Tips on How to Paint Women in Oath of the Horatii

My oil painting of female faces has been sampled from Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatti (1784). The portraits of the two females offer great opportunities for the artist to explore skin tones without having to anguish over detail around the eyes and mouths.

Tips on Painting Female Faces

This preview demonstration has been sampled from my art instruction book, Portrait Painting in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides, which include full instructions on how to paint portraits from other great artists, such as Botticelli, Rossetti, Vermeer and more. This demonstration explores scumbling technique in portraiture, which enables the artist to suggest facial contours via various thicknesses of paint.

Color Mixtures for Portraiture

An array of skin tones can be achieved by a limited palette. Skin color mixes I most often use are: burnt sienna and white for creamy highlights. Add a little cadmium red for extra warmth or add a little ultramarine to cool it down. Neutral tones can be achieved by burnt umber and white. Soft neutrals can be achieved by burnt sienna, ultramarine and white. Pthalo blue can be added for cool skin tones. Beautiful darks, such as shadows beneath chins and noses can be obtained by mixing burnt umber and a little ultramarine or permanent rose and a little ultramarine. Again, pthalo blue will cool these colors down.

Secrets of Mixing Skin Tones

This demonstration is explained fully within my book, but an outline is provided here to offer some inspiration for the portraitist. The painting had been prepared with an underwash of thinned acrylic paint comprising ultramarine and a little white. This opaque blue color will provide contrast against the flesh tones to be laid on.

Art Materials for Portraiture

  • Stretched medium grain canvas measuring 9x12in.
  • Oil colors: titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber, cadmium red, permanent rose, cadmium yellow (pale), ultramarine, pthalo blue, carmine red and quinacridone violet. Brushes: sable rounds nos. 1, 3 and 6; bristle flat nos. 3 and 6;
  • Also needed were blue acrylic paint, 0.5in house brush, linseed oil, Sansador, soft pencil, and rags.
Where to Start with Portrait Painting
Once the blue underglaze was dry and the composition sketched out, I will lay on the preliminary color mixes, which in this case are the highlights to the women’s cheeks. I applied a neat mix of white and a little burnt sienna onto a dry bristle, and scrubbed the paint against the canvas. I was careful this mixture was not applied too thickly, or the scumble would not work. A scumble is simply the application of a rough glaze over an art surface, allowing some of the underlying color to show through. The blue underpainting suggests form to the women’s faces.

Portrait Painting Tips

I added a little burnt umber and cadmium red to the initial highlights and drew this dark toasty hue further down the women’s cheekbones. I worked on both faces simultaneously rather than one at a time. This will help give the painting unity. This darker color helped suggest form around the eyes, noses and chins. The darkest colors were achieved by the addition of a little ultramarine. Remember, when it comes to portrait painting, tiny increments of color adjustment will hold great significance. So always add a little at a time.

Soft Shading on Portraits

Once I was happy with the key colors on the faces, I pulled the colors together with a clean bristle. This would suggest the contours and textures of the skin. I was then able to balance out the face colors against the background. The background itself was briskly blocked in with basic color mixes, which was pthalo blue, burnt umber and a little white.

I could now make a visual estimate of how the hair would balance out between the faces and the background. With a clean sable, I dragged white and a little burnt sienna in linear fashion to suggest strands of hair. I then drew neat burnt sienna over the highlights to suggest locks of hair. I soft blended the division between faces and hair, so that the hair would not appear harsh.

The headdresses comprised basic color mixes of Quinacridone violet, pthalo blue and permanent rose. Suddenly, the women’s faces stand out.

Importance of Color Hues in Portraiture

As in all my portraits, I will begin the painting with the most crucial aspects, which are the facial features, highlights and intricate shadows. In this case, I began the portrait painting with a light scumble over the faces via a fine bristle. I used heavy colors in the backgrounds to bring out the highlights in the faces. Often, some color reinforcement is required to bring the features back into balance with the background, otherwise, the portraits could appear washed-out.
This material is copyright Rachel Shirley (2012)
Further Tips on Portraiture
Vital art pigments for portraiture (my science of color site)
Painting ethnic colored skin (my Oil Painting Medic blog)