It's cold and snowy here and winter isn't quite over yet but I'm feeling optimistic now that we're nearing the end of February! I'm dreaming of those first warm breezes and the scent of fresh grass growing and walking through the plant nurseries and choosing some beautiful things to plant in the yard ... so ready!
But while spring is trying it's hardest to get here, I've been working away in the studio. I have several commissions in the works that I can't divulge yet but thought I'd post a little about how much I love painting a face. Or watercolor portraiture, in other words. I thought I'd run you through my steps by using an example of a recent portrait that I created of Margot Robbie as she appeared at the Oscars recently. I decided that instead of painting my favorite Oscar gown of the evening (I had a few favorites) I would paint the face that won my red carpet beauty award for pure Hollywood glamour. I also loved the glow of the famous vintage Zipper Necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels that she wore.
I usually work from photographs and, thankfully, when there is a runway involved, there are plenty of photos to use as reference. When I'm using a photo for reference, I start by looking at the photo and deciding what it is about the face (or gown, etc.) that I'd like to play up in my painting. In Margot's case, I decided I'd make her red lips a little more glossy and show a little more reflection in the eyes. Before I sketch, I draw a few light horizontal and vertical lines about an inch apart on her face. I don't draw a complete grid, but a few horizontal and vertical lines help in lining up features correctly when I begin to sketch. While constantly looking back and forth at the photo as I work, I begin to sketch the face. I make my pencil lines quite light when I'll be working in watercolor. In the sketch below, the lines were actually lightened even more than you see here, picking up most of the pencil with my kneaded eraser until the lines were barely visible before the painting began because once the paint goes on, there is no erasing.
I always start my portraits by painting in the first layers of skin tone. I paint on Arches Aquarelle Hot Pressed 140-lb. watercolor paper when I'm looking for a smooth texture. Sometimes I use Strathmore Cold Pressed 140-lb.watercolor paper when I want a little texture. I personally like to work with both hot and cold-pressed papers and use both often.
I most often use Windsor and Newton watercolors in the tube. As watercolor is mixed with water, it doesn't take a lot of paint. (I use the white plastic palettes with the indents that you buy at any art supply store to mix my colors in). In choosing the paints to mix for skin tones, there is no set recipe because everyone's face is different. If you add just a single color mixed with white it often feels as if the face doesn't have any life. That's because we all have undertones of color, sometimes golden colors to give a glow, sometimes pink undertones or blue undertones. Sounds complicated but it's actually fun. I like using transparent colors mixed with lots of water to create washes that are layered for my skin tones. Shadowed areas of the skin often look a little blue (or sometimes even purple) around the areas of the hairline where there is a shadow under hair not resting directly on the skin as well as in some areas around the eyes.. I love using blues added to the skin tone mix for these cool deeper shadowed areas. It's fun to experiment with shades to achieve the correct coolness and warmth in the mix. The biggest secret I can give is to really look at the face and it's shadows. How many colors do you see? You will need to mix those colors.
Margot's face is pretty pale so my first color mixture needed to be a light peachy wash. You can get this base tone by mixing in varying degrees (mixed with lots of water) cadmium red, cadmium yellow and end by adding a little cerulean blue. This is where you'll need to experiment by mixing and painting strips on a scrap watercolor paper with your mixtures until you have just the color you need. Don't be afraid, it takes practice and really is fun. Before you know it, you'll have the mixture that you love the most and will find you use it as your go-to mix for light skin tones. Once you have the light skin color you'd like, start with a light wash of the color on the face. Don't forget to be sure it's mixed with plenty of water so that it doesn't go on dry. Don't be afraid that it is wrong if it looks too light. You can always add more washes until you have the right shade for your skin tone.
Now look at the shaded areas of the face. Do you see a tan skin tone in those areas or a blue or violet tone or pink tone? I sometimes add a little burnt sienna or raw sienna or yellow ocre to my skin tone mix if I'm looking for a golden tan or a golden glow to certain areas. I add a little alizarin crimson, cadmium red or permanent rose to my mix when I need a little pink in the skin tone for the cheek area (I used a little alizarin crimson for the pink tone mixed with the skin tone for under her cheekbone and chin). I use a little cerulean blue or even ultramarine blue for deeper shadowed areas that may look a little deep grey to you on your photo. I love the effects that adding blues and reds to your skin tones can give to your skin tones. These tones are what bring your face to life.
For my illustration (shown in progress below), the shadowed areas of Margot's skin had a lot of pink in them so I added a little alizarin crimson and a tiny bit of burnt sienna to the mix for the shadows along the side of her face and cheekbone, as well as on her neck shaded areas. I added a little cerulean blue to the shadow mix for the area under the hair at the top of her face. If you've gotten your shading color too dark, you can lighten it by dipping your brush into water and dabbing it lightly on a paper towel and dabbing with a feather-light touch at your shaded area until some of the color lifts.
In the above photo of the painting of Margot in progress, you can see the shadows along the left of her face and on either side of her nose and on her neck at the base of her chin. Margot didn't have color eyeshadow on her eyelids. They just looked as if they were a pretty, natural, soft pink skin tone so I dipped my brush in the same color mix I used for the hollow of her cheekbone and ran it over her eyelid softly and just under the edge of her eye. I did this until I had achieved the right shade of color for each area, lifting or adding as needed. The line at her crease was created with this same color in a deeper tone. For her brows, I mixed a little of the raw sienna and burnt sienna into white with water until it was a very pale wash and washed over the brow color area before adding the detail of the single hairs. Once the brow color dried, I dipped a very fine-tipped watercolor brush into a deeper mix of the brow wash colors. I added a little more of each of the siennas and added a little burnt umber to knock down the red tones of the siennas. I didn't want dark eyebrows but wanted to see the definition of the eyebrow hairs. I touched my brush to dry paper towel before stroking each of these eyebrow hairs so that they looked soft.
I decided to leave a little space at the top of her upper lip and on the full part of her lower lip without watercolor to give her lips a glossy look. I used a mixture of alizarin crimson and permanent rose and white mixed with a little of the light skin tone mixture to keep it natural. After the first wash is on, I deepen the areas of the lip with another wash of the mixture at the underside of the upper lip and in the corners where the upper and lower lips meet. I also run a little of this deeper shade along her lower lip.
Whites of eyes are never just white. They have shadowed areas in each corner and often from the upper lashes. These shadowed areas can look grey or even a little blue or lavender. For this illustraiton, I mixed the tiniest bit of black and a tiny bit of cerulean with white for the shaded areas inner and outer areas of the whites of the eyes. This color lightly shades the white of the eye along the edges where it would be shadowed. I used a little of the pink alizarin skin tone mix for the little pink skin folds in the inner corners of her eyes and along the lower moist rim. Leave a little of this area in the inner corners with a touch of white showing to make them look moist.
For Margot's eye color, her iris color had a bit of a grey tone in the blue, so I mixed a little black and white in with ultramarine and water until I had the right color mix by testing it on my test sheet. The iris of the eyes are a light wash of this color with added washes in the upper portion of the iris where they would be slightly shadowed. I also run this deeper color along the outer edge of the iris. The pupil is a little black mixed with water. I looked closely at where her actual eyeliner began and lashes and painted them in with black watercolor with a very fine brush. Make sure you don't have too much paint when you do this so that it doesn't glop. I am constantly lightly touching a paper towel with my freshly watercolored brush for areas of detail before touching my piece of art. I kept adding more layers of the black until I had the right depth. I mentioned that I wanted to add more reflection to her eyes and I've done that with a tiny dot of white paint on her pupils (as that is where the light actually appeared in the photo) and added a glimmer of white along the base of her eyelid to give them a moist look.
For blonde hair, I use many colors, depending upon the shade of blonde. Blonde hair is never a solid yellow but a mixture of shades ranging from warm colors to very cool, the lightest being white. I encourage you to experiment with warm and cool colors for hair. You will notice that hair strands (groups of hairs) are not the same color from root to tip. They are usually darket at the root and shaded areas and lighter in highlighted areas. Some colors to play around with when mixing a light brown to use in shadows are a mixture of transluscent orange, aureolin yellow, scarlet red and a touch of phthalo blue. Pale washes of hair can be a mixture of the same colors in a lighter combination. Look at the shade you are trying to achieve, lay some of these colors on your palette and don't be afraid to mix. Look at the hair as if it's a jigsaw puzzle with dark, medium and light areas. I wet each strip that I'm going to paint with a little water before adding my color mix so that I will achieve a softer look and not look as if the hair is painted in strips.
Lastly, for the top of the gown, I simply used a wash of black, a think coat layered over skin tone for her shoulders and layers built up for the gown top. I created the shades of the gold on the zipper necklace first with shades of burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ocre and white in varying mixes for the lightest and the darkest areas of the gold. Then I went over it when it was shadowed with touchest of metallic gold paint to give it sheen. The diamonds along the edge o the necklace and tinier blue stones as well as the blue stones on the tassel were painted with watercolor in varying shades of color. Black, white, grey for the diamonds and varying shades of ultramarine blue (with a little black added or the deepest shadows) for the tassel.
That's it! I hope this was helpful to some of you ... I love painting faces! Have a beautiful remainder of the week!