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Old 03-01-2009, 09:58 AM
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ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Lesson 4 - Backgrounds and Depth

Hi, my name is Don, and I welcome you to lesson 4 in our ongoing Portrait & Figure Fundamentals classroom! This month’s lesson should be our last one on portraits before we move on to “the figure!”

Remember, you can work at your own pace, so if you are just joining us for the first time, or still working on previous lessons, that’s fine! Here are links to lessons 1 through 3.

Lesson 1 started with eyes and noses and can be found here:


Lesson 2 covered mouths, ears and hair, and can be found here:


Lesson 3 was all about measuring, and can be found here:


Before we get to our main topics of this lesson, backgrounds and depth, let’s start with...


Portraiture is usually more simple and straightforward than any other type of composition in that it is fairly clear what your subject is, and the subject is often the only element in your composition! In today’s world of candid photos, phone-cameras, etc, we are used to pictures of people in the most varied compositions. So if you want to crop closely, or compose in a non-traditional manner, it’s perfectly OK. There are, however, some traditional guidelines that may be useful to all.

Make the head life size or as close to life size as possible, usually no less than 75% of the actual head size. Making the head larger than life size is usually not recommended. Obviously, this will depend on your paper size, but if your paper size is more than 16” x 12” (approx. 40 x 30 cm) then the head can be at least 75% of the actual size, or bigger.

Try not to place the head exactly in the middle of your paper (from top to bottom). There should be more space below than above, usually enough space below to put in some of the body. Theoretically, a portrait can be full body, but we will concentrate, for the most part, on portraits that include only some of the body.

It is always a good compositional suggestion to leave a comfortable amount of room for your subject to look into. If your subject is looking either right or left, make sure that the edge of their head or face is not too close to the edge of the painting. The painting on the left (oil by Sargent) seems much more balanced and comfortable than the painting on the right, where the head looks a bit too close to the right edge (oil by Cezanne), at least in my humble opinion, if not Cezanne’s!

Very traditional composition suggestions would be to place the chin no lower than the center of the canvas (from top to bottom, denoted by my yellow “X” below), provided the paper size was large enough. For portraits with a slight head turn only, the inside corner of the closer eye would be placed in the center of the paper (from side to side). If you are looking to do a traditional style portrait, these guidelines may be useful!

(Left, pastel by de la Tour; Right, pastel by Renoir)

One aspect of a painting that combines decisions in both composition and background, is how finished do you want the painting to be. Will it have the same degree of finish all the way to the edges, will you let some (or more) of the paper show through as you near the edges, or take it even further, to a deliberate unfinished look. Here are some examples of a more unfinished approach:

(Upper left: Monet, self-portrait in oil. It is always interesting to see a Monet that isn’t a landscape! He could have been a portrait painter, too! All the rest are pastels by Cassatt)


Every book on drawing and painting portraits or figures recommends that the background be painted in conjunction with the main subject. Background decisions on color and value need to be established early on. Color and value decisions of your subject will also be influenced by the values and colors of the subject’s surroundings. If you do your background at the end, it may alter the color and value relationships of your painting as a whole.

That being said – everyone who sometimes waits until the end to do the background, raise your hand!

I admit...my hand is raised!

As the teacher/host of the class, I will present the best information that I know, but I will freely admit that I have struggled with backgrounds my entire life! Hopefully, I will learn from this lesson, too!

Aside from the color and value relationships already mentioned, here are some other reasons not to wait until the end to do the background:

It is always a good practice to paint one edge into an adjacent edge – in other words, with some overlap. If you try to paint a background color or shape up next to another shape – hair, lets say – without some overlap, you will probably leave a gap, or an area of thinner, less solid pastel. It often looks like a “halo” around the head, which is to be avoided.

To blend or soften edges adjacent to the background, you need some background color to be in place - especially where hair and background overlap.

Any part of the sitter that is adjacent to the background should look like it is in front of the background. It is always easier to make something look like it is in front, by actually painting the pastel strokes on top.

After looking at many portraits, mainly from masters such as Sargent, Renoir, Cassatt, and van Gogh, I notice that their backgrounds are usually very simple. Perhaps in more recent times, backgrounds have become more complex, but I think many of us (including myself) have the belief that backgrounds are more complicated than they really are. Most backgrounds I looked at from pre-impressionist times, are very simple – often just one color, with little or no value gradations. Even the portraits of the impressionist era are still fairly simple. Perhaps we are over-thinking backgrounds in the present age.

If nothing else, backgrounds should not distract the viewer from the main subject.

In general terms backgrounds can be divided into a few categories:

a) Plain backgrounds

b) A few elements behind the sitter (curtains, paintings on the wall, windows, lamps, etc)

c) An outdoor scene behind the sitter

d) Some abstract shapes behind the sitter

Plain Backgrounds

Let’s look at plain backgrounds first. Again, in general terms, plain backgrounds can be light in value, a middle value, dark in value, or a gradation in value.

Examples from the masters:

Light backgrounds are good to show off mid value to dark hair, or to create a dramatic “silhouette” look with back-lighting. (Left, oil by Manet; Right, pastel by Renoir)

Mid value backgrounds are perhaps the most versatile, as they can serve as a reference between the darks and the lights - the lights being painted lighter than the background and the darks darker. In the above examples, the background is not only middle value, but also very low in color. A grayed background will make your colors seem more vibrant because of the contrast, so even low intensity colors will seem to be more colorful. (Left, oil by Renoir; Right, pastel by de la Tour)

(Top row, oils by Sargent) Dark backgrounds can create a sense of drama. Light areas can appear almost as if they are in a spotlight. The painting on the top right, especially, puts all the emphasis on the face. Dark backgrounds might not be your best choice if your sitter has dark hair, but as you can see, it can be done. But in each of these top two portraits, the hair is of minimal importance. If the sitter has dark hair that you want to show prominently, then a mid value or light background might be better choice.

(Bottom row, oils by Renoir) Of course, if the sitter does have lighter hair, a dark background will show it off well.

Here are some examples of backgrounds that have a value gradation. The gradation can be somewhat circular (left, oil by Hals), have the gradation moving from top to bottom (right, oil by Rembrandt)....

...or from side to side, (left, oil by Renoir). On the right (oil by Sargent), the gradation is more extreme, going from very dark to very light. The dark side uses the dark-light contrast to emphasize the light side of the face, but Sargent (I presume) did not want to lose the dark hair in a dark background – thus a gradation to a lighter value on the side with the darker hair. This type of extreme shift in value is hard to do, but can be quite effective.

Analogous or Complementary Color Backgrounds (warm/cool contrast)

In choosing the background color (or colors) for a plain background, or even one with some background elements, deciding whether to go with colors that are similar (analogous) to your sitter, or colors that are opposite on the color wheel (complementary) can make a big difference in the overall mood of your portrait. Flesh tones, and most hair colors are on the warm side of the color wheel (yellow-orange-red), so analogous colors would include similar warm colors. The complementary (or near complementary colors) would be the cool colors (green-blue-violet). The contrast of complementary colors creates a visual energy and makes colors appear to be more intense. Analogous colors are more harmonious and may create a more peaceful mood. Examples below:

The color wheel:

The top two (left, oil by Renoir; right, oil by van Gogh) have cool backgrounds that are complementary to the warm flesh tones of the face. I think the different mood that is created is obvious compared to the bottom two paintings (left, oil by Renoir; right, oil by van Gogh) where both the background and the sitter are painted primarily in warm analogous colors.

Last edited by DAK723 : 03-01-2009 at 10:14 AM.
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Old 03-01-2009, 10:13 AM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Let’s move on to portraits with...

Backgrounds with some elements behind the sitter

All four examples are oils by Renoir. The background elements have various amounts of detail, but in all four paintings the lightest values are on the subject, putting them somewhat in the spotlight. The backgrounds, in general, have less value contrast, more subdued color, and softer, blurrier edges. This helps keep them “in the background” in terms of emphasis and depth.

Some outdoor portraits:

Again, the backgrounds have minimal value contrast, more subdued color, and are blurred and kept out of focus so as not to attract attention away from the sitter. (Top, oils by Renoir; Bottom, oils by Renoir and Repin)

Please note that blurring or keeping the background out of focus, or subdued in terms of value or color intensity (whether indoors or outdoors) are tools to help you keep the emphasis on the sitter. Do not feel that these are rules that must be followed. You may want equal, or nearly equal, emphasis on the other elements in your portrait. Here are some indoor and outdoor examples:

The background elements are fairly detailed, though not as detailed as the sitter. But one wonders if the little table or the bridge (or river) have some connection to the sitter that made Renoir include them in these oil portraits.

Here are two very detailed Sargents:

One more comment on the amount of detail in the backgrounds of your portrait. As I looked through many portraits in the process of selecting those that I’ve chosen for this lesson, I noticed a general pattern. If there were background elements shown with any degree of detail, the amount of detail, and the degree it was in-focus, increased with the size of the portrait. Not the actual painting size, but how much of the person was painted. Closely cropped portraits – head and shoulders, or portraits from above the waist, rarely had any background detail. Portraits that extended to the waist or slightly beyond had more. Full, or nearly full body portraits, had the most background detail. Of course, there were still many examples of portraits of all types that had little, or no, detail in the background.

Backgrounds consisting of abstract shapes

I am by no means an art historian, but this type of background seems to be of more modern origin. I could not find any examples among the old masters! A modern master that I really like, although he, too, is an oil painter, is Pino. Pino’s works are also well represented on the internet, as he has many giclees of his work for sale, so I have copied a couple images from the internet for this lesson. These images are copyrighted, and are used for educational purposes only. Do not copy or reproduce, please!

Integrating the figure into the background

One last decision regarding backgrounds, is whether to, or how much to, integrate the figure into the background. Take another look at the background examples. Notice that some have a clear delineation between sitter and background. In others (both Pinos above, for example) there are places where the edges between sitter and background are minimal or non-existent. This type of edge is known as a lost edge. Lost edges can help unify the portrait, integrating the subject and the background. Other ways to integrate the sitter with the background include using similar colors, patterns, or similar visible pastel strokes in both areas. One thing to be aware of, however, is when integrating the sitter and the background; one is also dealing with the issue of depth – or the illusion of space between the sitter and the background.

Here are some examples of integrated backgrounds:

These two oil paintings (left, van Gogh; right, Renoir) are very integrated! They have similar colors, values, patterns and strokes in both the sitter and the background. Notice, however that the greater integration minimizes the apparent depth between sitter and background.

We’ve seen in our previous examples that a large value contrast will create depth between the sitter and background. Also using cooler colors in the background will help make it recede. Can one accomplish these goals of creating depth and still have some integration between the sitter and background?

(Top left, oil by Renoir) Many of the same colors (blues, yellows, browns) are used in both the sitter and the background creating a unity in the painting. (Top right, pastel by Cassatt) Notice the blues in the blouse and flesh tones of the sitter. Using background colors in the shadow areas of the sitter – both in the flesh tone shadows and the clothing, is often especially effective. Both examples have value contrast and warm/cool contrast creating depth.

Let’s compare those to the bottom two examples (left, oil by Renoir; right, oil by Cassatt). Essentially the exact same colors are used in the sitter and the background, creating a very integrated painting, but since the backgrounds are painted in warm colors and with less value contrast, the backgrounds read as being much closer.

These final examples use similar colors and soft and lost edges to integrate the sitter and background. Depth is still maintained by areas of high value contrast and warm/cool contrast.

(Left, oil by Sargent) Integration is achieved with similar colors (the jacket and background, and some nearly lost edges (numerous areas along the jacket edge). Depth is maintained by the strong value contrast between the light values of the face and head, and the dark background, as well as the warm flesh tones contrasting the cool dark violet background.

(Right, oil by Sargent) There are a few small lost edges – between neck and shoulder on her right, the left shoulder, between her hair and the shadow on the backdrop. Notice the green of the backdrop reflected on her dress. Color reflecting from the background onto the sitter is another effective way to integrate the two. Depth is maintained by the dark values of the backdrop behind the head and chair, as well as the cool green of the backdrop compared to the warm colors of flesh, gown, and chair.

Last edited by DAK723 : 03-01-2009 at 10:51 AM.
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Using Contrasts to create areas of emphasis, focal points and depth

In many of the paintings we have looked at in our discussion on backgrounds, the subject of emphasis or focus has already come up. We have seen that a greater contrast of values, the contrast of intense versus dull colors, the contrast of complementary (warm/cool) colors, and the contrast of sharp (or hard) edges versus soft edges all help focus the viewer’s attention to certain parts of the painting and/or make parts of the painting clearer. Let’s take a closer look at how some of these painters create areas of greater emphasis and focus using these techniques. I will also mention here, that these same techniques are used in creating depth in a painting, so the illusion of depth often goes hand-in-hand with creating areas of emphasis.

(Left, oil by Renoir) The lightest value in the painting is the front portion of the face; the darkest value is the background behind the face. This contrast makes the face the obvious focal point. Conversely, the value difference at the back of the head between the hair and the background is minimal, causing us to virtually ignore that area! Note too, that the edges of the nose, lips and chin are sharper than the edges of the hair, back of the neck, and blouse at the shoulder. The sharp edges draw more attention.
(Right, pastel by Benedetto Luti) This one is a bit more subtle. Notice that the greater contrast in values occurs on the face, and as we move away from the face the value range diminishes. The lightest values are only on the face and the darkest darks (for the most part) are on the face, also. Notice too, that the edges get softer as we move toward the edges of the painting. Compare the sharper edges around the eyes to the soft, out-of-focus look of the hair and the clothing.

Here we have some examples of paintings that create obvious areas of emphasis by having the most contrast of values, sharpest edges, and the most intense color in the face and head. In the bottom two examples, the softening or blurring of the edges is quite extreme – an almost unfinished look. (Clockwise from top left: oil by Renoir, pastel by Cassatt, oil by Renoir, oil by Sargent)

Does this mean one has to use these techniques to create an area of emphasis and to make other areas soft and out of focus? Once again, they are tools not rules! You always have the option of having the same (or close to the same) level of contrast, detail, hard and soft edges, etc. throughout the painting. Here are some examples:

(Left, oil by Hals; Right, oil by Sargent) The only rule for this type of painting is the subject of the portrait must be a man holding a cane!

Creating depth

Since the surface we are working on is flat, one of the tasks of the artist is creating, and manipulating, the amount of apparent depth in a painting. As we have seen, the amount of depth can vary greatly. It is not a requirement that a painting has the illusion of depth, but almost all paintings have some. As artists, if we want to create the illusion of depth, we need to use certain tools or techniques. Luckily, these are essentially the same techniques as already described in our discussion on contrasts! They are:

Sharp edges tend to come forward while soft edges recede.

Areas of higher value contrast often come forward, areas of low contrast recede.

Areas of intense color come forward, duller areas recede.

Warmer colors (yellows, oranges and reds) tend to come forward and their complements (or near-complements), the cooler colors (greens, blues and violets) recede.

Heads are egg shaped, for the most part, rounding continually all the way around. Some head shapes are more angular with more distinct planes, but the general shape still has depth. It is easy to forget this because many times the photographs we are using for reference are very flat in appearance.

Since heads are essentially egg shaped, let’s start there!

1) I’ve just started with a basic egg shape and shaded about half and put in a dark background. 2) Darkening the background further creates more depth between the egg and background, but makes the shadow value on the egg seem lighter. The greatest contrast is at the edges of the egg, so the egg itself is still quite flat. 3) Now I darken the shadow side of the egg some more. I use the darkest dark on the nearest (front) part of the egg to try to bring it closer to the viewer. Definitely more depth! 4) I soften the edges, add cooler colors to the sides of the egg, add a warmer, more intense reddish color to the closest part of the egg, and add cool violets and blues to the background.

For this demo I have used all the tools to create depth, but you don’t need to use them all. One or two tools might do the job! And you can use them in any order.

OK, now a head. I’ll do the exact same stages.

1) Shadow shapes added to a basic egg shaped head. 2) Darkened background. 3) Added the darkest darks to the nearest edge of the shadow shapes. 4) Softened edges, added cool colors to the sides of the head and background. Added warm color to the nearest edge of the shadow shapes. Again, you as the artist decide how far you want to take the illusion of depth, which techniques to use, and which order to apply them.

You might remember the hair demo from lesson 2. On the left, you will notice that the hairs in the center – those closest to you - have sharper edges, more value contrast, and more intense color than the hair on the sides of the head. The sides of the head, because they are receding from the viewer, have soft edges. On the right, I have replicated the hair, the only difference being the edges on the sides (and top) of the head are hard (sharp). The head, in my opinion, loses much of its roundness and depth. It still has some depth, because I have left untouched the sharper edges, greater value contrast and more intense color in the hair in the front, but the soft edges make a difference.

Above I’ve created two versions of the woman’s neck and chin. On the painting on the left, the chin, specifically the lower edge, has a soft edge. The neck, on the other hand, has sharper edges and more value contrast where it meets the dark shadow area of the hair. The sharper edge and greater value contrast bring that area forward and also place more emphasis on the neck than I want. This painting seems flatter – the chin and neck seem the same distance away. On the painting on the right, we have the reverse, a sharper edge and more value contrast on the chin, and softer edges and less contrast on the neck. This painting reads better to me. The sharper edge on the chin, and the greater value contrast, help bring the chin forward and the neck back.

Here’s another comparison:

In this case, the only difference between the two is the intensity of the pink colors. On the left, I have increased the intensity of the pink on the neck, making the neck come forward. On the right, I have increased the intensity of the pink on the chin and face (and hair), bringing them forward and placing more emphasis on them, rather than on the neck.

The manipulation of edges, value contrast, and intensity are important tools in creating depth and in placing emphasis in your painting.

The other tool that we have mentioned for creating depth is the use of warm and cool colors. I am admittedly less familiar with this technique, but luckily we have an expert in color theory as a member of our class. Charlie (Colorix) contributed a portion of Lesson 3 last month, and we are grateful that she returns in lesson 4 with a demo on warm and cool.

Thank you Don, it is I who am greatly honoured to be asked to contribute.

Let’s look again at the portrait by Luti. I was struck by the extraordinary sense of volume of the man’s head, and how the forehead (brow for Americans) turn planes so convincingly. (Another fantastic forehead is in the self-portrait by Harley Brown that is on the cover of his book “Eternal Truths for Every Artist”. Click this link: to see the cover at a large online bookstore, or enter the keywords in a search.) Luti has used all the tricks Don has taught us, plus one more trick – use of warm and cool colours to build form and to indicate distance. As warm colours (yellow, orange, red, including peaches and pinks) come forward, and cool colours (violet, blue, green) recede, they can be used to enhance volume and distance.

The eye-dropper samples I’ve taken from these two portraits by Luti show a delicate but definite change of colours between the left and right side of the faces. Samples are taken from corresponding areas, and I’ve paired them. As you see, Luti works in a very realistic manner, so his shifts in colour temperature are small. A beige is slightly more orange or rosy (warmer) closer to us, while it has slightly more blue (cooler) mixed into it to indicate distance. Clearly, just a little is quite enough. Another way of expressing the same is that at a distance the warm colours are grayed with greens, blues, and violets. The clearest samples are taken from the girl, where there are shadows under and to the right of her eyes. The closest eye gets a warm muted red, while the eye more far away gets a way lighter gray that is leaning towards a warm violet, which still is much cooler than the warm red.

Beware of using deep blues and blue violets in the shadow planes of a face. It very easily looks like they’ve gotten a blackened eye in a fight. The warmer red violets are usually sufficiently cool, and a much better choice.

To paint temperature shifts in pastel, you can go about it in two ways:

a) Choose two sticks that are very close in value, and close in colour (hue) but where one is cooler and one is warmer. Use the warmer stick for areas near you, and the cooler stick for areas further away.
b) Use one stick for ‘flesh colour’ in light, and another for ‘flesh colour’ in shadow, and push them warmer with peaches, and push them cooler with blues, by layering and/or blending.

In b), you’re not limited to the blues and peaches I mention as examples. You may find that a shadow looks best blended with a red-violet at the side of the nose, for example, and a green in the cheek-area, while a cool blue will help be perfect for cooling the shadow at the edge furthest away. Yellowy and pink tones may be the best for the lighted parts. People’s skin colour varies a lot, even if they seem identical. One dark blond person can have cool and pink undertones, while another have peachy and yellow tones.

When you have a reference or a model where the light is diffuse and coming from all directions, or is frontal (avoid this if you can), there will be very little or no actual shadows. You can still indicate volume by using a play of warm and cool, even if they are of the same value. Make all up-facing planes cooler, and all down-facing planes warmer, or vice versa, depending on the colour of the light. Here it is good to have made some observations of the anatomy of the face. Even an eyelid will have different planes. On the top of the curved upper lid, it’d be cooler, while the edge of the lid would be warmer (if visible under lashes). As the up-facing plane of the lid slopes towards the corners of the eyes, it will have subtle changes in colour temperature, going a hair warmer.

To illustrate use of warm and cool colours on something familiar to us, I digitally painted on Don’s hair-demo from before. Bear with my lack of digital skill with a mouse, as the hair looks stiff like a helmet; it is the use of colour that is the point. As you see, Don created volume beautifully, but it can be enhanced with colour choices.

The patches of colour in row A are taken horizontally across the head, starting from the left where the line indicates, going straight across to the right side. They are spaced wider apart in the middle, and closer to each other at both sides of the head. The brightest and the warmest are in the middle, and the coolest and grayest are on the sides.

Row B shows samples taken from the top of the head going vertically straight down. The bluest and grayest is at the top, which is also the part of the head that is most far away. Then the colours gradually warm up, with some reds both above and under the highlighted part. What is less obvious is that reds are layered under the highlights too. These deep reds help to turn the form. The fringe then turns back inwards just where then ends of the strands meet the forehead, so I chose a colour cooler than red, but not as cool as blue, namely a deep warm green.

Personally (there are opinions and debate on this), I let pure blue be the coolest colour, with green and violets as going towards warmer. Orange (peach) is the warmest, cooling towards pink (red + white) and yellow. A more saturated colour is warmer and comes forward more, as in red versus its cooler pink. But a saturated blue also comes forward more than a tinted one, but it does so to a lesser degree than the warm colours.

The actual values in the digital demo of the hair do not change much, as you see. It is the colour temperature that does the job, and it can be a very handy tool.

Thank you, Charlie! The knowledge of color (or colour!) temperature, and the ability to use it, is an important tool in the artist’s toolbox!

What if the greatest value contrast on your reference photo is between the neck and the hair, but you don’t want that area to stand out? Or what if the person has a bright red background behind them - won’t that warm red color come forward when we want the background to recede? Well, that’s where it gets difficult and you may have to make some artistic decisions! To create the illusion of depth, you may have to diminish contrast in some areas, increase it in others, and manipulate edges and the warm and cool components to create the desired result.

Let’s see how some of the masters did it:

These are all details from oil paintings by Sargent. (You can practically visualize the egg shape, can’t you!) In all 4 paintings, take a look at the value contrast between the light and shadow at the nose compared to the contrast at the ears, as well as the use of sharper edges (nose) and softer edges (ears). Top left: Notice the harder edge of the hair on the forehead compared to the hair at the top of the head and below the ear. Top right: Soft edges on the hair all around, so soft it disappears and becomes a lost edge. Bottom left and right: Notice the sharper edge (just a small area) and value contrast at the chin to help it come forward. The bottom two examples are also utilizing cool background colors, contrasting with the warmer flesh tones, to make the backgrounds recede. In both cases, the soft (or lost) edge of the far cheek blends into the background.

Two more examples: Details from two 18th century pastellists; Left, Anton Raphael Mengs, right, Maurice Quentin de la Tour. In both, notice the greatest contrast is at the nose. Notice how Mengs reduces the contrast where the jaw, side of the face, and neck meet the hair. De la tour’s painting has value contrast and hard edges at the nose and chin, softer edges at the shoulders, neck, and hair at the ear.

On the other hand, here are some exceptions where the artist ignored many of the tools for creating depth:

Top Left: Sargent’s painting has the most intense color on the headband – not exactly an element in the front of the face. He also has a very intense point of contrast on the top of the ear. Notice the back sleeve has lots of contrast and a sharp edge! And you know what – it’s one of my favorite paintings by Sargent.

Top Right: Manet’s painting has great contrast and sharp edges on the sides of the hat, the shawl and lots of other areas that are rounding away and receding. The value of the shadow side of the face is the same from bridge of nose through the ear, as well. So it looks pretty flat to me. Does it make it a bad painting? I don’t think so! It means (I presume) that depth was not one of the things Manet was concerned about in this painting. (And many other paintings, as it turns out. Manet became well known for using a flat technique.)

Bottom Left: Sargent self portrait. While Sargent has created a lot of contrast on the nose, there is also a fair amount of contrast between the ear and the background. So the ear is not set back as I have pointed out in many of the other examples. In fact, I found many paintings with that strong contrast between ear and background. I prefer using the various methods we’ve discussed to make that ear look further back, but it is obviously not a rule!

Bottom Right: Renoir’s oil painting is perhaps a forerunner of today’s glamour photography which uses zoom lenses, and lighting techniques (to minimize nose shadows), to create a flatter image. Here we see some of our depth creating techniques – the hair on the forehead, along with the eyes and brows, have sharp edges and the greatest contrast in the painting. But the rest of the face is quite flat and there is no depth to the nose. The yellow background is very close to the same color as the skin and seems to envelope the sitter.

As the artist, you decide where these tools for creating depth and emphasis are best utilized in your painting, which tools will serve your purpose, and the degree of depth that you desire. As we’ve seen, while it is important to know how to create depth, there is nothing wrong with creating paintings that appear flatter, if that is your goal. Nonetheless, learning to create depth is one of the basic fundamentals, and should be learned, in my opinion!

A note on edges

We have been discussing hard (sharp) and soft (blurry) edges, but clearly, the degree of softness can vary greatly. We have seen that harder edges help create areas of emphasis and bring edges forward. Soft edges can create the illusion of roundness and areas that recede. The manipulation of edges, however, can be one of the most difficult aspects of painting to put into practice.

For example, to depict a rounded chin, one might soften the edge. On the other hand, to help create depth and bring the chin forward, we might need to paint a harder edge! So it can be difficult to choose the degree of hardness or softness for many of your edges. Some painters suggest making all your edges relatively soft as you paint – then as you reach the final stages, harden the edges that will serve the purpose that you want, either to help create emphasis, depth or both. Other painters suggest the opposite, paint the edges relatively hard, and then soften certain edges in the final stages. You can, of course, harden and soften as you progress. Whatever method is the most comfortable for you is the one to use! Don’t get discouraged – manipulating edges is easier said than done. I have been painting for over 30 years and it is not until the past few years that I feel I have a reasonably good understanding of how to go about it!

Last edited by DAK723 : 03-01-2009 at 11:13 AM.
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Old 03-01-2009, 11:12 AM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Thumbnail sketches and using the computer as a tool

In portraiture, the background may have nothing to do with the actual background that is in your reference photo, or the location of your sitter. Clothing, too, can be changed, especially the color. Here is where thumbnail sketches, or using the computer, can be very helpful. It is always best to work out your color scheme and composition before beginning the final painting. In those rare occasions (!) when you might leave the background until the end, or want to change the background colors, then doing a quick thumbnail sketch or taking a photo and using the computer to try out options, is a great help in making your decisions.

Here is Francie, whose demo I did in lesson 2. She has no clothing or background. I can use the computer to try out all sorts of options! First I tried two different color schemes for her clothing – a complementary color, and a warm analogous color.

Then I tried many options for the background. It only took a few minutes for each one! Experiment – try colors or ideas you wouldn’t normally consider!

Getting a Likeness

We have had some discussion in the class regarding likeness, but for the most part I have tried not to put too much emphasis on it! This seems like an odd statement to make regarding portraiture, but while getting a likeness is important, it is also important for the artist to concentrate on the painting as a whole, and not sacrifice making quality decisions regarding composition, color, contrast, depth, etc.

And while I have been drawing and painting portraits on and off for over 30 years (yikes, where did the time go?), I have no secret formula to create a likeness. Sometimes you get the likeness, sometimes you don’t, regardless of how experienced you are. Hopefully, by using the techniques we have discussed in these 4 lessons, your chances of getting a likeness will greatly improve!

While, I have no secrets, I do have some ideas – and some questions - which might be the basis for further discussion, or contemplation!

While we place lots of emphasis on the features, we can recognize people from across the room, or even farther. This would seem to indicate that the largest shapes – the head shape, the hair shape, the largest value shapes, are of the greatest importance in creating a likeness.

In addition, most people’s features are very close to our “generic” model. If the proportions and measurements between the features are so similar for many people, then how important can getting the correct placement of the features be? Can it be that the most important aspect of the features and their placement is finding out when the measurements differ from the generic? In other words, are the unique aspects of the features the most important? A shorter forehead, or a longer chin, or eyes that are farther apart than the norm – are these unique measurements the most important to get correct? If so, can we exaggerate these unique proportions to place greater emphasis on them, sort of like a caricature, only more subtly? There are actually essays written on the exaggerated portrait – known as a super portrait – and why it is an effective technique.

If the unique features or proportions are more important, does this also include unique smaller details like dimples, a cleft chin, or the wrinkle pattern around the eyes? If so, doesn’t that contradict my earlier conclusion that it was the largest shapes that were the most important??

And what about the importance of the facial expression in capturing a likeness? After all, isn’t the expression a major part of depicting the personality of the sitter? I would answer, yes – the expression is very important! But while I may picture a certain expression as being representative of a person, maybe you would choose a different expression as the one that “describes” the person best!

Now do you see why I have avoided discussing likeness! There are more questions than answers!

My guess is that all these elements are important – and the most important aspect in achieving a likeness differs with each person. With some the head shape is the most important, with others – a unique feature, with others still, their expression might be the most important element.

All that being said – make sure you get the basic head shape and largest proportions correct!

Beyond the fundamentals!

Just some interesting facts and other information that you can contemplate on your road to becoming a portrait painter.

The balancing act between accuracy and flattery

Yes, there may be times when you need to balance accuracy and flattery. After all, if you are doing a portrait of someone, you want to present them in a flattering way. Minimizing the emphasis on wrinkles, scars or other unflattering marks might be necessary to find that balance. Sometimes it will be easy – sometimes it will impact the accuracy of the likeness. If you are doing a portrait of Uncle Frank, and the most recognizable feature of Uncle Frank is his really big nose, and you know that Uncle Frank is very sensitive about his nose – well, you get the idea! This is just another reason that portraits are difficult!

Translucency and the scattering effect of light on the skin

One thing that was quite apparent to me, and you probably noticed it, too, was when we are mapping our value shapes, there is almost never a clear delineation between light and shadow. Where shadow and light meet is almost always a smooth, subtle transition. Even though many portrait books depict the face as sharply defined planes, it just doesn’t seem that way to me. The transitions are smooth and subtle. This is because skin is translucent. The light is absorbed into the top layers of skin and scatters. This is known as subsurface scattering. Does this mean you have to blend all your flesh tones and create smooth transitions from light to dark? Nope! You can paint flesh any way you want! But you might want to observe this effect and take it into account.

Special thanks to the many websites that I copied these paintings from. Especially:

Olga’s Gallery, which asks that I post this:

Images from Olga's Gallery are made available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws. Users must, however, cite the source of the image as they would material from any printed work, and the citations should include the URL

A gallery with lots of paintings:

John Singer Sargent virtual gallery:

A Renoir gallery:

A Mary Cassatt gallery:

A Maurice Quentin de la Tour gallery. I was unfamiliar with de la Tour before I began this lesson and was very impressed by this 18th century pastellist.


No special exercises for this lesson. Feel free to do any of the exercises or experiments from our first 3 lessons. Feel free to do a whole bunch of thumbnails to work out background and composition ideas.

We have covered all the aspects of portraiture, so try some full portraits - backgrounds and all!

Try to do some experiments in creating depth and emphasis!

For the reference photos from our first lesson, click here:


For the reference photos from lesson 3, click here:


There is along tradition in art of copying from the masters so feel free to choose any of the portraits from this lesson (aside from the Pinos) to copy.

Post your thumbnails, sketches, experiments, and finished portraits in this thread! Also feel free to ask questions, and make your own observations!

Next class – we begin our lessons on ...the figure!
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Old 03-01-2009, 05:26 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Hi All

Wow Don, you have palled it off again, You have put together yet another great lesson with a mine of information with great references thank you so much for putting in the time for us we are learning heaps really

As i Paint I grow, as I draw I see
C&C always welcome
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Old 03-01-2009, 11:18 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

O BOY DON...Fantastic as usual. Kathy
Can never learn enough.....
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Old 03-01-2009, 11:25 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Wow what a great lesson and love the confessions on likeness, esp that some dont work no matter how experienced you are. Thanks Don!
Constructive critiques and comments welcome.
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Old 03-02-2009, 02:41 AM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Don - Great lesson!! What program did you use to change the backgrounds on Francie's portrait? Looks like something that may be really helpful.


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Old 03-02-2009, 12:27 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Thanks everybody! Lots of info here and I hope it is useful, not just to portait artists but everyone. Info on backgrounds, and emphasis and depth can be used in any type of painting. If anyone has questions, comments, or even disagreements, please let me know. I couldn't ask Renoir, Sargent or the others any questions, so all observations, interpretations and assumptions are mine!

And thanks to Charlie for her demo on color temperature. It adds so much to my basically tonal approach. It also shows that - even if you start out with a basically tonal or monochramatic underpainting - you can still make your final painting full of color!

Also thanks to Charlie for proofreading the document I sent her. She caught a number of glaring boo-boos! Unfortunately the document I sent her did not include the last few pages, or I wouldn't have written "There is along tradition..." when, of course, I wanted to write "There is a long tradition..." in the third to last paragraph of the last post!

Binkie, I think any of the popular photo-editing type softwares will work for simple manipulations like my background exxperiments. I was using Paint Shop Pro, which is very similar to the more popular Photoshop. I believe there are some free software downloads that people have been using - "Gimp" may be one. If anyone has some suggestions for free shareware, let us know!

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Old 03-02-2009, 02:13 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

I find I do better with goals, I don't know if it is fear of failure, or just having a clear direction and ways to measure that make them work so I've invented some goals for this lesson

I'm taking one master, Sargent, and studying him, and ever more limited I'm studying that family he did 12 portraits for over a long period, the Wertheimers. You can almost see he was trying to do something different with each one, not just repeat a formula. He was praised for some and dinged for others, but it is intriguing to see or imagine, his mind at work for different effects, and how he broke "rules" ie dark hair on a dark background

I found these on one of the links Don provided JSS virtual gallery, and the story of the family too, who used to set a place for Sargent at the dinner table everyday, so he could just pop in if he liked when in London. The story of this art dealer Jewish family is revealing of the times and prejudices of the era.

My plan is to so a cursory sketch of the person and a detailed attempt of the bg, limiting myself to the area head to waist. They will be small 8x10 and I'm going to try to do 4 a week, or about one every other day.
Constructive critiques and comments welcome.
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Old 03-02-2009, 02:29 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Don, this is an awsome lesson, in an awsome series of lessons. Thank you again for doing it all, it is a *huge* amount of work, but I bet it was fun to do too!

I hope this one will hang around for a good while, as I really want to participate and get more of your wonderful tuition. There just aren't enough days in March for me this year, but I hope to squeeze in at least one.


Charlie's Site/Blog
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Old 03-02-2009, 09:07 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

I tried to incorporate several of the principles in the lesson: using cool colors to recede; making the background a more neutral color so that it doesn't compete with the face; repeating some of the background colors in the portrait; I had more of the "lost edges" when I was working on it, but they sort of found themselves before I was finished. I like the effect of the lost edges, though, so I think I'll try that next time. I used Velour paper which I've never used before, interesting surface, kind of suedey.

C & C welcome!

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Old 03-02-2009, 09:55 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Originally Posted by winecountry
I find I do better with goals, I don't know if it is fear of failure, or just having a clear direction and ways to measure that make them work so I've invented some goals for this lesson

I'm taking one master, Sargent, and studying him, and ever more limited I'm studying that family he did 12 portraits for over a long period, the Wertheimers. You can almost see he was trying to do something different with each one, not just repeat a formula. He was praised for some and dinged for others, but it is intriguing to see or imagine, his mind at work for different effects, and how he broke "rules" ie dark hair on a dark background

I found these on one of the links Don provided JSS virtual gallery, and the story of the family too, who used to set a place for Sargent at the dinner table everyday, so he could just pop in if he liked when in London. The story of this art dealer Jewish family is revealing of the times and prejudices of the era.

My plan is to so a cursory sketch of the person and a detailed attempt of the bg, limiting myself to the area head to waist. They will be small 8x10 and I'm going to try to do 4 a week, or about one every other day.


I'll have to take another look at the Sargent gallery and look specifically for the portraits you mention!

Goals are good! I look forward to seeing your paintings!

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Old 03-02-2009, 10:20 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Originally Posted by Colorix
Don, this is an awsome lesson, in an awsome series of lessons. Thank you again for doing it all, it is a *huge* amount of work, but I bet it was fun to do too!

I hope this one will hang around for a good while, as I really want to participate and get more of your wonderful tuition. There just aren't enough days in March for me this year, but I hope to squeeze in at least one.


Thanks Charlie! I won't say how many hours a day I spent on it, but it was fun, and personally, I learned a lot by looking at all those portraits by some of the greatest artists in history! Certainly, one of the great things about the internet is the ability to view such an incredible amount of artwork. I have somewhere around 100 art books in my "library" (11 books on Renoir, alone!), but it pales in comparison to what I can view online.

Now that we have covered all the aspects of the portrait, I hope everyone will feel excited about getting out those pastels and giving it a try! Don't worry about your experience level! Don't worry if you don't have time for complete portraits. Do what you can! Do some thumbnails, or do some of the quick "side of the pastel" sketches that we did in lesson 2. Now you can add some background ideas to those quick sketches. Keep looking at the big shapes - now relating those big shapes to the background and the composition as a whole. And, of course, now we can really do those complete portraits - backgrounds and all!

I look forward to seeing everyone's paintings! And since I haven't yet begun working on lesson 5, there is a really good chance that this lesson will be around a little bit longer - and lesson 5 won't start until May!

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Old 03-02-2009, 10:23 PM
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Re: ESP - Portrait & Figure Fundamentals - Lesson 4: Backgrounds & Depth

Lovely color Nancy, and the velour lends a soft feel, may take a while to get the hang of it, I never really got it right,

Seems a bit off on from the nose down in alignment and placement of the features. I really love the line of the neck and back against the bg. Its only the beginning of the month and we have all month to learn from each other thanks for starting us off.
Constructive critiques and comments welcome.

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