learning to paint faces

Two weeks ago in my art group we got a wild hair to try painting faces. As in not abstract at all. As in make it look like a real thing. Whole new territory for me. Scary, treacherous territory. Except it’s not, it turns out. It rocks.

Our lovely mistress of facilitation Serena set us right up with some books with photos and portraits to start practicing, and gave us some instruction about looking for the light areas and the dark areas and then just painting them. And you learn as you go, by copying painters who know how to paint faces. This is why I love Serena: she is all encouragement and relaxedness. Like “Oh yeah, faces. We can do that. Here’s how I learned, I just started with copying the masters, and I learned as I went. You can too, here, start like this and like this, yeah, wow yah you are getting it!”. Easy peasy. You just paint light where you see light and dark where you see dark. And then after you do that for about 1/2 hour, you hold it out in front of you and suddenly it looks like a face. A good face!

It’s so fun. And it heightens your awareness of people’s faces. I am now staring at faces all the time, seeing light and dark everywhere. Watching TV shows, I look at how peoples faces look in various positions – full on, turned to the side, etc. How the light falls. The lines of peoples eyes. I think mostly learning to paint faces is learning to really look at faces. Painting turns out to be all about noticing what is really there. Not what your brain generalizes, but the details that matter, that speak to the individuality of the subject. It’s fascinating.

And paint! So much more fun than drawing! It’s so fluid – you can paint over anything really quickly, even with a lighter color if it’s opaque. Not like drawing, where you can never really erase the damn mark and your paper is all smudged and ERGH. And with paint, you can have all these shades, not just gray and darker gray.

For the life of me I don’t know why in art class in 7th grade they made us do those stupid little squares with different values of gray. Why didn’t they hands us some paints and a photo and say “paint the lights light! paint the darks dark!” That would have been so much more enjoyable. Hello.

Well. So here are some faces I’ve painted so far. Starting with my first one, a study of Sibyl, by Michelangelo.


Here is one of me (left) and Emily (right) from a photograph I took last summer. I did Emily first, and then I painted myself in a few days later, in a completely different style, so it looks a little schizophrenic. But hey, I’m learning. =) I actually really like how my face turned out, it’s got this neat kind of stylized look to it. But uh, I’m not that orange in real life.

Me & Emily

And here is one I did yesterday and finished up today that was originally going to be an old woman, from this stock photo I have a large version of from their paper stock photo catalog. But as I got started it morphed and became this lion-maned man instead. (Sometimes it’s like that.)

Lion Man


  1. Emma, I love your enthusiasm and thanks for the kind words. I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to share the joy of painting faces!

    I still don’t know that values stuff, 🙂

  2. Emma

    Thanks for sharing your faces. I have spent many years in recovery from public school “art” classes so I can empathize. It is great to just do what you want to do and be creative without any boundaries. I would imagine this overlaps into your business as well and will stimulate creativity there. I really like the eyes and mouth in the lion man. It makes me wonder what he is thinking or feeling. Definitely something thoughtful going on in there.

    ps. Even when people give advice- I think it is more about them than you. Your sharing is just a catalyst. ( this isn’t advice ).

  3. Hi Kaya,

    Thanks! Yeah, it’s fun to paint people and then wonder what they are thinking. Especially because in this case it wasn’t entirely a copy, it was partly someone new. It’s like I created him. This must be what novelists feel when they create characters. It’s kind of fascinating. Who is this lion man? Where did he come from?

    Re: advice – yeah, I’ve debated whether to just take that off. I used to write more about my personal process on here – blog therapy if you will – and I found it aggravating when people would try to “help” me. I just wanted you to listen, blogosphere! Now I’ve realized that blogging is not really the venue I want to do that in LOL. =) So I’m less personally affronted even if people do offer advice.

Leave a Comment