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WIP - Large Figurative Portrait

edited May 2017 in Post Your Paintings
I have completed a sketch from life of a figurative portrait on a 24 x 24 canvas. Obviously, I am pushing the envelope hard. I have noticed that I sometimes can't judge the success of a composition from a photo, sketch, or even from life. As a result I have invested a lot of time painting several pieces that (when finished) I discover the composition was "off" and the painting was ruined. Has anyone else experienced this? Maybe I am looking at this wrong, but I really do not want to devote 100 + hours painting and have to put the completed piece in a drawer because I made an error in composition. So please look over this sketch and give me your feedback. What do you see as the pros/cons? On some level I think it works. To me it leads the viewer's eye around the canvas in a circular path; painting: flowers: cup: silver service: drape: figure: back to painting. However, I am apprehensive that I am missing a glaring error.  I welcome all comments and suggestions! Thanks, Tom



  • I believe this to be a good composition, strong composition. This will give you the confidence you are looking for.
  • edited May 2017
    It looks very good of a composition, looking forward too see its WIP!
  • I like the layout.  I am wondering about her legs and feet.  Have you double checked your drawing for that aspect of your composition?  They don't look quite right to me, but line drawings can be deceptive when the shadowing isn't present.
  • Yeah, I agree with @Forgiveness; it's got a good composition from where I'm sitting!

    You don't have anything jarring up the middle or the very corners, no real patterns or halos & your thirds have interest- go for it.
  • Good composition. check the bottom line on the big picture frame for perspective one of us is slightly off. I hope it's me. I think (not an expert view) it would be a better picture if she were not looking up at the painter/viewer but looking at the book or the tea service.
  • FlattyFlatty admin
    I say go for!! :-)
  • I think it's a good composition.. It seems well balanced and the eye is lead through the picture.
  • I agree with the comments above, it looks a good strong composition - get stuck in! 

    More generally, to build your confidence and to explore alternative solutions for a composition you can also stick your photo (or a photo of your drawing, making sure the photo is taken square on) into image manipulation software like photoshop or gimp and play around with the cropping/zooming, aspect ratio etc. You can also select and move individual elements around a bit, and you can also overlay compositional guideline grids like the rule of thirds or golden ratios if you find that sort of thing helpful. And then just fiddle around until you are happy. The graphite artist Mike Sibley has an online guide for the process that you might find useful ( You can also do the same sort of thing the olde fashioned way with a couple of printouts and a pair of scissors. Viewing your drawing upside down or on its side can also help identify points of conflict etc. 
  • dencaldencal -
    edited May 2017

    Looks OK. However, most of the visual focus elements are clustered on the left half of the painting.

    Much depends on the colour distribution to determine a visual balance.

    The table could be shifted to the right, but that would cover the pipe folds in the drapery. How about shifting the framed pictures to the right ?


  • Here's my 2 cents.. Maybe lower, or shrink the oval left of the picture frame. Play with the perspective of the picture frame maybe? I think it will be great.
  • Thanks to all who commented. In particular those of you who caught the odd perspective.  I know that it is unsettling but it actually looks like that in life, due to where I was sitting when I took the reference photo. I will go back over it and check the perspective on everything again. I also agree that it will be more interesting if we have her look away from the viewer, like down and away to her right. Ill redraw that. The legs and most of the clothing are a little out of focus, but I will tighten all that up with the first few brush strokes. Thanks for the encouragement, now lets get started !

  • Well, here we go. Darks going in first as the grey background. Light source is coming in from a window on the right (which cant be seen). I am going to change the flowers to red roses so their value will not jump out from the background. I usually paint smooth backgrounds, but this time I left the brush strokes in the paint. The photo is not blurry, it is just the pastel sketch lines creating that effect. Happy painting everyone!
  • Yay. A WIP.  Rename the thread so we know it's a WIP.  Looks very kool so far.
  • Very nice treatment for your background and the shadow under the picture frame cured the perspective for me.
  • One suggestion I have is that the square picture in the background competes fro attention. If i scroll up your photo so that about 1/3 to 2/3  of the painting is cut off, then it looks a bit more unified. Then the face of the figure is the main focus of the image, rather than the competing painting in the back ground . It's OK to have some elements in the image "go off the plane".
  • edited May 2017
    I like the composition and I think it will work even better when you get the painting nearer to completion.
  • fbraakam, I agree, cutting the large painting above the subject to about a 1/3 of its size does improve the focus and composition. But, that would require cutting and re-framing the canvas. This is exactly what I was talking about when I originally posted this thread. The best composition reveals itself as the painting progresses and the pre-stretched canvas is no longer the correct dimensions. I have a good mind to just buy a roll of canvas and cut the shape around the finished (best) composition. Very Frustrating!
  • There was once a western I saw, probably in the 70's after school or on Saturday, where a wise old native american is telling a white man that they lived in tepee's because there was power in a circle.  "There is no power in a square" he said.  Its funny what sticks with you, but I have never forgotten.  I have often wondered if that is why art teachers recommend rectangles.  So, you can resolve this with the overall cast of the the painting.  Notice that you have a gradation of shading from right to left.  You can deemphasize the squareness with those diagonal rectangular stratas of light.  You won't be able to see the benefit until the canvas is covered but i have seen portraits done that way.
  • Mike, so basically you are saying to keep the composition as is and manipulate the focus with values. So tone down the frame and what goes in the framed painting so it recedes and accomplishes the edit that fbraakman suggested, without cutting and re-framing the canvas? That is an intriguing idea, I will try that. Thanks!
  • edited May 2017
    You can also make the picture over the sofa a longer horizontal rectangle.  That will add to the illusion and add strength to the top third.  I was thinking maybe 2/3 of the sofa.  I am not sure about the oval.  I think I would remove it and darken that corner.  
  • I like it and think you should paint it as is.
  • Well, I took everyone's advice and rough sketched the painting, focusing on values and a little color exploration. This is pretty rough, but it will polish up as I progress. I am planning to do the big picture frame in gold, with the upper left of the frame a darker value than the right & lower portion. Any one have any ideas about what would make an interesting painting for inside the frame? 

  • monochrome bridge reflected in the river nothing to bright.
  • edited May 2017
    I think the painting in frame should reflect what your setting is ..who is she, what time period is she and where does she live? For example does she live on the coast ... picture frame could have a sailboat shells or seascape, or is she an asian woman so picture in frame be floral landscape or cherry blossoms, or just put an old masters painting in it lol... that just my thought on it probably not much help and honestly I thought it was just a mirror before you asked
  • A couple points about this piece.  I think the viewer's eye may be inadvertently drawn to the picture frame depending on what you do with the colors.
    Second the anatomy of the feet appears like it will be problematic. 
  • Awesome! Is this where you started to detail?
  • Yes. The facial portraiture has to be 99% complete, before adding the other components, since they will primarily be put in with impressionism (if I can restrain myself from doing too much detail work)
  • Incredible work at that size. Looking forward to the rest 
  • Great sense of realism from such small brushstrokes. I'd need a magnifying glass with my eyesight.
  • I have been spending a lot of time thinking about values and cool vs. warm colors. Basically 99% study and 1% putting paint on canvas. I have been focusing on the background values fading from a warm, sunlit light, to a cool darker shadow. I understand that Ivory black is considered a "warm black" but I'm not sure how to mix a "cool" black, or a cool color that would work well for these large cast shadows.
    I'm trying to stay away from putting in too much detail, so in some places I have actually painted out the detail that was there. I also switched from Titanium white to Warm white in places that are illuminated by the light coming in from the unseen window on the right of the scene. The lower 1/2 of the painting is still in rough draft stage. Suggestions ?

  • I like the way this is coming along. Really like the way the flower vase with flowers and the table and that whole section appears. That's a nice painting on the wall, however I believe there is too much detail, perhaps too bright and competing for center of attention. It may be just the clouds in it? I hope this helps.
  • @tgarney ;  I adore this composition!!!  wow.  I think you are making tremendous progress in a timely manner (I am referring to completion of composition and putting paint down) - this must be so exciting and fun to paint.  I love working with glazes for the issues that you mentioned but believe me,  there are professionals here who can give you advice to help with that.  I am enjoying see this unfold!  Thank you bringing us along on your journey.
  • This is a wonderful composition and I can see what you're saying and trying to accomplish. I can't advise you on the color choices but it looks like you're getting there. Just don't lose your patience. I agree with Forgiveness, maybe that seascape and frame could share more of the shadow that comes across the room or let the lighthouse be under an overcast sky. Good luck!
  • Thanks everyone! those are great suggestions. I do understand the reasoning for graying down the framed painting. But at the same time I really like the vibrancy of the blue sky. (For some reason the color combination really appeals to me.) I think I need to complete the whole painting, then I can look at the composition in total and make better decisions about which of the areas need to be muted. Thanks for all the encouragement! 
  • Wow, I wasn't too sure about your initial composition, but you have now sold it to me completely. I love your background painting-within-a-painting. Depending on how your overall values change as you complete the seat and drapery and table you may need to re-assess its brightness though, as you might end up with it pushing forward and competing with the foreground - but as you say you will able to easily judge that when you get the canvas covered. Can't wait to see the next iteration.
  • This is really coming along! 60/40 ultramarine blue and burnt umber make a wonderful neutral black from there you can cool it down with titanium white (which acts pretty much like blue) and more ultra marine. Or, if you want to keep to the red/violet side add some permanent alizarin crimson. Personally, I really appreciate the many colors that can be achieved in the darkest parts of a painting. It's translating those colors that really gives a sense of reality. Shadows are seldom black. Don't give up!
  • @tgarney I absolutely love that framed painting on the wall and completely agree with you to not adjust anything with it until all else is completed.  It is actually in an ideal position for a primary focal point should you choose to do so!  Wouldn't that be unique!
  • Thank you all for such nice compliments and good advice. I have been doing a lot of thinking and finally got around to actually painting. I focused on getting the figurative proportions drafted in correctly. The values are really rough and the hands are not right yet. But the figure drafting is pretty close. Also an analogous color scheme is beginning to emerge; Blue-green-yellow (appearing as gold and sunlight). I may have to extend the scheme to include red since there are roses in the flower arrangement. And of course all the shadows will have to be put in along with the foreground table and silver tea service. I am still surprised at how much thought and reflection has to go into a painting like this. No wonder Sargent took years to paint some of his best work.

  • edited July 2017
    I really appreciate your progress on this, and you have invested a lot of hard work into this. I also appreciate what you are learning in this piece. I think you will do well in this in the end, I like the direction you are taking. The composition is slowly making better sense as you progress, you are gaining more confidence. All of a sudden the painting on the wall is less of a distraction in the composition than previously shown, this is demonstrated by the details coming into the foreground.
  • I have made some final color choices. I am going to use gold/yellow, red, and white, instead of the blue. The dress is a values study at this point, I will work on making it look more gold. 
    As always I welcome your comments and feedback ) Happy painting all.

  • I think the new colors is an improvement and takes away the competitive nature of the framed painting.
  • Some artists have a plan. They draw, then mix paint, then paint what they planned. I obviously don't have that gene and merely stumble along until something happens. However, I do think I have stumbled closer to a composition that works. I am going to change the position of her right arm, finish the details of the gown, fix all the perspective issues I have created while working on existing areas and put in a blue/gray background (maybe). Onward !

  • I'll say it bluntly: You've painted the dress 4 times.  The flowers 5 times.  The cloth draped on the couch arm 3 times.  The table twice.  The hands and book have gone through several iterations, and you're not done with those yet.

    I'm concerned that you're repainting and repainting, instead of refining, and that suggests you'll never finish, and that your search for perfection will only frustrate you.  I recommend completing and moving on, for each of the separate elements of the painting.

    You have obvious skills, and every time you do this there are different parts I really like.  Currently I like the flowers and the lady's dress, I think the fabric folds are really well rendered.

    I hope you don't see this as negative.  I want you to complete the work, and feel satisfied.  You have the artist's curse, and I think you need to get past that.
  • Thanks Paul, that is great advice. I think this is the final iteration and I should have this completed shortly. The flowers are "done" as is the vase and the table its siting on. The photo looks a lot more completed than the actual painting. But, I promise no more postings until the final! )
  • the fabric is great, and the flowers. her left shoulder is off just a bit, i hope you don't stop posting, it is good to see the process.
  • Your "journey" was worthwhile, your flower changes and her face beguiles; your work in public will draw smiles.
  • @tgarney You've done a great job, well done.  It pleases me that people will get to see your work at the show.
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