Pencils before Paint Brushes

J C Drawing To Painting

I am often asked in my portrait painting classes to outline my painting process. In my previous blog article ‘Know Your Sitter’ I outlined the importance of taking the time to get to know the person you are about to paint. So now, once you have done that, how do you proceed to paint the portrait?

 In my experience many beginners make the same mistake. They grab a canvas, get started on the under painting, rush, rush, rush and ignore the most important element of all – thinking time!

Stop, take a few steps back and leave the paintbrush and canvas alone and instead pick up a pencil and paper. One of the first things I do is to explore different compositional ideas. I may create many quick sketches and these are particularly important for a painting that is to be a ‘Life Story’, that is a painting that will incorporate important elements from a sitter’s life.

My sitter will obviously be dominant in the composition but what other elements should I include in the story? What is important to my sitter? How many personal elements should I include? What I decide to leave out can be just as important as what I decide to leave in. How do I want to lead my viewer around the painting? What are my primary and secondary interest points? The compositional sketches quickly tell me what works and what doesn’t, they show me quite clearly which ideas work the best and very often new ideas emerge in the process. I am finally left with an overall compositional sketch that I am happy with and I now have the size and aspect of the canvas that I need to buy. 

Whether I am painting a ‘Life Story’ portrait or a more traditional head and shoulders portrait in addition to the compositional sketches, the next stage is to do a drawing study of the face. This allows me to familiarize myself with the face, the key shapes, planes and shadows. In drawing my sitter however I also collect and crystallize my thoughts .This painting is about my sitter but what is my viewpoint? What do I think? What will his/her expression be? What emotion am I trying to convey? 

So the advantages of drawing studies are many but above all it will eliminate many mistakes that I might have made if I had gone straight onto the canvas. More thinking and less painting at this stage always makes for a better painting. So the message is clear - slow down and think things through. When you are ready, fight the temptation to pick up a paintbrush, pick up a pencil instead and the paintbrush will thank you for this in due course! 

Date Published:

February 08, 2017


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