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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Final Stage of Tessa Portrait: Form Painting

Details from color wash and form painting stages of Tessa portrait

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts detailing the process for a portrait of Tessa that I painted from life at The Ryder Studio earlier this year.  Here are the first three posts:
1. Overview
2. First stages: Thumbnail Sketch, Poster Study, Preparatory Drawing 
3. Intermediate stages: Stencil, Brush Drawing, and Color Wash 


Form painting is the final stage.  The values are usually a bit darker than the color wash.  Beginning with the darker areas and working toward the light, I complete one area at a time.  Paint is specifically mixed in progressions that turn each small form from dark to light.  

When form painting, I try to use the paint fairly opaquely and add just a touch of medium if the mixture feels stiff.  I mix on my palette with my brush, usually beginning with the darkest tone that I’ll need for the area I’m working on.  I place it on the canvas and make adjustments if necessary.  Then I mix the next lightest step in the progression next to and touching the first.  I place that on the canvas and make any adjustments, then continue on in the same way until I reach the lightest tone in that particular progression.  I usually lay in a base for the form in which I keep the very lightest values slightly darker than I want them to ultimately be.  Then I bring up those final values by brushing a lighter mixture into the underlying paint.


Completed color wash, before beginning form painting

I finished the color wash of Tessa on Wednesday of my 4th week.  I still had a little time before the end of the session, so I decided to begin the form painting the same way that I began the color wash: with the ear.


Ear anatomy terms

To get started, I carefully placed the darkest darks in the recessed concha and a few other areas bordering the ear.  I then treated my paint edges in preparation for the next day-- feathering some edges with a bit of solvent; and in other places, mixing an adjacent tone to begin the transition or progression into the neighboring areas.  Usually I try to resolve any edges as I go along, by painting a bit beyond them into the next area.  That way, at the end of each session, the area of form painting is integrated rather than stopping abruptly with hard edges.

Ear - Day 1

On Thursday I finished form-painting the ear and earrings.  I began the session by placing the darks in the furrow between the helix and anti-helix; then I connected those with the dark areas I had painted the day before, by painting the lighter anti-helix in between.  I continued on with the tragus, anti-tragus, and the lower part of the helix.

Ear - Day 2

I had been working around the earrings, and was now ready to pop them in—first the silver ball and then the faceted gem.  I used small creamy dabs of paint to create the reflections, adjusting the contrast as appropriate for each.  Next I laid in a base for the earlobe and then brushed in the light catching on each small sub-form.  Finally, I finished the top of the helix.  

Ear - End of day 2


On Friday I began with the shadow that runs along the jawline and casts onto the neck.  As I worked out to the underside of the chin, I shifted toward more intense coral-colored reflected light bouncing up from the chest and hoodie.  I also painted a bit of the blue background next to the chin and neck for color context and to fuse with the edges of the skin.

Beginning the jaw

As I moved up toward the underside of the near cheekbone, I noted that the forms under the cheekbone were catching a bit of diffuse light, but I was careful to keep the values in key so that they would not pop out too much.  I continued up the cheekbone and then the chin, turning the forms from shadow into the light. 

End of week 4


On Monday of my fifth and final week, I completed Tessa’s mouth.  I began with the chromatic darks in the vermilion zone of her upper lip (2), and then progressed up into the skin just past the vermilion border (3).  I then switched to the lower lip, placing the darker tones first (4) and and then turning up into the light (5).  Finally I dropped in the highlights on the lower lip (6).   Throughout the session, I tried to focus on how light washes across the larger underlying forms of the mouth area, rather than merely filling in a rose-colored lip-shaped outline. 

Mouth sequence


I started the nose on Tuesday: first the underside, cast shadow, nostril cavities, and septum; then working up to the light on the tip and the wings.  I also completed the philtrum (the vertical groove extending from the base of the nose to the cupid's bow of the upper lip) and finished the upper lip area.

Base of nose; upper lip


On Wednesday I began creating a nest for the eyes by painting the lower eyelids, and then I completed the cheeks.  When I’m painting a form from dark to light, I also think about painting up to the next dark downturn.  In this case, as I worked up from the underside of the cheekbone, before rolling all the way up to complete the lightest lights, I wanted to first (as Tony calls it) “corral” the lights by putting in the lower eyelids, which are not as light-facing and are therefore darker.  

Lower eyelid forms
Cheeks finished


On Thursday, I continued to make a nest for the eyes.  Getting the eyes to look right seems easier to me if I first paint the surrounding area for context, and then I can place them more accurately.  The next major downward-facing plane was the underside of the brow, so I began to work around the eyebrow forms and the glabella (the area connecting nose and forehead).  I also worked a little bit into the forehead and completed the bridge of the nose. 

Brows and glabella
Forehead, bridge of nose


We also had an evening session with Tessa on Thursday, and with only one more day left of the pose, I was eager to start on the eyes.  I already had the lower lids blocked in, so I began with her left upper eyelid.  These forms are very small, but getting them to curve convincingly around the eyeball requires careful attention to the shape and light distribution. 

Eyelashes won’t achieve optical realism if each is painted with a crisp black line.  Firstly, the lashes themselves vary in thickness and color from lash to lash, and each lash is usually thinner and lighter at its end than it is at its root.  They also tend to clump together in tapering and foreshortened shapes that curve to catch the light differently at each point.  Secondly, due to the resolution of our vision and the scattering of light, lashes visually soften and dissolve to varying degrees into the surrounding areas of shadow and light on the skin, iris, sclera (white of the eye), background, etc.  

Upper lid (Tessa's left eye)

The sclera is called the “white” of the eye, but is usually infused with a touch of the color of the skin, blood vessels, and ambient light.  It is part of a rounded form that drops in value as it receives less light. 

Tessa’s eyes are greenish, so for the iris I used a range of mixtures from bluish-gray to muted gold.  The border of the iris and sclera is soft rather than sharp.  This is due to several factors including the translucency of the sclera and, again, the resolution of vision and scattering of light. 

The highlight is placed on top of a base of slightly dimmer light, which creates a soft transition from the dark tones in the pupil and the shadow cast on the iris by the upper eyelid.  The shape of the highlight is curved as it maps to the form of the cornea.  In this pose it appears horizontally elongated.  The large bank of overhead fluorescents creates a roughly rectangular reflection, the top of which is truncated by the upper eyelid.

The rim of the lower eyelid is upturned toward the light, and is often close in value to the white of the eye but a touch pinker.

Completed left eye

I completed Tessa's left eye that evening, and Friday morning I approached her right eye in the same way.

Both eyes finished


After evaluating the painting and making some final adjustments, I quickly finished her forehead and hairline at the end of the session, and the portrait was done.

Portrait of Tessa, oil on linen, 6" x 6"

I hope you've enjoyed seeing the step-by-step process for my portrait of Tessa!


  1. Thank you Anna for this demonstration!
    Do you recommend a book to consult for color and paint mixing theories? I realize the relationship between value, hue and chroma comes through actual practice, but I am wondering if there is a good resource (in your opinion) to understand the fundamentals.

  2. Thank you for your comment!
    I haven't come across a book specifically on paint mixing that I would recommend, but I will share a few resources that I have found helpful. I also plan to post more about my approach to color in the future.

    1. The page about color mixing on The Ryder Studio website is a good overview of how Tony Ryder teaches his students to understand and mix color, and that is how I learned:

    2. Becoming familiar with the Munsell notation system can be helpful for understanding the concepts of hue, value and chroma. The New Munsell Student Color Set is a sort of textbook on color that includes color chips and exercises.

    3. There are some resources online like and that discuss hue, value and chroma in terms of painting.

    I hope that helps, and I'll be posting more about this soon. And yes, practice is key-- especially poster studies!


  3. That is an incredibly generous demonstration! We can't all train in an atelier, and working through this will give me weeks of practice and advancement! Thank you so, so much!

    1. You're welcome, Cheryl! I'm glad you found it helpful, and thanks so much for your comment!

  4. I am in agreement with Cheryl. Thank you again Anna for your generosity and for the clarity of your post. Also for the links regarding color. Tony's page is very informative as well! I feel some poster study practice in the near future! :) Cheers!

  5. Thanks very much for this outstanding and informative series of demonstrations, and also for linking to As it's a large site I'd like to take the liberty of especially suggesting this page on thinking of colour mixing in terms of hue-value-chroma space:

    I liked too many things about your demonstration to list, but among much else I was very pleased by your explanation of the importance of the poster study.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    David Briggs

  6. Thank you for sharing this, I will read it over and over .

  7. Thank you Anna
    I am learning Portraiture and this has been so helpful .
    Also I tend to put my lightest first and then work towards the darker areas in the lights --but I am going to try your method next time

  8. Beautifully done! Would you delve into the ever changing clothing, short of employing a mannequin

  9. Thanks, Anna, for sharing your method. (Also for mentioning Rational Painting...) I got a lot out of your demonstration.