The last several weeks, I’ve attended a local figure drawing/painting session in which there is only one pose for the full time. The last couple of times I’ve attended, I’ve done oil portraits.
The portrait from the first week was pretty awful. Last night’s was not exactly good, but not nearly as bad. Maybe I’ll post them when I have something a little better to compare them to.
This is the first work I’ve done with portraits or figures in about three years, so I am not surprised that some of my skills have gotten rusty. One skill that has improved, however, is mixing flesh tones. I remember, when I was taking figure painting classes, having a heck of a time getting flesh tones that looked even approximately convincing, even when I could take my time over a multi-session pose of 9 or 12 hours. The poses I’ve been working from lately are only 2.5 hours, but I now find paint mixing to be relatively straightforward.
Because these are pretty short poses, I have not worried too much about getting exactly the right hue, instead choosing to concentrate of value, chroma, and shape. I’m working with a very limited palette in which flesh tones are mixed from lead white, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and raw umber. (I’ve also used some black and some ultramarine for dark hair and background.) The flesh tones are basically convincing, however: others at the session have remarked on it and my wife, who remembers my previous struggles, has mentioned that these flesh tones seem better. I should note that, thus far, the subjects have been Caucasian, although I don’t think I would have any greater trouble painting folks of less pallor.
I’m not sure why this aspect of painting has become easier, except for all the practice I’ve put in mixing still life colors over the last couple of years. The very simple palette seems to help as well.
Now if I can just get the shape of the head down correctly in paint, I’ll be just fine.
7 May 2009: On further reflection, I think that one of the things I’ve learned over the last couple of years, even with a very limited palette, is much better control over chroma. Many artists mix overly intense skin tones. Most people’s skin is very low in chroma. Even when using relatively dull earth colors, you often need to cut the chroma of your mixes to get accurate color. For these portrait studies, I’ve been using raw umber for that purpose, as it’s chroma is very, very low.