View Full Version : The essence of a portrait

Matt Sammekull
04-21-2003, 07:18 AM
... lies not in the details. At least, that's what I'm trying to achieve. Today, I began working on a portrait in oils, after the great Anders Zorn. First of all, I did a really quick watercolor study of the subject. It took me ten minutes max! I didn't think of details, the nostrils, the iris and the pupils, the wrinkles or stuff like that. I tried to catch the light and the shapes, that's it.
I came up with this, and must say I like it.

I know, it has loads and loads of faults... but that really doesn't matter. The likeness it spot on, without the small things mentioned above.

So, it can be sooooo easy to paint a portrait, at the same time the most complicated subject there is.



04-21-2003, 07:36 AM
Lovely portrait. Love the light. Great thread.

What else can you tell us about portraits? I'm in the portrait exchange - am madly off in all directions about it. Any light you can shed on this subject would be greatly appreciated at this (or any other) time.

04-21-2003, 07:38 AM
Looks great Matt!!!!!!!!!!!! I love loose portraits!!! Did you draw anything with pencil or did you go straight in with the paint. When you do it in oil will you do it loose too???

04-21-2003, 07:48 AM
This is a very interesting face... will be great to see it done with details included...

04-21-2003, 07:58 AM
Beautifully done Matt! The hint of colour in his beard and mustache is a nice touch...

Matt Sammekull
04-21-2003, 08:16 AM
I did draw five or six lines with my pencil first, just getting the size and proportions right.

The version in oil is finished, and I did not add a lot of detail... just freshened it up a bit!

Thanks for your comments.

And funtocook, it's a huge field, - portraits... any specific questions you have I'd love to give you my feedback.

04-21-2003, 08:19 AM
Hi Matt,
Eyes. Let's talk eyes. How do you create great eyes?

Matt Sammekull
04-21-2003, 08:58 AM
what makes eyes recognizable? It ca,'t be all the details, cause when looking a a person from a distance, you can still tell who it is by looking at the his or her eyes. So, it must be the major shapes and colors right?
What then, are the major shapes? What forms and details are really necessary?
I just recently learned that the lashes, both upper and lower have to go. They can be hinted with a thicker eye-lid line, with some color in it. And next, the one million little wrinkles at the both corners of the eye... - bye bye to them as well. One well planned brushstroke at every side can do the job.

The most important lesson I learned so far though, would be values... I always used to dark of a color for the sockets, eyes and shadows. Nowadays, I always begin my portraits with the eyes. I decide on which color and value they should go in, usually a more red than black. The mix I use at 90% of my "eyes" are burnt umber and cad. red. For the iris I might add a little ultra.blue. The lids then... again, - a more red nuance than black. I use the same mixture as for the pupils, but less black or umber, and more red. Sometimes I even add raw sienna or yellow ocher. The mix should be more orange than brown. Then were you want to mark the lashes, add umber or black.

Of course, the light is very important, so I add white in the corners, (depending on where the light source is placed), the eye is a sphere so I add light at the side being hit by light. The eyebrows then... they can ruin a good portrait, when they look like two lines standing out from the rest of the face. I mark the part of the brow that's above the eye, close to the middle of the forehead. Then blend the same color used with the flesh tone to give just a hint of an eyebrow continuing to the side of the face.

One must remind oneself frequently, that the eye and the socket is a three-dimensional object, with its very own topography. Think think think... and plan plan plan!! Where does the eye stand out, where does it sink in?

Eyes means everything to a portrait, but no-matter how perfect you place your paint, the result will be poor unless you have the placement exact! So drawings might be necessary first. It is for me.

I have to go now to take care of my little son, but feel free to ask more questions, disagrre or agree, or anything you feel like!!!


04-21-2003, 09:05 AM
Hi Matt,
Thank you for sharing your insight about eyes. I think I understand what you are saying and will attempt your suggestion on my next portrait.

After you take care of your little one, would you take a moment to look at two of the six portraits I have done for the portrait exchange project I am learning in. One of them I think turned out okay, the other, well.... would love to hear how you might have handled these and any comments where you think they could be improved.

Again, thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it.

This one I think turned out okay:


This one was a struggle:


Little Old Lady
04-21-2003, 09:07 AM
Wonderful loose portrait.
Great advice.
Can we see the oil version?

Matt Sammekull
04-21-2003, 12:06 PM
Fun2: The first one looks really good! The level of contrast and intensity seem uniform, and that's important. I'm not only talking about the eyes now.

The second one however... The contrast seems to be way off! With a complexion almost white, the black eyebrows and lids really stand out. Now you might say "but the reference photo look just like that!". - Well maybe it does, but it could not be telling the truth. I would either lighten up the darks ot deepen the flesh tones, with more browns , reds and oranges..
The eyes on this one doesn't look natural to me. They have no shadows or light in their sockets, and looks like they are simply two cuts on a two dimensional surface. You managed so well in the first one, look for yourself and figure out what you did right. You must realize that you obviously have got the talent to do it right, it's just a question of doing right every time. I fail there as well. One so easily forget to "think".
While on her, (that's a funny way to start a sentence, and could be misinterpreted), the mouth: look at yourself in the mirror. Are the lips two objects that are placed on your face, or are they a part of you face. The lips are simply extensions of the areas surrounding them, with, again, a topography to make them separate from the rest of the face. Therefor, shadows give them a slightly different color. Of course, they will always carry a bit more red than flesh tone. But as with eyes, there should be no sharp edges in lips. Study the reflection in your mirror.

I should mention, that this is only my point of view, and not a procedure that always will work. It all depends on what finish you want, the lighting and so on.

Oh, and I'll post a picture of the oil-version as soon as I get a hold of a digital camera.

Have a nice week!


04-21-2003, 12:21 PM
Just got back from the mirror... yup, lips are an extention of the other muscles and skin on my face. Thanks for making me check. I'll go compare the two and try to add dimension to #2's eyes and some other things based on your comments and other comments.

Thank you Matt for taking the time that you've taken today for this critique ... I'm stashing your words away for future reference. I'll be thinking about it and trying to make it happen!

Looking forward to seeing your finished portrait.

Have a great week!

Matt Sammekull
04-22-2003, 04:03 AM
Hi. This is the oil version of the same study.



04-22-2003, 05:14 AM
Very good, I wish I could do this in a few minutes-----well done--------Alan

04-22-2003, 06:05 AM
Thanks for posting this Matt. I like it very much and can see your points you were making yesterday about portraits in it. You certainly get the image of the person but all those itty bitty details aren't there. Lovely. Lots of feeling in this piece
:clap: :clap: :clap:

Little Old Lady
04-22-2003, 07:56 AM
Tšk for showing us the oil (great work) and all the info on portrait painting.

04-22-2003, 08:38 AM
Matt, thanks for all the info... What an interesting thread!!:clap:

04-22-2003, 09:04 AM
the oil is very "Zornesk". the eyes are a little scary at this distance but backing up they look very good.

great study too, never got around to posting before.


04-22-2003, 12:56 PM
I like your studies here Matt, very interesting .

Matt Sammekull
04-22-2003, 05:47 PM
I just came to think of another important issue when deciding to paint a portrait, - the size!!!
One must find the right size to suit your technique. Some formats can handle details and some not. I practiced, and still do, to paint faces and portraits in every possible size, to come up with what suits me the best. For me, and my "finish", the size must never be larger, or as large as in real life. Somewhat smaller seems best for me. In that scale, my degree of details and brush technique fits well.


04-22-2003, 05:50 PM
Great tip about size!

btw - have you signed up for our watercolour portrait exchange yet?


Matt Sammekull
04-22-2003, 06:13 PM
Well.. no, not yet. I planned to though. But I guess that doesn't count.
I was planning to do one in oil, actually the one you picked also, you know, the first of the two you posted.

Maybe I'll find some time tomorrow.



04-22-2003, 06:14 PM