A couple of weeks ago I was at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, marveling at the wonderful selection in their used book shop. Near the cash register, I discovered a book called How to Paint Skin Tones. I’d known portrait books existed, but it had never occurred to me that there might be an entire book devoted to the skin tone help I badly need. I skimmed the pages of color-mixing charts and other useful info, and saw that the book has sections for acrylic, oils, watercolor, and pastels. We were on our way to the Asian Art Museum so I didn’t have room for the book in my bag, but I jotted down the author and title and requested it from the library when I got home.
When the book arrived, I sat down with it immediately and found it was full of exercises and relevant suggestions. Because the book deals with so many different kinds of artistic media, not all the exercises make perfect sense for watercolor, but all in all, it’s an inspiration. I referred to its color charts while painting last week’s figures, and later, got prompted me to try something I’ve never done before: a free-flowing, dabby, freehand color study without any preliminary pencil sketching. I set up my mirror and got to work. It was a lengthy process, putting down colors and waiting for them to dry, but it was also exhilarating to approach a self-portrait in such a different way from my usual precision. I think the freedom I felt in the exercise comes through in the finished study.
I was happy with that study when I started, but by the end I was really annoyed by how narrow I’d made my nose, so I vowed to start again. The next day, I turned the paper over (hooray for beautiful thick Arches paper!) and made a second study on the reverse side. Somehow the proportions got really skewed on this one, but the skin tones were much closer to my actual skin color, and that was a first. But frankly, it’s unnerving to look at a painting that looks so much like me (it is my mouth, my nose, my jawline, maybe even my eyes) and yet is so distorted! It’s the fun house mirror effect, except that those always seem to be a bit fuzzy. This is the fun house mirror with clarity, and it freaks me out. So I decided I had to go back to the pencils and make a proper sketch to start out with, just for placement… and I’d do the sketch on a slanted surface this time, to minimize distortion.
Having decided to do it right this time, I took more time on this portrait, but tried to keep the loose, free feeling of the studies — and I continued the experimental attitude by choosing to do a smiling self-portrait, which I’d never done before. (Good thing no one was watching me but my own reflection; I must have looked crazy, flashing insta-happy-face at myself every time I needed to figure out what my cheeks or eyes do when I smile!) I ran into snags with a couple of colors by using them too strong (diluted colors dry lighter, so I was expecting them to do that, and they didn’t), and I wish I’d been able to get more subtlety and volume in the lips, but overall I’m very pleased with this effort. You can compare it to my previous two attempts to see the enormous difference in mastery over the medium and the color palette. Yay progress!
(PS. I couldn’t resist — I went into Photoshop and used my cruddy skills to move stuff around on that second color study, to see if it really would look more like me if the features were just placed differently. What do you think?)