Portrait of Tessa

A few times in the last 7 years I’ve asked for volunteers who might want their portrait painted. I don’t paint a lot of portraits because, as a perfectionist, I tend to drive myself crazy, often re-starting two or three times trying to get it “right”, and more often than not end up hating the result.

However, there’s a young woman I follow on Instagram who posts quite a few pictures and movies of herself, and many times I’ve been struck by the desire to paint her portrait. So finally, in a first for me, I asked her if she’d mind if I did so, and she told me to go ahead. I was just grateful she didn’t think I was trying to “chat her up”!

I decided to approach this as I used to do with still lifes in oil – start with a wet layer of mid-value paint (burnt umber) and then “wipe into it” to wipe away the light areas, and add darker paint to create the darks. However, as I was working with acrylics, this was something of an experiment to say the least!

I use Atelier Interactive Acrylics, so I can control the drying time quite well. To be sure they didn’t soak into the paper (Arches 300gsm Hot Press paper – also a first for me, normally I prefer CP/NOT)  I used a liberal coating of “Binder Medium” first. I think I’ve mentioned this before – it gives a lovely slippery surface to work on, just perfect for this technique. Actually, it was discovering what a slippery surface it is that gave me the idea to try this, but I had no idea it would be on a portrait!

I didn’t do any preliminary drawing, nor in fact did I draw during this painting at all – I just started wiping away or adding paint to sculpt the shapes, doing all the measuring “by eye”. After the first 90-minute session, I ended up with this:


The slightly unnerving stare is a result of the fact that I’ve painted the outer lines of the eyes, but not the inner!

In the second session I added the first pass of colour. My palette (as always, now), consists of White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Blue, Green and Burnt Umber. That is, primaries, secondaries, white and burnt umber. Here’s where I ended up;


I should add that in between each session I put on a coat of “Fast Medium / Fixer”, which is a marvellous way of preserving your progress and effectively giving you an “undo button” for anything you paint on top.

I was pretty happy at this point but could see some small proportion mistakes that needed to be addressed (primarily, the chin was far too square), so in the third session I pushed some more lights into it , fixed the proportions, and added some fairly wild highlights to the hair. I was actually a little concerned I’d gone too far with the hair, but when Tessa saw the picture she loved it, so perhaps not!

So here’s the final painting, coated with a lovely gloss varnish, which will be making its way to her soon;


I’d definitely count this one as a success – I didn’t drive myself crazy, didn’t restart it, and I’m pleased with the end result. Plus, as a proof of concept for using acrylics in this way, it’s a total success. I have no doubt I’ll use this technique again!

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