When I started experimenting with dog paintings a year ago, I never really thought about doing human portrait paintings. Dog portraits seem so low pressure, and it was just playing around mostly. But then I painted my daughter, as a gift for her, and it wasn’t long before my friend asked me to paint her kids’ portraits as a Christmas gift for her husband.
To be honest, I was scared. I’d drawn plenty of portraits in my high school and college art classes, and the portrait of Skyler turned out pretty darn amazing. But when my friend offered to pay money for three different portrait paintings of her daughters, even at my newbie, good-buddy rates, I was so nervous I would mess them up. I’m a perfectionist with my work, so it wasn’t even a doubt in my ability to do it. I think I feared mostly that my perception and interpretation of the photos I painted would lack the love and emotion that my friend sees when she looks at her kids. I also was never classicly trained in painting, so I was afraid my lack of experience would show. But after a few successful portrait painting commissions, I’ve learned a few things, and can’t wait to do more!
Painting Noses is Hard
I’ve been drawing eyes and faces since elementary school. I remember doodling crystal clear eyeballs with long lashes on the margins of my notebook paper throughout high school and college. But while eyes may be the window to the soul, noses are just some weird lumps and holes that blow snot. Okay, maybe it’s the window to the breath of life if we’re being poetic about it, but mouths do that too, and they’re a lot more fun to paint. Noses are so difficult to paint because they have very few hard lines and are just variations of soft skin tones. The shadow created by the top of the nostrils is the only distinct part of the nose, while the rest requires a lot of subtle colors and contouring. For such a small area of the face, you expect to use and mix a lot more colors than you think!
Noses are also difficult to paint because I am keenly aware of how sensitive people are about the shape of their noses. If I make it too skinny, too long, too bumpy, etc, I’m afraid I’ll insult the subject of the portrait painting. There’s a lot of angst bound up in those weird little folds of skin and cartilage, and it’s probably my least favorite part of portraits to paint.
Portrait Painting sets are challenging but rewarding
While dog portrait paintings are my most popular commission, the popularity of portrait paintings of children is increasing. And I have yet to do one single portrait painting. All of the human portrait commissions I’ve done have been sets of two or more, which means I have to work on them simultaneously to make sure the color palette and paint mixing matches across both paintings. This presents a few challenges, especially working with acrylic paint:
- I must decide if the color palette between the portrait paintings is matched or just coordinated. This is important to consider when looking at the different subjects’ coloring and how that will look against the background color(s).
- Mixed paints – acrylic paints dry much faster than oils, and while I do work on a wet palette that keeps the paint workable longer, it’s still a limited shelf life. I have to work through my mixed colors across both canvases in a timely manner to prevent custom colors from drying out.
- My small studio space makes working across multiple canvases difficult. I have one main easel and a second I typically use for drying. But if I’m working on a portrait painting set, I am often working canvases on both easels. This generally works fine for two paintings, but if there’s three or more, things get tricky. I did work on a 4-piece set that I treated like two 2-piece sets and just coordinated the colors, which made for a much smoother painting process, and a really impressive final portrait set.
Portrait paintings are a reflection of love
I believe that is what makes portrait painting so special, and the one thing that I hope to channel in all my work. Portraits are a reflection of love from whomever requested them, whether it’s love for the recipient of the portrait or love for the subject of the portrait. It gets a little more difficult the less I know the people commissioning the artwork, but my empathy muscle is strong enough I can usually put myself in my client’s shoes and try to imagine the relationship(s) they are honoring with this painting. This is the single most rewarding part of portrait painting and the feeling I hope I never lose.
These are the main lessons I’ve learned from portrait painting so far, specifically as it pertains to family portrait paintings. Dogs are somewhat of a different story, so I’m sure I’ll share those experiences in a future post! If you are interested in commissioning a portrait or your favorite human or pet, please email me and let’s discuss! Additionally, to keep with new artwork and specials, and get a free art print download, sign up for my newsletter. There will be exclusive offers for those that subscribe!