Another round of family portraits

After posting the last round of family portraits, I skimmed my watercolor books for any advice about portraiture (there wasn’t much), then sat down by the window with my paints and a mirror, and attempted a superfast self-portrait study. The light was strong and dramatic, perfect for quickly capturing contrasting tones.

The sketch doesn’t look like me, of course (I was aiming for “human” rather than “specific human”), and my initial line of demarcation for the facial highlight came out too dark and also dried too early, resulting in a curious moustache-and-monocle effect. But it got me into a good frame of mind for painting my sister Sarah shortly after.

Self-portrait study

When I painted Erik and Allison, I had them sit in a particular spot in my room, but this time I had Sarah sit somewhere else, and as I worked I decided this new placement actually got better light. I was able to finish the pencil sketch surprisingly quickly, and after that I laid on layers of color as subtly as possible, generating a very soft, gentle look for the final portrait. Not exactly intentional, but not unintentional either — I’d thought my previous portraits came out a little too harsh, and was trying to mitigate that.

You can also see that I had a lot of areas of different tone in the hair, to begin with — shadows and highlights and all that — but then washed the whole thing with a darker brown in the end, because the pale colors were making her look too old. It’s tough, trying to draw black hair, and even just hair in general. One of the useful insights from my watercolor books was that there is a difference between detail and texture; in previous portraits the hair came out funny because I was trying to use detailed lines to give the sense of texture. I still don’t know how to depict texture, but at least I know now that detail isn’t the way to go.

Sarah portrait process animation

Fun comparison: here’s a quick marker sketch I did of Sarah, seven years ago.


Ultimately, this new portrait is not a bad likeness, and thankfully it’s less distorted than my previous portraits, though the facial proportions are still off. Her eyes are too far apart, her nose too long, and that’s just the stuff I’m able to see in the moment — give me a year and I’ll notice lots more issues. Sarah listened to my gripes as I painted, and told me not to be so critical of myself. Point taken, but… that’s also how I improve, by leaping ahead faster with my eyes and judgment than my hands and skill can follow.


A couple of days after doing Sarah’s portrait, I painted my mom. I set her up in the same well-lit spot, explained the process the same way I’d described it to everyone else, and then we got started. Unlike everyone else, however, Mommy chose to look at me instead of off into the distance. That is an interesting choice, and, I think, a telling one.

I learned when Masha and I painted each other that it feels rather awkward to look someone in the face when they’re drawing you. As an artist, I realize there is a big difference between looking at someone in a social sense — reading their expression, getting feedback on what you’ve just said or done, participating in an exchange — and studying them for the purpose of reproducing their likeness. But even so, when sitting for Masha, I found it difficult to act on this understanding (or rather, not act): I kept wanting to smile, or nod, or otherwise acknowledge the interaction. After a few minutes of this I simply averted my gaze, and when I painted my other family members, they likewise chose to look elsewhere than my face. But not my mother: she’s not deterred by awkwardness, confrontation, or convention! She said, “I want to look at you,” and did so. I found it alternately unnerving, deeply touching, and mildly annoying. She kept laughing. At one point my dad entered the room, smiling, and said, “I came in to see what’s making Mama so happy.” She replied (in Shanghainese), “It’s Lisa! So amusing. She looks exactly as she did when she was little. So focused.” The fact that my mother can watch me for two hours and be entertained makes me want simultaneously to bawl and to roll my eyes. That’s mothers and daughters, I guess.

Mommy portrait process animation

I tried some different things with this portrait, as I do with each new one. I spent a lot more time on the pencil sketch, and that resulted in a far greater degree of accuracy in the finished painting. I let the skin tones be a little more distinct from each other, trusting that by the end they wouldn’t just look like blobs of dark and light, and indeed they do all seem to come together in the final stages. I also left a lot more highlight in the hair, and I think that looks good, though it also works because Mommy does have a bit of grey; I still don’t know what to do with very dark black hair.

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by my family members’ resemblance to myself, but I constantly am. I don’t feel that I particularly look like my mother — I take after my dad’s side more — but in making her portrait, I saw a lot of myself. Of course this didn’t surprise Mommy, but on the other hand, she was surprised that her portrait looks so much like her father, my Gong-Gong.


I’m not sure I’d want to make a habit of doing full-face portraits. It’s very intimate (and portraits are already intimate), and also the finished composition is a little too evocative of a mug shot. Nevertheless, this is definitely my favorite portrait so far. It really looks like my mother — disconcertingly so — and this time I mean that in both the interpretive sense (her character) and photographically. In fact, we joked that we should send the portrait home with my youngest sister, to remind her to eat her vegetables and go to sleep on time!

We leave for Tampa in two days. I won’t get to paint my dad nor my brother-in-law Devin, but I’ll catch them next time (in my dad’s case, he refused to be painted; I hope to change his mind). We’ll be staying with dear friends, though, and perhaps they will sit for me. I am having a very good time doing these portraits and I want to do as many as possible!