Portrait Painting - 3. Looking Down
Artists & Illustrators|December 2020
In this series from Aine Divine, the watercolourist has been focusing on painting the head from unusual angles. She continues with a look at a foreshortened face
Aine Divine

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.

SETTING UP

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

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