Part 3

Project: Looking at Faces

Research: Point 1 Artists’ self portraits

All of these artists are looking straight at us, ie looking into a mirror in order to paint themselves. That is except for Fred Hatt who has the benefit of modern technology to video himself and display live on a monitor which he looks at instead (see below).

Claude Monet, Self portrait with beret, 1886, oil

Un-prepared canvas, his usual blurry brushstrokes, focus and detail all on face with shoulders and background roughly painted – doesn’t go right to edge, remember this! Wearing his artists beret and very much looks like he’s standing at his easel and looking in a mirror to do this. Serious, concentrated expression.

David Hockney, Self portrait with Red Braces, 2003

Made over 300 self portraits throughout his career and clearly showing a record of his aging. Drawings, paintings, alone, with others, pulling expressions…. This one is artist at work with his brush crossing the edge of the painting, Very effective simple blocks of colour with no variation in tone. Face just one tone with brush strokes in darker. Looking in a mirror at himself while painting flat on the table.

Fred Hatt, Self portrait, 2012

“In December 2012 I drew this portrait, with a camera set up to capture stages in the development of the picture. I pointed a video camera at myself and drew from the image on a monitor, to avoid the reversed face you get in a mirror and the frozen effect you can get from working from a photograph. The bluish colors you see under my eyebrows represent the cool glow of the computer monitor I could see on my face. ” (Fred Hatt, 2013)

Multicoloured line work on brown paper that is still visible. Red background pushes the face forward.

M C Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere and Artist, 1935

Artist uses the mirror (convex spherical surface) as the focus of this piece rather than the reflection itself. Careful study of how the surface distorts the image. Cannot see the artists work in the drawing however.

Pablo Picasso, Self portrait facing death, 1972, crayon on paper

Drawn about a year before his death and took several months to complete. The look of fear in his large staring eyes is prominent and the black lines are said to have got darker as he worked on the piece. All about feelings and expression rather than accurate representation. Tonal shading makes the face rounded with depth (the nose)

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912

Limited colour palette with red accent of leaves behind. Lots of visible brush strokes give it character and life, limited use of tones to show light/dark areas of skin, more just to show a mottled complexion.

Gustave Courbet, The Desperate man self portrait, 1845

Painted several self portraits in the early years to develop his own style. Very realistic. I wonder how he painted this composition in a time before photography and managed to get those staring eyes. Lots of tonal variation and use of bright light to create contrasts.


A Self Portrait for the New Year – DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt (2013) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Guest (2009) 9 Famous Painters & the Revealing Art of Self-Portraits. At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Gustave Courbet – Le Desespere, 1845 (s.d.) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Iconic Artists Who Have Immortalized Themselves Through Famous Self-Portraits (2017) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Pablo Picasso: Self-portrait Facing Death (1972) (s.d.) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Self portrait in red and gold dress – by Frida Kahlo (s.d.) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

The David Hockney Foundation: Self Portraits (s.d.) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait), 1843 – 1845 – Gustave Courbet – (s.d.) At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Exercise: Self Portrait

I’ve decided to give Oil Paints a go as several other students have said that they’re easier to use than acrylics and worth giving a go. I’ve bought Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colours along with a book ‘Oil Painting for Dummies’. Watched lots of YouTube videos also to find out the differences between regular Oils and Water mixable Oils:

Giddings, A.M. and Clifton, S.S. (2008) Oil Painting For Dummies. (s.l.): Wiley.

JerrysArtarama (2012) Prove It! Water Mixable Oils. At: (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

JerrysArtarama (2017) Artist Problems – Water Mixable Oil Mistakes. At: (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

PaintBasket (2016a) how to paint with water mixable oil paint part 2 wet in wet parrot animals techniques. At: (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

PaintBasket (2016b) how to paint with water soluble oil paint – introduction to water mixable oil paint. At: (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

Main points discovered:

  • They are still Oil Paints and all the same rules apply to these oils as to regular ones. The only difference is that brushes and hands can be washed with water instead of smelly solvent. (Also these oils can be mixed with a few drops of water instead of linseed oil in certain circumstances but see below)
  • Range of colours available is slightly less and there are cadmium hues rather than regular colours – this appears to be because they are less toxic but colours are just as good
  • Water mixable can be mixed with regular oils – you’ll just need to use solvent now to wash brushes etc, the mixing works fine
  • They take the same time to dry – the thicker they are applied the longer they take – maybe months or years!
  • Paper/boards need to be primed with a mix of Acrylic Paint and Gesso to help the oils stick
  • Water Mixable Oils can be thinned with either water or Water Soluble Linseed Oil
  • Fat Over Lean rule applies: successive layers of paint must contain more oil to avoid cracking. If completing a painting in one sitting (alla prima), then this doesn’t matter and use either water or oil to thin as desired. If working in layers then first layer thin with 1 drop oil and leave for few days/weeks, next layer must be thinned with 2 drops oil and left, third must be 3 etc

Very nervous about starting with Oils and procrastinated for several days but eventually decided that I just had to jump in! Set up an easel next to full length mirror so that I could glance sideways to see myself. Remember to keep my glasses lower down my nose than usual so that I can see both in mirror and close-up on canvas. Wearing hoodie and apron – it’s cold in this studio. Light coming from left side.

Canvas Board – Loxley, 16×12″, primed

This was after perhaps 2 hours, decided to stop there as it’s beginning to get tricky with paint muddying as extra added. I used a little water to thin this first layer. No Black in my pack of 10 tubes – a bit surprised by that but quickly discovered that French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber in roughly equal quantities mix to make Black. Skin tones are White mixed with Yellow Ochre and maybe a little Burnt Umber. Lip colour was tricky – added a little Cadmium Red Hue to skin colours but it’s a little too pink. Try adding Permanent Alizarin Crimson instead next time as that is more burgundy…

Took a step back – surprisingly not too bad. Eyes too large, especially the left one. Mouth not in line with nose. Are eyes too high up on my head? – remeasured and no they’re at about the right level it’s just that my head is angled down slightly and I have chins! Next day (so oils are still totally wet which is so odd after using acrylics) just touched up the left eye and moved mouth.

Better. Now put to one side for a week or so to dry – possibly do more to it later.

Clothing and hair were fairly straight forward, it was mixing the skin tones that I found really tricky. This was further hampered by it being oils so that it was near on impossible to correct a wrong tone – I’m not used to having to wait for days. I was mixing each tone as needed but this lead to a very messy palette with no order about it – I need to find a better method.

There is a fair likeness except that my skin tones are far too light and need to have a more red tint. Range and placement of tones is OK but not their colour. Two OCA student friends recognised that it was me but said I looked ill with such washed out grey skin!

Exercise: Head and shoulder portrait:

This isn’t easy, there’s only me and David at home and he’s always on the move. The only thing for it is to move my easel etc down to the sitting room and paint him while he watches TV in the evening. It’s dark outside the windows with the glass reflecting odd things. The furniture is also dark in colour. I ask David to change his dark grey hoodie for something lighter in colour – cream shirt and light grey jeans.

I’ve never painted in front of friends or family before and am quite nervous about his reaction.

SAA Acrylic Practice Paper, Satin Lined-Embossed Surface 330gsm – meant for acrylics but hopefully it’ll be ok. Taped down and primed with one layer of gesso – should it be white acrylic mixed with gesso? one or more layers? I don’t seem to be able to find the answer to this simple question! Paper curved a little after gesso so perhaps not ideal…

About one and a half hours. I’m tired now and he’s had enough of sitting still-ish. Realised that I’ve done more than Head and Shoulders – oh well. Beginning to get the tones in clothing. How do I paint a balding head with just some hair? Skin tones need to be a bit redder.. Good start but time to leave for a week or so before doing another layer.

Tuesday 3rd Dec met up with a couple of OCA painting students in Maiden Newton for a bit of critique and group help. I showed images of my 4 figure paintings so far. Very positive reaction and feeling greatly encouraged. They liked compositions and variations on techniques explored. Oils need practice with mixing skin tones (yes definitely!). Head and Shoulders portrait of David on sofa: don’t fiddle with clothing or background further, good as it is, work on head and skin with another layer.

Also discussed the disappointing news that units are being limited to 1 year maximum now – should be fine for me as I don’t work and aim for 10-11 months then a bit of a break, but impossible for working students. We hope OCA will survive this!

Pointers on using oils and skin tones:

  • try using a glaze as this brings Oils to life
  • This book was recommended by a tutor as great for colour mixing practice and has lots of practical exercises such as mixing skin tones actually on your hand. Basic Colour: A Practical Handbook: by Jane De Sausmarez – ordered 6/12 from Amazon
  • Mix a range of tones on palette before starting painting, right from the lightest to darkest (add appropriate oils/mediums now) – this way is a lot less fussy than mixing as you go. Yes my palette has been getting in a total muddle so I’ll give this a go
  • Get zinc white for mixing. Just as with acrylics, the titanium white isn’t the best for mixing so invest in zinc
  • more life poses on the Royal Academy website for free
  • investigate Liquin Fine and Liquin Gel – opinions vary but could be good for mixing
  • use the Fast Drying Medium – oils should be dry in about a week if not too thick

Head and Shoulders continued:

Base layer dry so re-working skin and leaving the rest as it is. After my self portrait I now know to focus on the skin tones more accurately and so this time I mixed Titanium White, Burnt Umber and Alizarin Crimson to get a much redder colour. I also started by mixing a range of 8 tones in order on my palette and labelling each clearly to make remixing next time easier – see mixing palette in sketchbook (also adding a few drops of Water Mixable Linseed Oil to each as 2nd layer).

Initially I used a small brush but quickly found that this wasn’t any good as it didn’t hold enough paint and there was no coverage. The tones are much closer now and I’m fairly happy with the head except for the nose! I tried wiping that area clean and redoing but I’m still not happy with it, especially the area under the nose, so will have to wait again for it to dry and try again…

5 days later…remixed tones for skin and redid the nose – shorter and rounder. Moved mouth up a bit and adjusted some of the too dark tones. Quite a bit better now although it’s not a very flattering likeness of the poor man.

Research Point 2: Portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere

Both the above use restricted palettes of black, white and earth colours with an emphasis on using tone to show atmosphere. The lack of a varied colourful palette infers a basic life without extravagances. Somber, hard working, faithful.

Picasso’s Blue Period lasted from 1900-1904  whilst he was in the depths of depression with no fixed studio space. They show the relative poverty and instability he experienced in the streets, with beggars, the old and frail and drunks. The blue colour gives the paintings a cold joyless feel of despair.

“German expressionism was an early twentieth century German art movement that emphasized the artist’s inner feelings or ideas over replicating reality, and was characterised by simplified shapes, bright colours and gestural marks or brushstrokes” ( Both paintings use blue, yellow and green (analogous=colours that lie adjacent to each other) which create a rich though calm feel.

“Fauvism is the name applied to the work produced by a group of artists (which included Henri Matisse and André Derain) from around 1905 to 1910, which is characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork ” (

Contemporary Fauve art – an even stronger, more vibrant use of colour than before with an amazing use of complementary colours that make the painting extra bright and full of vibrant life. Love these! Definitely a style I’d like to try – use of colour as the tones ie dark colours like purple v. light colours like yellow, also use of warm and cool colours. Have a go! ***


Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period (s.d.) At: (Accessed 09/12/2019).

Peasant Woman Cooking by a Fireplace | Vincent van Gogh | 1984.393 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (s.d.) At: (Accessed 08/12/2019).

Rembrandt’s Mother – The Leiden Collection (s.d.) At: (Accessed 08/12/2019).

Tate (s.d.) Fauvism – Art Term | Tate. At: (Accessed 09/12/2019a).

Tate (s.d.) German expressionism – Art Term | Tate. At: (Accessed 09/12/2019b).

The connection between German expressionist art an The Maltese Falcon (s.d.) At: (Accessed 08/12/2019).

Wikipedia contributors (2019a) André Derain. At: (Accessed 09/12/2019).

Wikipedia contributors (2019b) Picasso’s Blue Period. At: (Accessed 08/12/2019).

Exercise: Creating mood and atmosphere

For this exercise I want to use lots of colour to give a happy joyful and lively atmosphere – bold, in your face and fun. I don’t suppose that it will be true to life but rather give the feel of form within colour.

I’m going to keep going with oil paints and this time use a palette knife to apply the paint thickly (impasto) hoping that the texture will also add life and movement to the figure.

I started by sketching more life poses using The Royal Academy live website (see sketchbook):

The life-drawing class you can take from home | Blog | Royal Academy of Arts (s.d.) At: (Accessed 06/12/2019).

I decided to use this pose as there is a strong contrast between light and dark. The figure is in the process of jumping – a very lively shot with lots of movements to suit my chosen atmosphere.

Canvas Board, roughly A2 size, ready primed. Mixed a range of bold colours from light yellow through to dark red – I literally applied these by looking at the photo and, starting with the lightest, used the palette knife to apply that to the appropriate areas, then 2nd lightest and so on to the darkest.

I scraped 3 shades of green across the canvas for the background. When semi-dry, I added some blues and let them lightly blend. Blue/green is the complementary colour of red/orange and so therefore helps to create a vibrant image. Also applied more oils to the figure and studied exactly where the tones should be. Fairly happy with this – top elbow isn’t quite the right shape and that light patch in his stomach needs removing. There needs to be something to connect the figure and the background which currently seem to exist separately.

Brought the figures colours into the background in horizontal and vertical marks – lightest on the left where the light source comes from, and darker on the right. In this photo the central left area appears to have a glowing blue-ness which I really like – not in the painting though, just a trick of the light. I wonder if I can reproduce this…

I love the looseness and textures of the marks created by using a knife. It is not a likeness of the figure but rather a celebration of the strength, agility and movement.

If I were to do this again I would change the pose slightly so that his lower legs appeared to be the correct length – they appear too short in my painting. Both are bent backwards and away from us, hence foreshortened but my painting doesn’t convey this well.

Exercise: Conveying character

My daughter Katie is a perfect model for this task – she has one of those faces that really lights up a room when she’s happy but boy do you know it when she’s not! The photographer caught one of those moments at her wedding with them roaring with laughter.

SAA Artists Cotton Canvas, for oils and acrylics, 40x50cm . Using acrylics this time so that I can get this done in a day or two. Working with the canvas flat on the table rather than on an easel. Haven’t used canvas before but it’s primed and ready to go. Start with pencil outlines and watered down acrylic washes to get basic shapes.

The tones on the faces are all important to get the humour, as are the shape of the eyes.

I struggled a lot with the mouths and getting dark flesh tones that weren’t pink – eventually got them sort of ok and the Paynes Grey shading down the tongues helped. Yet again doing fine accurate lines defeated me and their glasses frames are weirdly shaped. I used a very light violet together with Titanium White for the lacy dresses and dabbed on the paint to leave a slightly textured finish – quite happy with the effect.

Skin tones are much better this time with acrylics rather than oils – I’m keeping it thin and it’s easy to blend and control.

Katie, on the right, is not too bad – could have got more of a sparkle into her eyes but she’s definitely laughing. Toni, on the left, isn’t quite there – her face is too wide, should be longer under the mouth, and her eyes are too low behind her glasses. Decided that I needed to adjust her a bit…

Changed the hair line which makes quite a difference. Can’t alter the placement of her eyes at this stage though.

I feel that although the likenesses are not quite there, I have managed to portray the humour with their facial expressions. I’m happy that I’m progressing with my colour mixing and that the skin tones are improving now.

Review of all my portraits:

Each one has been successful in their way and I’ve certainly learnt from each to move me forward. I started with sickly pale skin tones, moved to too pink before getting it right for the final piece. The first 3 were oils which I found a challenge technically as they need to be left to dry before more layers and corrections can be added. I enjoyed the speed that it was possible to complete the last one in acrylics a refreshing end to this section.

My personal favourite is the abstract figure in red tones. I love the vibrancy and life of this painting, and look forward to doing more in this style. The other true to life portraits are competent attempts but they highlight the errors to someone who knows the people portrayed. A lot more practice would be needed for me to feel competent with painting true to life portraits. If I get time I’d like to have a go at painting Katie (on the right) in the fauve style of Ivy Lang above – lots of vibrant complementary colours used for the tones…


2 thoughts on “Project: Looking at Faces

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