Part 3, project 2, exercise 2: Looking at faces – head and shoulder portrait

Updated on 10 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

11 August 2016. Although I had initially planned to do a self-portrait here, I decided that I would ask my husband again, sitting at the dinner table, with his head resting on his arms. I thought that in this way I would be able to avoid the changes in posture mentioned on p. 86 of the study guide (Open College of the Arts, 2011), also I love my husband’s profile and I could include some silent communication with an object placed on the table in front of him. Since this was going to be a highly arranged senario, I tested a number of varieties in my mind.

12 August 2016. In the end I came up with something, which has been on our minds all summer. We will not go on a holiday this year, because the medical expert reports for our son cost an absolute fortune. Until the hospital is prepared to take the responsibility for this sum there will be no holidays for us, at least not for some time to come. Also, we have had a piggy bank the shape of a cat sitting on a shelf in our kitchen ever since we started planning a trip to Hawaii a decade ago. So this was going to be the object on the dinner table, the two of them dreaming of a holiday together.

First I had a look at several profile portraits and had a closer look at two of them, which share the type of backlight I was thinking of for my own setup (coming from behind a curtain), one by Edgar Degas (“Study of a Girl’s Head”, oil on canvas, 1880) and the incredible self-portrait by Paul Gauguin, which he had painted on Tahiti in 1896. Then I drew an inkpen thumbnail image to identify the main tonal areas (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Sektchbook page preparing composition

After that I repeated the sketch with acrylics painted directly on an ochre background in my sketchbook, mixed from vermilion red, oriental blue, cadmium yellow and titanium white, the only colours I have so far of my new brilliant quality paint. The dreaming part was done with a lot of commitment on the part of my husband, since he managed to even fall asleep at one point :o) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Sketchbook – acrylics skecth testing setup

13 August 2016. For the actual painting I prepared the background (56 x 42 cm acrylic paper, with a strip on the right side to be removed after finishing the painting to give a square) with great care to give a believable impression of dim, warm light shining through a curtain. The third image in the following sequence was not quite dry when the photo was taken, so there is a difference between then and when I started painting on it. The later photos are closer to reality (warmer orange) (Fig. 3-5):

Figure 3. Preparing the support, stage 1
Figure 4. Preparing the support, stage 2
Figure 5. Preparing the support, stage 3

On this background, when dry, I painted in a style similar to my sketchbook image, but – being the proud owner of some Paynes grey now – paid a lot more attention to tonal details. The day was split up into several short sessions of about 20 minutes each to make the position bearable for my husband. The intermediate result shown below was quite successful with regard to the cat and my husband’s face, but leaves some work to be done on the left side, in particular on the arms, hair and T-shirt. The lighting conditions were deliberately dim again, which makes the accurate representation of skin tones a challenge, but I think that the arrangement is interesting to look at (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Intermediate stage

Here is a close-up of the cat (Fig. 7):

Figure 7. Detail at intermediate stage

I was not sure at that point whether I should cut off the white strip at all. It looked as if it belonged there and in reality there is a piece of wall in exactly that place, so I kept the option open for the moment. In the end I extended the table somewhat and left the strip intact.
Again it was immensely difficult to get a correct representation of the colours on the photo. The truth sits somewhere in the middle between the image above and the final one below (Fig. 8):

Figure 8. Finished painting

I am very happy with the result. The likeness is good (confirmed by my husband, who is very anxious in this respect) and I think that I did succeed in conveying the impression of an intense eye communication between the two and the mood associated with not being able to pack our suitcases. I also like the righthand side of the painting, glad to have extended the table in a rough manner and leaving the “wall” untouched (paper white).


Open College of the Arts (2011) Painting 1. The Practice of Painting. The Bridgeman Art Library, London, New York, Paris, p. 86.