Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Black Skin Tones on My Portrait Looks like Coal

Very dark skin such as African skin, Aborigine or Jamaican skin colours can challenge the artist who normally paints Caucasian skin in portraiture. This is because the colour ratios of pigments shift radically between pale skin and black skin. I took note of the colours I used and the ratios needed to capture the skin colours within a figure in Rossetti’s The Beloved (see picture). I found that extreme contrasts in tone and colours are needed. A diffident approach is not ideal, but an honest more daring approach.

The Colours Used for Black Skin

After Rossetti's The Beloved (Rachel Shirley)
How to Paint Black Skin Tones
The secret of painting a portrait of a black person is to dispel all assumptions about how a black person ‘should’ look and to treat the portrait as the first of its kind. Take an honest look at the colours on the skin and how it shifts from one area to another. When painting The Beloved, I noticed how the colour shifts between brow and chin, from warm browns to cool blues.

How to Paint African Skin Tones

Rather than paint straight onto a white painting surface, apply a neutral coloured underglaze first. In order to bring out the cool flesh tones, I applied a warm colour, in this case, red, after conducting the sketch.

Once I was happy with the sketch and the underglaze, I used the following oil colours for completing the painting: titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber, ultramarine, permanent rose, cadmium red and a little carmine red. This is not to discount other useful colours that could be used in African portraiture which might be pthalo blue, cadium yellow (pale) and viridian.

I learned from this painting that it is best to apply the palest colours first, which I divided into two: cool pale and warm pale. As can be seen, there is a great difference between the two. The cool colours consisted of ultramarine, permanent rose and a little burnt umber with varying amounts of white. The warm colours consisted of burnt sienna, cadmium red, a little ultramarine and white.

Black Skin Tones in Portraiture

I stood back from the painting to ensure the tones made sense with one another. I worked progressively darker, all the time using fine sables which consisted of no.3 and no.6 rounds. Don’t worry about detail at this point, such as the eyes, nostrils and lips; ensure the skin tones between are accurate first. I worked up to these areas, treating the areas between facial features as one single subject matter.

The darkest skin tones consisted of burnt umber, ultramarine, permanent rose and a little carmine red. I was careful the colour temperature remained cool around the jawline and chin.

With a clean soft sable, I blended the two areas of warm and cool tones, as well as pale and dark tones. I was careful not to pick up unwanted pigments from a neighbouring area, using a fresh sable if I did. It is never too late to make amendments to the skin tones, for instance if one area is too dark or too yellow. Standing back and viewing the portrait as a whole will ensure each tonal area sits against the other in a way that makes sense.

Shadows on Dark Skin Tones

The darkest areas consisted of burnt umber and ultramarine with a little permanent rose, almost to black. Incidentally, I never use black when painting dark skin. I reserve this colour only for the pupils of the eyes, which I will add almost last. Often, the colour of the whites of the eyes will have some relation with the neighbouring skin colour, which consisted of mostly white, a little burnt sienna and ultramarine. A little shadow can be seen beneath the eyelids, which will make the eyes appear to ‘belong’ with the rest of the face. Take extra care over the eyelids, rims and creases beneath the eyes, which often require a little burnt sienna and ultramarine via a no. 1 sable.

The Colour of Ethnic Skin

Don’t be tempted to oversmooth areas of tone, as this will make the face look flat. Describe form of the cheekbones and brow via shifts in tone and hue. This will suggest contours. Only once I was happy with the skin tones between the facial features will I paint in the lips, eyes, eyebrows, nostrils and hair. If feeling tired, now is a good time to take a break and add these features later. The techniques I used for painting skin are simply soft blending with the addition of a little linseed oil to help the paint flow.

The Colour of African Eyes

This portrait shows how even the darkest eyes will possess an element of hue, rather than just black. With a fine sable, I mixed burnt umber and a little ultramarine. It is OK to add a little black to darken the eyes further if necessary. I dabbed neat black for the pupils. Always stand back to ensure the eyes make sense tonally with the rest of the face, or they could appear ‘stuck on.’ This entails adding some shadows and blending around the eye area. The lips consisted of mostly carmine, ultramarine and a little burnt umber for the darkest areas. Take note of the pale highlight above the lips. Lastly, I pasted on the hair colour which consisted of burnt umber, ultramarine and a little carmine red. The ratios of these colours will shift slightly around various points.  A little blending around the hairline will ensure the hair does not appear stuck on.

Dark Ethnic Skin in Art

As can be seen, painting black skin requires contrasts in tone and hue. I never use flesh tint and black for portraiture but definite hues, which consist of an array of blues, crimsons and warm browns. Even black skin will exhibit pale highlights, but also deep darks. Careful blending between each area of colour will give the painting coherence. I used a selection of fine sable rounds and a little linseed oil for this oil painting.

The full demonstration on how to complete this painting can be found in my art instruction book Portrait Painting in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides now available on Kindle.

Articles on Painting Skin Tones and Portraiture

How to paint ethnic skin tones
Colours needed to paint black hair
Colours the artist cannot do without
Types of art brushes for oil painting
Troubleshooting guide for portrait painting Why do My Skin Tones Look Lifeless?

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Windows and Doors on my Street Painting Looks Wrong

An otherwise satisfactory painting of buildings within a village study or city scene could be ruined by poorly painted detail on the buildings, most often doors and windows. How can the artist depict such features on buildings without the headache of the angles looking wrong?

Painting Problems with Windows and Doors

How to Paint Buildings Rachel Shirley
The artist may go to great lengths over brickwork, roof tiles or gables, as well as the perspective of buildings in a painting. Sadly, the windows and doors do not convince, appearing as dark rectangles that lack depth or perspective. The following issues may cause windows and doors on a painting to draw the eye for the wrong reasons.

Treating windows as a separate entity to the building itself, resulting in an impression of windows that do not belong to the same space.

Viewing windows and doors as mere rectangular forms, using the same brush marks and colours throughout, creating a regimented arrangement without truth.

Making generalised assumptions about windows and doors, for example, all windows are darker than the surrounding wall; all doors appear rectangular in shape and similar in size. In the same vein, viewing windows and doors as 2-dimensional entities without depth.

Illustrating all windows and doors as though facing the viewer, regardless of the fact they are placed on a receding wall.

Taking on a draughtsman’s approach to drawing buildings, resulting in a painting that resembles a diagram rather than an actual scene.

Tips on Painting Detail on Buildings

In order to make improvements to a painting featuring windows and doors on buildings such as cottages and terraced houses, the artist must evaluate what is going wrong. This means eradicating all previous assumptions about how features on buildings appear to the viewer. The following may help.

Unless situated on a wall that faces the viewer, windows will appear narrower, shorter and closer together with distance. This squashed-up effect also applies to other features on a receding building, be it gables or chimneypots.

Windows have depth; some protrude from the wall such as bays, creating shadows over the brickwork. Conversley, doors can be recessed. This will create shadows with some highlights within.

Not all windows panes are muted in colour, but can be darker or paler than the surrounding wall. Seldom is much interior detail seen, except perhaps muted colours or curtains. A little interior detail may sometimes be perceived through lit windows in dusk. But otherwise, reflections or interior gloom will often obscure these views.

Windows and doors do not always appear equally spaced apart even if they are in reality. This is due to perspectives mentioned earlier. Consider also tithe cottages and churches which often exhibit unevenness in features that charm and create interesting focal points. Don’t be tempted to illustrate evenness if this is not apparent.

Tips on Painting Buildings

The following art tips might help when it comes to painting buildings.

Often, a mere few brushstrokes will suggest windows and doors. This means omitting outlines if these cannot be perceived under certain lighting conditions. Try not to get bogged down with the detail of each window. Paint all windows simultaneously rather than one by one, or the painting will become a chore.

Paint the surrounding brickwork/wall first. Work up to the window/door area, applying thinner paint here. This will minimise colour being picked up from the surrounding wall.

Observe how the colour or tone of the wall shifts around the window and/or door. Express such shifts honestly.

Paint the general appearance of the window prior to committing to detail. How do they compare tonally or chromatically against the surrounding wall? Do they look darker or warmer in hue? Stand back from the painting to get an overall feel of the windows and how they key into the building. Apply the same to doors.

Remember to express the receding edge of each window if these can be seen. Don’t treat them as 2D squarish objects plonked on walls. Each window will exhibit a receding edge according to how they are viewed.

Unless the window forms the main focal point of the painting or stylised, there is no need to express everything in a linear fashion, or it will appear overly-illustrative. Suggest each window with a few brushmarks and work on top for detail. Doing so will ensure the windows do not unintentionally hog the focal point from the painting.

Art Techniques for Painting Detail on Buildings

Look for imperfections in the window; cracked brickwork or windows with chipped paintwork. Such imperfections can be expressed with a few touches from a fine sable.

Paint the highlights and shadows on the windows and doors simultaneously. Observe how these elements key in to the rest of the building to make them appear to belong. Do all windows have highlights in common? Does a shadow encroach upon a neighbouring window? Don’t treat each window in isolation to the building.

Use a new colour mix for features on each separate wall, as one side of the building might be in shadow, the other in sunlight.

Art Techniques for Painting Buildings

Work the paint thinly initially with a soft, fine brush, viewing windows and doors not as a series of lines, but a series of colour/tonal shapes. Ensure the underdrawing is accurate, or the painting will not look right. Take pains to get the drawing right before laying on the paint. Never guesswork angles on windows or it will look unconvincing. Use good quality photos or drawings that inform on how the buildings’ features.

Apply the pale colours first, which might be reflections on the window from sunlight, or sun casting on window sills. Dab the colour lightly, working gradually darker. Dry brushing detail is great for bringing realism. Dry brushing entails stroking small amounts of neat, dryish paint over an existing glaze that has already dried. Working over a dried glaze is also ideal for correcting mistakes beneath. Such detail might be diamond leading, stained glass or hinges.

Ensure the windows and doors adhere to the rules of perspectives in that each appear narrower and closer together with distance. Standing back from the painting periodically will ensure mistakes previously invisible become apparent.

How to Paint Buildings with Detail

Poorly painted windows and doors can ruin an otherwise accomplished painting of buildings. Take pains to get the under-drawing right before committing to paint. This means working from good quality photos. The general rule is, windows and doors of similar dimensions will appear smaller, narrower and more squashed up with distance. Don’t get bogged down with irrelevant detail. Work on the general view of windows and doors rather than illustrating them in a linear fashion. Stand back from the painting to see how these features key in to the building. Paint all windows simultaneously rather than one by one. Last of all, look at the windows and doors to see how they actually look. This will guard against a building that appears childish and idealised in a painting.

 Articles on Landscape Painting and Others

The Fire in my Oil Painting Looks like a Red Ribbon

Painting fire presents challenges in what pigments and art techniques to use for its ethereal quality. In truth not all flames are merely red or yellow or appear solid. What are the best colours to capture a scene featuring a fire in art?

Problems with Painting Fire

The notion that fire is merely a bright colour can result in a childish depiction of flames in a painting. Bonfires, candlelight and a log fire will all appear different. The following painting practices can result in an unconvincing portrayal of fire.

How to Paint Fire Rachel Shirley
Reaching for any red or yellow colour to express the colour of flames, regardless of how it actually looks

Treating fire as a solid entity with opaque colours.

Giving harsh outlines to the fire, resulting in a cardboard cutout impression of fire
An insistence to make fire stand out within a daytime scene, even though the flames may not actually appear so bright in context, resulting in an overly garish impression of fire.
Using a red or orange colour that is actually darker in hue than the surrounding colours.

How to Paint Fire

Fire is not always red yellow or gold. Depending upon the nature of the fire, can be many colours. Consider the following when painting fire.

A lone candle flame will appear very different to a large bonfire. The former will often appear golden-yellow or burnished in hue; the latter a smouldering orange or crimson. The tones within will also shift in different ways.
Fire can often contain the most unlikely colours such as violet, blues, greens and even browns.
The size of the fire as well as the materials being burned will have an impact upon the appearance of the hues and the tonal shifts to be expressed. In other words, no one set of colours of art technique will fit every type of fire.

Tips on Painting Fire

Although nothing can replace honest observation, there are things the artist can do to avoid the pitfalls of painting fire, such as the following:

Remember to consider fire in context of its surrounding and lighting conditions. Because it is inherently bright, it will appear almost blinding in a darkened room, but almost indecipherable on a bright sunny day.

Fire will usually appear brightest at its core in that the lightest tones will be observed at its heart.

Flames are not merely attached to the object under combustion, but appear to hover slightly above it.

Fire will not exhibit harsh outlines, but ghostlike formations that appear to ‘fade’ abruptly on its outer reaches.

Cooler colours will often be apparent above or away from the heart of the flame, such as crimsons, blues or violets.

How to Photograph Fire

Fire can be a tricky subject matter to paint, rather like reflections or mist, which has little definite outlines and doesn’t adhere to the rules of solid objects. The following art techniques might help when painting fire.

As fire is constantly in flux, it might be best to work from photos. Take several to be sure of getting at least one good one. Try doing so in the dark, so the fire will be easier to see. Set the camera on fast setting to prevent blurring of the fire pictures. Take a light reading from the flame itself rather than the background or the fire will appear merely as a white smudge, revealing little of the detail within. Take separate light readings of the background if this is also vital to the painting. This means you will have 2 sets of photos: those of the fire and those of the background. The two can then be combined in the painting.

Art Techniques for Painting Fire

Rather than take photos of flames in isolation, place objects nearby to create some ambience. Objects with interesting contours will appear dramatic when placed near a candle in a darkened room. Examples might be a person’s face, a Roman bust or an ornament.

Use a similar colour palette on the candlelit object as for the flame itself. This will give the painting some coherence.

Bright colours on a white background will appear tarnished or dull, making it difficult to key in the tones of the flames. To counter this problem, apply a thin wash of a neutral colour over the art surface first, so that the bright colours will be immediately appreciated. Diluted acrylic paint will dry quicker. Such an underglaze is also known as an imprimatura and any colour can be used to set the mood.

Work on the background of the painting before the flames, working just up to (but not too close to) the outline of the flames. Working thinly around this area will prevent colour contamination when it comes to applying the bright, clean colours of the fire. Knit the two areas together with a clean soft brush once the dark colours and the bright colours have been applied. Use 2 separate art brushes for both tones to prevent continually cleaning the brushes to mix different colours.

Art Techniques for Painting Fire

Setting the scene for the fire is half the battle. A dramatically-lit object in a darkened room will help make the fire appear more convincing. Paint the shaded background area first and then the brightest colours last, which will be the highlights of the object and the flame itself. I use the following colours for painting fire (in order of prevalence): white, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow (pale) permanent rose, cadmium red, ultramarine, pthalo blue and burnt sienna. Useful others are: burnt umber, carmine red, alizarin crimson and viridian.

Observe the colour temperature of the fire (different to the actual temperature of the fire). A little cadmium yellow (pale) or burnt sienna will make the fire appear warm in hue. Adding a dab of crimson will cool the colour a little. Adding a little violet will cool it further, regardless of the tonality of the fire.

Look out for cooler colours on the outer reaches of the fire. Ultramarine, pthalo blue, permanent rose or burnt umber might be in order here.

Observe how the colour shifts in the fire. It might be white to cream-to-violet, with no orange to be seen, or it might be gold-to-blue.

Work the paint in the direction of the flames’ growth, i.e. upwards. Allow the paint to glide over the art surface to suggest the strands of the flames.

Oil Painting Techniques for Fire

Don’t end the colour abruptly. Blend a little of the flame colour into the background colour to reinforce the ghostly quality of the fire. Move a clean, dry brush upwards. If an unwanted colour stains the bristles use another clean brush.

Look at how the fire blends out into the background which might be different at various points of the fire. A smooth glow might be apparent in the centre, yet more defined structures can be seen on the outer reaches. Does the fire radiate straight upwards, or does it corkscrew?

Different elements and materials will generate different hues in the fire, some of which might be green, violet or bright blue.

Look out for sparks in the flame. Apply these last, dabbing the paint neat from a fine brush.

Fire in Art

Fire is not always easy to paint for its ghostly quality. Due to its constant flux, consider taking several photos to work from. Take light readings from both the flame and the background to garner 2 sets of photos that reveal elements of each. Applying a dark underglaze first will make adding a bright colour on top easier to key in tonally. Set the scene before painting the fire. Dispel idealised notions about fire such as it is always red or yellow. Some fires will display neither. Look at how the colours and the tones shift within. Move the paint in the direction of the flames’ growth and apply detail on the flames lastly in the painting. Remember to look at how the fire looks in context, as it will appear blinding in a darkened room, yet a similar tone to the surroundings within bright daylight.

Advice on Painting Bright Coloured Objects

How to paint gold
How to paint silver
Sunset painting demonstration
Anatomy of yellow