Tuesday, November 03, 2015

How to Paint an Outdoor Oil Portrait

Katie's Graduation - 30 x 24 oil on lilnen
Portraits in outdoor settings are a challenge to paint. Colors are affected by the light source (in this case the sun). The shapes of light and shadow are constantly morphing when outside, due to the movement of the sun and your subject. With the sun moving quickly, everything changes drastically within half an hour and it is difficult for a subject to hold an exact position as well. For this reason, having a subject pose from life for an entire portrait would be an extremely daunting task. Every day is different, even at the same time of day and, of course, different times of year would be completely different as well. In this case, a week after this young woman posed for me, the pretty purple tree in the upper right corner that we wanted to include was finished blooming, so it would not have been possible to include it even such a short time later.

Experience painting outdoors from life a lot really helps. Making quick decisions, locking in the shadows and painting fast is a habit you need to develop when painting en plein air, especially on a sunny day. I really love getting outdoors and trying to capture a scene from life just for the sake of learning something - the chances of painting something really wonderful are not high in this situation, but the experience is essential. It is a matter of discipline, putting in the hours to eventually achieve mastery - as Malcolm Gladwell said, we need 10,000 hours of practice to get there.

Another problem with outdoor portraits is the propensity of subjects to squint due to the strong light. Obviously you need to have the face in shadow, which destroys the 3-D effect we usually want to achieve. Rather than being about the features (as in a posed, indoor setup) the painting is more about light, atmosphere and color. In this case, catching my subject with a relaxed expression, her eyes wide open and in a pleasing pose with highlights placed in key compositional areas meant a lot of photos - I usually take hundreds in a single photo shoot.

To remember the light key, I usually do a painted study of the colors in the scene. This is not a detailed, finished painting but rather just color notes of light and shadow areas done on a canvas board or piece of canvas taped to a board. I keep this close by my computer monitor later on to refer to when I am questioning my color memory.

Photography is useful in getting the drawing right later on, since posing someone outdoors for hours won't work and I need to get a perfect, accurate likeness of my subject. I never paint from photographs any more as I find using a large computer screen is much closer to reality with a depth and accuracy of color that is second only to life and the bonus is that light never changes. I purchased a screen that can be rotated in order to have a vertical aspect to work from. When I am working on the head, I enlarge it to approximately life size, with my canvas right beside it - in this way I can simulate working from a live sitter.

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