Portrait painting of any type can present a difficult challenge, but with guidance and a change in the way you look at the world, you can be on your way to creating realistic results.
Not every portrait painting needs to be realistic. The style you use depends on the meaning you wish to convey through your piece.
But, if you DO want to paint a realistic portrait, you'll first need to understand what the term "realism" means.
The term "realism" is a loaded term throughout the history of art and has had different interpretations based on the historical period and place.
During the Medieval period, the Church, the pre-eminent patron of the arts in the Western world, caused the production of iconography depicting and interpreting the traditional representations of God, the saints, and other subjects in art.
As Byzantine rose to power, and Arab art became more influential, Christian art experienced an iconoclasm that saw it shift from depictions of the miraculous and the sublime to more "realistic" depictions of religious figures to attract more people to the church when most people were illiterate and images were far more powerful.
Just before the 19th century, the most "realistic" paintings you could find often came in the form of History painting and High art. History painting, while depicting realistic-looking figures and objects, was defined more by its serious narrative or examples of actions with didactic overtones. High art on the other hand was more accessible and comprehensible to those with cultivated taste and focused more on aesthetics rather than utility.
Realism (also known as "Naturalism") as an art movement started in the 1840s in France, after the French Revolution. Rather than use realism as just an aesthetic choice, this movement sought to depict ordinary people doing ordinary things during everyday life. This movement had the controversial artists Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet as well as the less controversial Rosa Bonheur as its main proponents.
The turn of the 20th century and World War 1 saw another evolution of the term "realism" in art. This period saw the rise of several forms of realistic art such as Neue Sachlichkeit and magic realism from Germany, traditionalisme (France), regionalism from the USA, and the Euston Road School from Britain.
The latest versions of "realistic" art come in the forms of photorealism and hyperrealism which came about in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Photorealism seeks to reproduce a photograph as realistically as possible in another medium while hyperrealism, as an art movement, usually adds subtle pictorial elements to create an illusion of a reality that either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye.
After undergoing so many changes through the centuries, we arrive at the most modern interpretation of "realistic" art or realism:
"Realism in the arts is the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life."
For our purposes, let's understand "realism" simply as "drawing what you see" a.k.a observational drawing.
Knowing How to Observe
When told to observe and "draw what you see", most people simply look at a subject without knowing what they're looking for.
The thing is:
There's a difference between looking at a subject and observing it.
To look is to take in what you're seeing as a whole while to observe is to look more closely at the parts that make up the whole.
So, when observing a person in space, you need to not only see the person but also give yourself meaningful definitions of what you are seeing so you can better simulate them. Observing your subject while knowing exactly what you're looking for helps you create a more accurate representation as a result.
This is where the elements of art come in.
Elements of Art in Portraiture
The elements of art are the visual components that an artist uses in their artwork. In portraiture, these elements include the following:
As an element of art, color is made up of hues with three different properties: hue, value, and intensity or chroma. Hue is the color your eyes see (like red, blue, and yellow), value is the lightness or darkness of a color, and intensity is the strength or weakness of different colors.
If you’re working realistically, color's primary role is to depict local color, along with the shadows and highlights formed by the environment. So pay attention to the light your subject sits in.
If they’re outside, you'll want to stick to yellow tones as the sun reflects as such while the moon reflects more like blue light. Inside, some lights can typically appear blue, yellow, or white but sometimes can be affected by special bulbs, fabrics or other materials nearby. Take note of the surroundings before you start to be more successful in depicting what you see.
Form, as an element of art, refers to the way an object (be it a shape or physical configuration) occupies space or to the object's physical form as a whole.
Knowing how to use form in portrait painting lets you create general rules for proportions of the face (e.g. The space between both eyes should be equal to the width of one eye. The top of the ear should align with the brow) as well as adjusting based on each specific person you’re looking at.
Knowing how form changes helps make your painting look more realistic.
One way you can practice this is by taking a photo of yourself or someone facing multiple directions and marking some visual 'shorthand' for yourself to follow.
As an element of art, lines are marks from one point to another that help a viewer visualize movement, direction, and intention. They can also describe an object's outline and produce texture.
For realistic portraits, lines are helpful as a starting point to get your proportions and contours down before getting to your details. They can help indicate where form meets form, where colors contrast, and the 'outer edge' might be. In your final work, most of these lines won't appear as actual lines, as no one in real life has an 'outer edge', however these help explain the form to your brain as it moves forward with a painting.
Lines can be painted over and blurred on one side to create effective transitions between one element of art to the next.
Shape, as an element of art, is a 2-dimensional design made up of lines that define its structure. Shapes can be given a 3-dimensional appearance through the value of the color used in them.
Used in portraiture, knowing how to identify shapes doesn't just help you make an accurate sketch of your subject, they also make your painting more realistic once you fill them in with color.
For example, knowing the eye isn't just a circle but a sphere will help how you shade them, as well as the surrounding structures with more focus rather than guessing. If you can shade a basic sphere you can shade an eye. From there you can think of the nose as a pyramid, or the forehead as a cuboid, and find each section of the face more approachable.
As an element of art, space is the distance between and around (perspective) as well as the size difference between shapes and objects in relation to the foreground and background (proportion). Space can be positive (areas of the painting with a subject) or negative (areas of the painting without a subject).
To understand space in portrait painting is to know the relationships between several factors like size, color, value, detail, overlapping, and placement. Knowing how to use space effectively lets you better add depth and perspective to your work.
For realistic portraiture, you have to decide from the start how you’re going to utilize negative and positive space around your subject. If you want to make your subject feel small, depict more negative space and literally subjugate them inside the space of the painting. If you want to make someone appear larger than life, make their positive space take up more space.
For portraiture, this can feel like tipping away from 'realism' but paint what you see and use your eyes as though they were a camera framing your subject with the space around them.
Texture, as an element of art, is the quality of the work's surface created by the lines the artist makes. Surface texture in paintings is usually implied/purely visual. That said, it is possible to create a more tactile or real surface by using various acrylic gels and mediums with your acrylic paint.
For realistic results, make a note of all the textures you see. So for example, is someone's skin matte and dry or moisturized and dewy? Does the person show signs of age around the eyes and neck? Is their hair type 2a or 4b? Is the shirt they're wearing a loose cotton or a draping silk? What about a super fluffy knit?
How would you depict one over the other? One texture won't be created the same as the next, so be sure to visually indicate that difference by paying attention to each texture's reflectiveness, density, and movement.
As an element of art, value is the perceivable lightness of tones in an image. The difference in value is called "contrast" and can apply to any color. All colors have their own relative value that needs to be considered.
Human eyes are usually attracted to lighter points in an image, so knowing how to use contrast in portraiture lets you draw a viewer's eyes to a certain focal point in the painting.
For realistic results, value should be applied to all areas of your painting, including all the previous elements.
For colors, mixing in a range of values that capture the local color of the skin as well as the light and shadows that bounce around it.
For shape, knowing the way the shadow will wrap around an upper lip (as if a plane facing away from the sun) will help you better depict it.
Exercises for Identifying Elements of Art
Learning how to identify each element of art takes practice. If you're just starting to learn this skill, we recommend focusing on one at a time.
Knowing exactly which acrylic colors to use can be confusing since they often come with different names depending on the manufacturer.
To know what paints you’re going to need, pick a printed image of someone's face and punch out a range of colors from the mid tone, highlight and shadows and try to match the colors by mixing. This will help you understand how lighting affects the subject and how to move from one value to the next with confidence.
Speaking of value, the form of a subject has an inherent connection to its value. A good exercise is to look at a subject and delineate its value areas.
These include the subject's highlight, mid-tone, core shadow, reflected highlight, and cast shadow.
As beginners, we often start by just depicting lines, often resulting in misshapen results. Instead, here’s an exercise that lets you think of the line, form, and shape simultaneously to help you get used to multitasking multiple elements as you work.
Often when creating work, you'll work in 'passes' as each element reveals itself to you and sometimes you'll have to juggle a few at once. It will get easier to do this with practice.
Rather than start with the lines, try dividing your subject into its basic shapes. Once that's done, it'll be easier to identify and follow the contours and lines. Looking at a face, for example: Start by plotting out the simple shapes then slowly working your way to more complex shapes.
Texture has a close relationship with other elements of art (like color, value, shapes, and lines) as well as the direction of your pencil/brush strokes. As an exercise, pick 3 fabrics that are very different from each other and focus on rendering that based on what you've learned from color, value etc.
Note the way you need to change your technique for laying down marks to achieve each texture.
Out of all the elements of art, space may be the easiest to identify. As an exercise, Find your favorite film and pause on any frame with a character alone on the screen. Pay attention to how they are held in the space in the frame.
Are they small, at an angle, or really close to the camera? What do you think the director was trying to get the audience to feel and think when they set up this shot? Film is great for studying composition when it comes to space as one of the main elements is the camera’s positioning.
Once you have a firm understanding of each element, you can see where the overlap happens and should be able to think about multiple elements at once.
Now that you've learned to identify the elements of art in portraiture, it's time to delve deeper into the practice of portrait painting. Challenge yourself by trying the following exercises:
Draw Lots of People- Not Just One Person
Understanding the flexibility of the human form will help you understand where you may push or pull too far for unrealistic results. Sit down in a cafe and draw everyone who sits down. Go to a market on the other side of town and look at everyone.
Doing this is good for keeping your mind open to the diversity of humanity and familiarizing yourself with their features. Nothing is more beautiful than the next, it simply is. When painting realistically, let go of judgments and paint what you see.
Draw old people, draw fat people, draw children, and draw people of all skin colors. We are often bombarded with images of what is ‘normal’ and ‘desirable’ but if you want to have a better understanding of the way things like dark, wrinkled, and fat faces are depicted, you’re going to have to draw them. None of these things are undesirable, but alas we live in a society that marginalizes these groups.
Draw Quickhand - From Basic to Complex
Every object can be divided into basic shapes. Even the most complex silhouettes can be copied accurately onto your canvas if you draw simple shapes and then build complexity on top of it.
Simple forms like heads, torsos, and legs are easy to convert but this technique also works for hands and feet, both body parts being difficult to illustrate for many novice artists.
Change the Lighting - Try Different Angles
Not everyone is going to be lit as in a candle-lit cafe or at high noon. There are resources in books and online that show different lighting conditions and positions of the same face. Notice the way colored light looks on dark and pale skin.
Practice expressions - Smiles, Frowns, and Everything in Between
As with lighting, not everyone is going to have an unexpressive model face 24/7. Notice the way a smile can affect the eyes. Pay attention to what a muted temper looks like.
Study other works - Learn From Many Sources
Look at other works of art, especially in styles you want to emulate and use the knowledge you’ve learned to reconstruct how these artists thought about the different elements. In doing so you will find out what is important to you and what you want to emphasize.
Jan Van Eyck:
Leonardo Da Vinci:
Henry Ossawa Tanner: