Painting Small Faces

The problem with painting small faces from photos-


Here is the photo I am working from-

The first problem is what I think I can do- just dash a few spots and magic, I have a face. Nine times out of ten this does not work. Then I realize I really don’t know what’s going on with that head, is it tilting slightly upward or downward turning left or right, how is it attached to the neck?
Here’s a painting I’ve started with a small face. Maybe you can sense already the struggle I’ve had with that little face.  This is when I know I need to grab a sketchpad look at that face do a sketch of what is really
What I know now is her head is slightly tilted to one side also tilted slightly upward because I can see the bottom of her nose and a little bit of the bottom of her chin.
Also where the ears are on the side of the head always are a good clue. If they line up with the tip of the nose the head is level if they’re below the nose than the head is tilted back if they’re above the nose then the head is tilted forward.
It’s starting  to go in the right direction,  onto the next challenge….

New Painting –

blog1Going over the reference photos I have from previous shoots, I kept coming back to this one. It has many of the things I like in a subject, a reflective mood and a simple composition with movement, but like many photos, it has it’s problems or areas of concern.

blog1aOne is the left arm, the way it follows the bend of the picture at the lower corner makes a tangent that pulls my eye to the corner in an uncomfortable way. So I will have to deal with that arm, how, I don’t know right now. The background doesn’t add anything to the scene so I’m going to simplify it, making the pyramid shape of the girl even more obvious.

blog2Using a limited palette of yellow ochre, cad red light, cad red medium and ivory black I start roughing the image in, not going any further on the face until I’m sure it is where I want it. There’s nothing worse than spending a long time on an area only to find out it needs to be totally wiped out because it’s in the wrong place. In a painting like this I’m not sure what the colors will be, so I’m going to follow what I see in the subject until a direction is obvious to me, right now it’s warm gold flesh with warm greens.


By this time a color shift toward violet is happening, and I’m starting to get a feel for what I’m going to do with that left arm, having it straight is a much better lead in, it just flows better. Her dress is going to get fuller and cover the legs, which were adding too many lines going in directions that kept the movement from being fluid.


Adjustments here and there and it’s done. Always helps to get away from the painting for a couple days before the final work.

Sorolla Art Exhibition

Evening Sun, Sorolla de Bastida 1903
Evening Sun, Jouquin Sorolla 1903


My husband John and I have just returned from one of the most inspirational art exhibitions I’ve seen in years, Sorolla And America at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Having long admired Joaquin Sorolla’s loose paint handling and brilliant portrayal of light effects we wanted to be sure not to miss this great opportunity to see his work in person.

Sad Inheritance by Jouquin Sorolla
Sad Inheritance by Joaquin Sorolla

The first painting in the show was a massive 10′ x 15′ canvas titled Sad Inheritance. A black cloaked monk slightly bending forward to help a crippled young man with crutches make careful steps into the sparkling sea water. Other children play in the distant waves, while some struggle at the waters edge, a very emotional painting which won him numerous awards.

Benito Perez Galdos, Juaquin Sorolla 1905
Benito Perez Galdos, Joaquin Sorolla 1905

When he became well known he received so many portrait commissions that he had a hard time keeping up with them.

He was a very prolific painter, producing thousand of paintings and sketches in his lifetime.

Bacchante Sorolla y Bastida 1886
Bacchante Sorolla y Bastida 1886


Everyones favorites of course where the beach scenes of playful children juxtaposed with weathered fisherman and lumbering oxen bringing the fishing boats ashore.

The photos in art books just can’t convey the grandeur of standing in front of one of his large canvases, knowing that he painted most of them plein air, on location.

Children on the Beach, Jouquin Sorolla 1916
Children on the Beach, Joaquin Sorolla 1916


Some of these paintings were in the San Diego show, some where from other collections. A great site to see more of his work is The Athenaeum. 

A new painting – Nuns at the Fountain

This image of two nuns in front of a fountain getting water was one I wanted to paint from the photos we took while in Italy this summer.

When faced with something like that sculpted fountain, things can get confusing, darks, lights swirling shapes… the best solution for me is to paint most of the picture upside down.

Turning the photo this way helps me to direct my brain to just see shapes of value and color instead of objects. This makes my process fun, because I am free to “play with paint” and not get hung up of “what things are”. The best part is when you turn the painting right side up, the image of the “things” appear like magic.

Before I started on this I had some minor adjustments to the composition, below is the original photo –

photo of nuns at the fountainLook at the long horizontal light shape behind the two nuns. See how each nun plus the water fountain all are dark shapes that break into the light. Look at evenly those shapes fall- light space nun, light space, nun, light space water fountain, light space. It’s a little boring and would be helped greatly by just moving the left nun closer to the other one, and the whole group closer to the right side of the picture. Here’s my value sketch below, the first one is how it appears in the photo, the second, how I am going to regroup things-

sketchHere is the almost finished painting-

blog-picAt this point I like to get away from the painting for several days, than see if anything needs adjustment. Coming back to the image I am having a feeling that something is wrong with the light on the left side of the image, running down the sun struck side. So I start asking myself questions;

  • Is the shape reasonably accurate? (I say reasonably accurate, because being a slave to the image is not really important to me). My answer yes
  • Is the shape the right temperature compared with the rest of the painting? yes
  • Is it throwing the composition off? Bingo – yes, my eye keeps getting pulled over there, I want to look at the nuns but that area of high contrast is fighting for my attention.

So this is a good reason to venture away from the original. I always say a painting is not the live image, it’s not the photograph, it is an entity all its own. Toning that area down a notch was what was needed to complete the painting, below

Nuns at the Fountain






Over the years I’ve found that less is better, simple is stronger.

One of the ways I’ve simplified my own way of painting is to cut down on the number of brushes I use. Just a few large brushes, (1″ or so), has really made painting more interesting for me. This improves my outcome by:

  • having a less cluttered work space
  • no more wasting time looking for which brush I had just used for an area in a painting
  • increasing the loose quality of my work
  • and spending less time cleaning brushes

One person I’ve come across, who has a wonderful touch with a large brush, is Australian artist Colley Whisson. Below is a link to one of his many YouTube demonstrations