My domestic has been working for me for 8 years. She is 30 years old, with 2 children and runs my household like a professional! Not only is Shela a pleasure to have around, with a great sense of humour and a work ethic that is second to none, she is also quite beautiful. She has been watching my foray into art during the last year with a lot of interest. About 2 months ago she was standing in the studio (read: a corner of the study that my husband allows me some space to paint) looking at my latest endeavour when she said: “Mammi, you must paint me a picture.” “What would you like me to paint for you, Shela?” I asked, thinking that she’ll ask for a nature scene or maybe a painting of the ocean. “Me!” she exclaimed with a bright smile.
Well, I jumped at the opportunity to do a portrait. In fact, that was exactly what I had planned for my next project and Shela was the perfect model. We arranged for her to come through the next day, all dressed up for a photoshoot, and shot pictures of her in the garden, in the lounge on the couch, standing at the front door. She was brilliant! We finally chose a picture from the garden with her staring wistfully into the distance, face at ¾ angle to the camera. The light was great and I thought the picture made her look regal.
I printed the photo on good quality paper and printed a black and white transparency as well. The canvas I used was 20 x 30 inches. I traced the picture onto the canvas with graphite using the transparency and overhead projector to ensure that the dimensions were correct. The next step was to get the first layer of paint on. I used a combination of Van Dyke Brown and Burnt Sienna to cover most of the face. At first I tried the Zelco brand, but the Burnt Sienna was too “runny” – almost watery – and it didn’t cover well. My teacher suggested the “Louvre” brand, which worked a lot better. During this layer, I focused on getting the light patches and dark shadows in so that the form of the face could take shape.
After this layer dried (which it did within in a week) I filled in the irises in Van Dyke Brown surrounded by a black ring in Lamp Black. I also put another layer of Burnt Sienna and Van Dyke Brown onto the skin so that the canvas was covered well. Then I started on the clothes. I wanted to have quite a contrast between the skin (having a smooth texture) and the clothes, which I did very roughly. I used the red and blue from the photo, but didn’t blend it in at all, trying to get a rough finish where the brushstrokes could still be seen. I used colours that didn’t necessarily show up in the photo, like orange, purple and green, to create interest. The shadows and highlights were quite pronounced. I was very happy with the outcome and it went quite quickly.
When this dried, I started on the background. A green would make a nice contrast and let the face stand out more. On second thought the green that I chose was a bit bright and started detracting from the portrait. Time to fix it later.
The next step was to focus on the details of the face. I ensured that the skin was blended smoothly and focused on getting the shape of the nose right. With the many layers I had painted over the nostrils and it was imperative to get them right. The details are what makes a person look unique – the way that we recognise someone. I used a combination of Burnt Sienna and Flesh together with Van Dyke Brown. I found that the eyes and irises were too large (if you’re unsure, take a picture and look at the picture on your phone or camera. It usually shows the mistakes easier). I painted the eyes smaller and ensured that the irises were the correct size. The white of the eyes were done with a light grey, and I put in the shadow created by the eye lid. The pronounced shadows on the eyelid, under the eyes and next to the mouth, were done in Lamp Black and blended with Burnt Sienna. The lips were quite dark with a glint of pink. I used Van Dyke Brown and Naphtol Red, Titanium White and Burnt Sienna to get the pink shade right. Sometimes I also used Flesh to lighten the tint. The lips had to be blended quite well with a couple of layers to get it just right. The teeth were done in light grey (never white!) and the gap between the front teeth is a tiny black line. The highlights on the teeth were done with white. The highlights on the skin was also done with white, but blended very well into the rest of the tone. Where the white was too pronounced, I used Burnt Sienna to blend it in. The eyelashes and brows were done in Lamp Black, but when the brows looked too pronounced, I used Burnt Sienna to soften it. Also, be careful of not making the lashes too big or it will look unnatural. I painted a pupil in the eyes although it’s not visible in the photograph, but sometimes, for the sake of reality, you have to paint what’s not there. I also included Burnt Sienna in the irises to ensure that the eyes don’t look dead. Lastly, I added highlights to the eyes and that really brought them to life.
Finally the mouth had to be finished. I took care to ensure that after the teeth were painted, the lines of the top- and bottom lips were painted over it. Otherwise it looks like the teeth are protruding from the mouth – not a pretty sight! The earring was done with Cadmium Yellow and grey with white to highlight the reflection. The background was re-done in a dirty green but still kept some of the light green from the first layer to give it depth and interest.
When I presented Shela with her portrait, she was stunned! Although I had shown her the progress (I was too excited to keep it to myself!) I don’t think she expected the finished portrait to be so beautiful. We will frame it with a simple wooden frame and she has assured me that it will have a place of honour in her house.