looks in the original image.


I was nervous about that background, especially as students often have trouble creating a background that appears to run behind something, so I tried out an idea I've done down the years. I found an old painting that didn't quite come off and used the other side to make a drawing of the head and then paint in a suitable background without worrying about stopping the colour where it meets the head.


Then I carefully cut around the outline and placed it on the original to see how it looked. Not bad but I ditched the idea of using green and I would make my waves look more continuous in my completed background. This is a lot of work and you need patience to do this but believe me, it often prevents a disaster from happening when you've spent many hours on a project and then ruined it with a carelessly planned background.


Here I've masked off the main areas with postal tape, leaving a thin outer layer for completion with liquid making. You can use special contact paper and carefully cut around the outline without the masking step, but this stuff is expensive and students often don't have the skill to cut this accurately.


I painted in the water using wet-in-wet mixture of pale Ultramarine and allowed it to dry to the "glisten" stage. Then I applied horizontal stokes of Ultramarine with a fully loaded brush straight from the palette. I waited a few moments and used a spritzer bottle to spray clear water over the whole area and allowed it to bleed and blend. In a few places I put in strokes of pure Antwerp Blue to emphasize certain waves in the foreground. Your mounting board must be at a slight angle for this work properly.


I carefully removed the postal tape and liquid masking with a rubber cement pick-up and repaired any damaged areas, also lifting out the beard with a sharp knife where it crossed into the water. I then decided the face wasn't quite tanned enough so I applied one last glaze of the skin colour. I cropped this to a square format and got everything ready for my students as our first project for the 2014/15 season.


I hope you found this useful. Portraits are probably the hardest thing to do in watercolour but give it a try.

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