Saturday, December 31, 2011

Portrait Painting in Oil Demonstration

Portrait Painting in Oil
Part 1 Drawing
By Brian MacNeil

A 2-part painting demonstration prepared by Brian MacNeil. This outlines the drawing stages students will follow in preparation to paint a portrait in Brian's oil painting class. This class is held Saturday afternoons at the Academy of Realist Art, Boston.

Part 1 - Stages of Portrait Drawing

Initial Block-in: Here you see the largest most general statement of the portrait. Brian is establishing the proportions of the head and neck and how they relate to the shoulders. He locates the boundaries of these elements using slightly bowed straight-line segments. He does this as if he were building a shipping crate out of wood. He encloses the object without using too many wooden planks. Although this stage seems loose and casual it isn’t.  Brian makes certain that these constraining lines are representing his sitter’s posture and proportions.

Feature Placement:  In this drawing you see Brian darkening in some of his lines to illustrate important elements of drawing a representational portrait.

1.     Central line to position the tilt of the head and place the features within the head width that was blocked out in the last stage.
2.     Horizontal placement of the features. This sitter’s features fit in with the normal proportions we expect to find: chin to bottom of nose = bottom of nose to brow-line = brow-line to hair-line = ½ of hair-line to top of the head
3.     Vertical placement of features. Using lines parallel to the central line Brian determines the width of mouth, nose and eyes making certain these fall where he sees them on the model. Taking a larger proportional check he sees that his “mouth width” measurement is a little less than equal to his original “brow to bottom of nose” proportion. He also notes that his “mouth width” measurement carries over again to the ear on our left. It’s important to compare small form measurements as well as large measurements.

Specific Form Description: In this stage Brian refines the forms by breaking them down into more descriptive shapes. He still uses straight-line segments but just uses more of them.  This is best understood if you think of a stop sign shape. It is basically describing a circle using 6 straight-line segments. If you further refine the circle you will have an octagonal shape. You could continue to break it down with more segments until making a perfect circle.  In the portrait there are no perfect circles. So he looks for where curved lines make the most drastic change of direction. In this stage Brian is also placing generalized shadow edges.

Shadow and Light Pattern: This is the completed articulated construct. Brian goes from a general indication of his shadow edge to a descriptive (articulated) edge where he is using his form shadows to describe the anatomy of the sitter. The shadow is shaded revealing the big shadow and light pattern. This is when the drawing looks most like a puzzle. We clearly see the shapes fitted together.

This completes the drawing that Brian will use for the painted portrait. The next blog post “Part 2” will show the process of making the painting.

A painting can only be as good as the drawing. No matter how the paint goes on the canvas if the drawing is inadequate the painting will be as well. This is why we stress draftsmanship at the Academy of Realist Art, Boston. Strong draftsmanship comes from a combination of knowledge, practice and instructed correction.  Brian will be teaching two classes on Saturdays: Portrait Drawing 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. a class where students will solidify their drawing knowledge and then practice these concepts and Portrait Painting 2 – 5 p.m. where a strong drawing will be used to make an oil painting. 


  1. Great detailed breakdown of the stages of portrait drawing!

  2. Portrait Painting

    A painting can only be as good as the drawing.Strong draftsmanship comes from a combination of knowledge.Nice post,thank you sharing..

  3. Well appreciated! this is very nice blog on the other hand I'm looking for the post of oil portrait nc. Thanks!