When painting the human head, looking down is one of my favourite angles. It feels to me as if a downturned head often has a pensive, inward-looking quality. It adds poignance and makes for a more satisfying painting as well as a better portrait.
Alisdair assumed this position on the couch, sitting bathed in northern afternoon light. His lifted arm rested on the back of the couch and created a dynamic, diagonal slant from right to left shoulder. As I was standing at the easel and his head was lowered, the downward angle was marked. My curiosity was engaged.
It is important to believe your eyes in these situations and paint what you see – not what you think you see. A clear, single source of natural light is helpful here as it causes us to really see the darker side as a single shape, rather than a combination of shadows. This also provides an easy way into the painting.
What a lovely afternoon I had, painting Alisdair. He’s an old friend by now and I have painted him more times than I can remember. Bearded and barefaced, his is a face as familiar to me as it is inspiring. He also has a gentle alert presence that I have come to love and am always keen to capture.
I hope you find the new angles covered in this series as exciting as I do. Painting them feels like unwrapping chocolates and discovering new and exciting flavours with each one.
Each new painting is an adventure. It is amazing how every time I show up at the blank page, there is a frisson of excitement and a question; will I be able to find this face here and now? There is a nervousness. Today is no different, so I rely on the old faithful half-closed eyes, and try to forget this is a face at all.
I always engage the same rituals before I begin a painting as I seek to steady myself at the easel, so I thought I’d talk you through them here.
As I am right-handed, I always like to look out from the left side of the easel. I keep brushes, water and paper towels on my right so that I can easily access them, and I like to move the paper across to the left edge of the easel too. I want no distractions as I move my eye back and forth between my paper and my subject’s face, no interruptions between the act of seeing and putting paint down. This also means the next move can be planned ahead as I lay down the previous one.
With everything arranged, I shake my limbs and my whole body really, a bit like a boxer entering the ring, limbering up for the physical act to follow. I glance occasionally at the subject, already trying to visualise the space that the head and shoulders will occupy on my blank page.
As I begin to paint, I will hold my palette in my left hand so that I can see the colours I am aiming for as I mix them. I steady myself at the easel and half close my eyes to better see the darks and lights, all the time remembering to breathe. I aim for a softness in the belly, knees and muscles of the face.
DEMONSTRATION Looking Down
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
This self-confessed “country artist” developed a cult following for her post-war paintings of everyday life. KATIE MCCABE revisits the inspirations behind her art
The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition winner talks to REBECCA BRADBURY about being a frustrated oil painter and working in his “man cave” garden studio
In the first of a three-part series on composing paintings, AL GURY begins by introducing a more responsive approach to landscapes with his 15-step guide to success
Shiny and see-through surfaces are a daunting challenge to replicate, so the Pastel Society’s LIZ BALKWILL has set an exercise that will help you simplify the process
Masters at work
Exploring the workspaces of Old Masters and modern artists is a great way to learn about their lives and their craft. We picked out 12 of the best that you can visit
Inspiring new artworks, straight off the easel
Wildlife artist JASON MORGAN has spent more than 20 years perfecting his technique for rendering animal fur. Discover his simple, three-stage approach with stunning results
Light and Shade
Finding variety in repeated forms is the key to creating interesting pictures.FABIO CEMBRANELLI shows you how with a gorgeous wisteria-covered doorway in France
A new studio has brought new challenges and big opportunities for this architectturned-artist as she scales up to make her largest and most ambitious paintings yet
Back to DEMO future
Short of inspiration during lockdown, MATT JEANES needed a new challenge. He turned to vintage photographs and tried to add some fresh colour to forgotten images of the past