From Start to Finish - How I create a Portrait

With the interest in commissions and my art in general I thought I would do a post about my process and the steps I take to get to my finished works.


I'm always interested to see other artists and how they work. So often the amount of work that goes into it, is not always visible within the finished product. (And I'm not even thinking about the schooling and practising that has gone in to get the Artist to where they are now.)


I’ve never been one to just dive right into a work and start putting paint on to the canvas, and just painting what I feel. I do believe some of my choices are intuitive but I am very methodical, I plan and compose and generally have a pretty decent idea of what my finished product will look like before I even get the paint out. So here it is my process.


The first place I start is with reference images. For a commission I like at least 5 to choose from, and if I’m using google, sometimes I choose even more. A good photo doesn’t necessarily mean a good reference image for me. In most cases I am looking for a full body shot, that has some shadow in it to create the stencil. I’m also looking for images that show the animal in a position that looks natural, nothing twisted or a little unusual, these don’t translate well. I also look out for things, such as the number of legs that can be seen, while it might make perfect sense that you can’t see the fourth leg in the photo, in the portrait it might just look weird.


Most of the times I will try to pick a photo that is typical, especially if it's a particular breed of dog, that will help with the recognition, but if it’s a well known animal such as the giraffe in the example, I do try to see if I can find something that we haven’t seen a million times.


Once I have all my images, I do a quick little bit of editing using simple editing tools, such as saturation, contrast, and exposure. These make it easier for me to see how the stencil may work. Through this process I can often see the ones that wont work at all, and ones that might work best. Once I have a couple that give me confidence, I print them out, and the fun can begin.



The edited image

From the image I create the stencil, and if I can’t get the stencil right, the whole portrait falls apart. The stencil is created from the shadows that are formed around the body and features. It has to create depths from its flatness, and the negative space is as important as the cut out. Your brain fills in a lot of the information that the stencil doesn’t provide, so it’s important that the image is easy to read.







Stencil sketch on tracing paper

I take my printed image and some tracing paper, and start working on the stencil. Creating a stencil is something I have learned through practice mostly. Deciding what needs to be a part of the stencil can be tricky, but facial features are pretty much a given, identifying markings are necessary, and some elements that give the body form are usually required. The biggest trick of all is deciding what not to include, less is more is definitely something I try to keep in mind.

My process is quite ‘old school’ and very hands on. I take my lead pencil and start drawing the stencil onto the tracing paper with the image underneath.


Final stencil sketch


Once I am happy with the tracing paper stencil, I photocopy this onto plain white paper. I then go over the stencil again this time with a black felt tip. Going over the stencil again allows me to smooth the shapes to be cut out if need be, and find and correct any ‘islands’ I may have created. ‘Islands’ are hard to explain, basically when cutting out the stencil an ‘island’ would remove more than you planned.




For the next step I create a transparency of the stencil image so I can use my prized overhead projector to find the right size. I project the image onto cardboard which I then trace with a sharpie, going over the stencil for the third time, sometimes correcting the stencil again.


The stencil cut out (photo is after use)

Once the final tracing is complete it's time for me to get out my cutting matt, blade, and usually an episode or two of Supernatural, and cut out the stencil.


I always enjoy this step, I love the hands on nature of it, and I can also switch off a bit at this stage, because I’ve already done the hard work all I need to do is cut.



The next step is working out the colour, although sometimes I will do this before cutting out the stencil, it all depends on how I’m feeling, what my apprentice(Watson) is up too, and how much time I have.

In the past I have always used my coloured pencils and photocopies of the stencil to play around with the colour options, and this is how the image below was created. I have of late worked out how to use my Ipad to do the same thing which saves me time and paper, but isn’t quite as satisfying. I use my learned colour theory, a good understanding of tone, and intuition to work out the best placement of each colour.


I love using the ‘rainbow’ colours, I want you to look at one of my portraits and smile, and the bright colours do that best. I do enjoy using other colour palettes though, it is a challenge for me because I am more accustomed to the rainbow.


And this is what my finished image will look like, somewhat.



The prototype - coloured stencil


The next two steps of getting the paint onto the canvas are honestly the easiest because the planning is complete I just have to do.

I use the stencil to trace reference marks onto the canvas. Mix up my paint, (I don’t use any colour straight out of the tube) and start laying it on with my pallet knife, using my ‘coloured’ stencil as a reference. I wait patiently for the paint to dry. The pallet knife can create great texture, and sometimes there are nice thick edges I have to be sure are dry before I can continue.



The paint on the canvas

And the final step is to press the stencil down over the image in the perfect place, and using spray paint, gently, evenly spray across the stencil. I hold my breath, hope it worked, and remove the stencil.


Meet Debbie the Giraffe

There is a real serendipity to these last two steps though, because even with the planning it is completed a little blind. Even with reference marks I can’t be completely sure my strokes are correct. The spray paint isn’t 100% predictable either, it can give really strong straight lines, a beautiful soft off-spray, or something in between and its hard to say exactly how it will all work together.




And the portrait is complete.



** Part of the process also includes prepping the canvas ready for painting, whether that is just gessoing or building and stretching the canvas too.


*** And more work comes after the work is finished. If the image is going to be offered for sale, and/or made into a print, there is scanning/photographing and photoshopping to get the image ready to be printed and images to sell the product too.

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