What Is The Best Way Of Putting A Portrait Drawing On Canvas?

I received the following questions and although I’ve not produced a series of Portrait videos, I’d like to share this question with everyone and my answer.

Hi Darrell, I have purchased both you landscapes and floral videos and I love them both. I recently bought a video on techniques for painting portraits. The bad new is that no one, but no one is as clear and precise as you are, Darrell. The video starts out with the canvas already washed. My problem is this. Do I draw the image on before I wash the canvas, or after? Or do you go around the drawing, like you do in your floral video\’s? She talks about the entire canvas being covered, and yet the face is definately lighter than the wash she used on the background. (She was using burnt sienna). Then she said you can use any color, blue or green. I am almost sure you would\’t want that on the face area. Can you give me your impression of this? I know you are a busy man, but I value your opinion. Do you do portraits? ….Keep up the great work. Sheryl M.

Hi Sheryl, Thanks for the encouraging words. There are a lot of films out on the market to educate us in portraits. But as you’ve pointed out, they assume us students know something and they just kind of start there.

Here’s how I would transfer an image onto canvas…..

I first obtain a drawing. Most of us have a digital camera in which we can take a photo of our subject. Then I blow it up to life size using a photo editor on my computer. Once that’s done, I print it out.

Then using tracing paper, I will outline the person’s head. I’ll mark the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, chin, neck and generally 2-3″ of the top torso, maybe more. Any distinguishing marks or facial contours, scars, etc… I’ll put on the tracing paper. Once the tracing is completed, I’ll study my tracing against the photo and make any corrections I think are necessary.

For the canvas I will use a portrait smooth canvas. I’ll make sure it has a misty grey coating of gesso on it. This is critical. After the Gesso dries, I’ll use black graphite paper or transfer paper and trace the drawing onto the canvas. Then I will make another mixture of grey gesso that is about 1 or 2 shades darker than the misty grey canvas color. The objective is to get a light line color I can use as I form the initial facial features.

I’ll paint over the portrait tracing on the canvas with this 1 shade darker gesso using a #2 script liner until all of the graphite marks have been covered. Once the Gesso is thoroughly dry, I will coat the canvas with a thin coat of medium. Depending upon the type of background I want, I may wash the canvas with a coat of very thin paint. Or I’ll leave it alone until I’ve completed the portrait to a point I need to paint the background. Never keep the background until last. You want to be painting it along with the portrait as its an integral complement to the portrait.

For under-washing the portrait, it again depends upon who you’re painting and what you’re trying to do with the portrait. I’ll often paint the face with a thin coat of sap green, or a very thin coat of yellow ochre. I don’t recall using burnt sienna, unless the skin of the subject is quite dark or extremely tanned in color. But no matter your wash, its what you put on top that will really define your portrait.

Remember, painting a portrait is almost like drawing. You paint by drawing. It’s very different from landscapes or florals.


Hope this helps.


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