Freehand Painting Goals

A couple of specific things are at the forefront of my mind right now when it comes to painting. The first is that, in a general sense, I need lots of practice. Over the course of around five years and 150ish portraits, my colored pencil drawings improved noticeably. I can see major areas where my painting skills need to develop, and I feel pretty confident I can eventually show similar improvement. But I need to put a similar amount of work into painting to see that type of growth. The second thing on my mind springboards from the first – I’ve realized that I would really like to paint from life someday. This is an ambitious goal that I’m not sure if I have the means to achieve…but I want to try.

To get to the point of painting from life, I’ll need to figure out how to strengthen my freehand skills. This is something that I’ve never shown much skill at, even using my old friend the graphite pencil. I have always needed some sort of crutch, like a ruler, grid, caliper, or something (shown in action here). Or at least the ability to have a static image on my iPad right next to me. There is sometimes a semblance of “freehand” in play I suppose, but it’s a rigid and inflexible way of going about it. Definitely not conducive to drawing anything from life. And not really something that translates well to fun, loose sketches (with some exceptions).

Now that I’ve set myself on this learning path using oil paints, I feel like I’ve had tunnel vision in some respects when it comes to my art hobby. Almost as if, by sticking in my routine, I’d been walking around looking at my feet without noticing everything else in front of me. Maybe that’s a little overly dramatic, but I was certainly drawing a portrait the same way, using the same process, for almost the same result every time. Early on as I started painting, I took this as an opportunity to push myself. After all, I am already out of my comfort zone, why not keep going? I began to ponder things I hadn’t before – like drawing from life. And I realized, if I wanted to try such things, I’d need to work some different artistic muscles.

I’ve mentioned before how forgiving oil paint is. If you continue to paint one piece in a session, as it’s still wet, you can mold and shape features as much as you’d like. The professionals call this alla prima, or wet-on-wet technique. This inherent flexibility has given me the luxury to be braver than I normally would and to not worry over how something looks at the beginning. And so to prepare myself, I started laying down an underpainting and not using pencil at all. I’ve done a few of these now, but this post is for the first one I painted:

Freehand, No Planning, No Outline Portrait of Not-a-Real-Person. Oil Paint on Paper.

Now, I should clarify I’m not abandoning pencil outlines and all of my old comfortable routines. In fact, whenever I circle back and attempt a portrait that I want a more accurate depiction for, I will definitely be more deliberate in my planning. But I want to diversify my skillset and be able to approach things in different ways. In fact, I may even someday want to return to some graphite pencil basics – I watched a great video recently about sketching in a more paintbrush-like motion. And perhaps if I can make progress towards painting from life, some lessons will apply to pencils as well.

Getting on to this particular painting. I knew going into it that precision was not my goal. Although I used a stock photo reference, ultimately I ended up pushing the resemblance towards some imaginary image. Maybe I was thinking about all of the recent Facebook/Metaverse news, because unfortunately I can’t unsee that this woman looks like Mark Zuckerberg. Anyhow, I didn’t specifically need this to look like a real person. More so, I was seeking to practice molding a head only from paint. I did not use the textured, canvass-like paper designed for oil painting; instead, for this one, I used just regular drawing paper. This is carry over from my last paintings, the second of which I couldn’t find any more of the good textured stuff. Drawing paper isn’t too terrible though, just has some different effects in the end.

Overall, I think this was a fairly successful experiment. I had a rough start to my pupil placement at first; I think that was one of the largest casualties from not making a focused pencil sketch first. But fortunately, as I said, oil paint is forgiving! I was able to reshape and reconfigure anything that went too haywire. The end result was a fairly satisfying portrait, despite the fact that it doesn’t look like any real person. There are a few big flaws that jump out, of course. The eyes don’t align on the same plane, which is something I continue to struggle with when trying to do this without pencil outlines. Also, I still don’t think I got those pupils quite right.

Aside from this painting being noteworthy (to me at least) for continuing to push the learning process, I think it’s also a turning point in my video recording methods. It seems like with this recording, I’ve finally found a decent angle and position for my smartphone-holding adjustable arm. It’s long been a struggle to find that balance between a viewable angle versus the device obstructing my view. But this isn’t too bad! I’m going to continue looking into how others manage this though, because I am always open to better ideas.

As for what’s next? I’ve got another freehand underpainting to share, plus a couple where I used a proportional divider to help me. I don’t want to get too cozy with that tool, since I don’t think it will help me much with an eventual “paint from life” scenario. But it is a pretty amazing tool that I want to talk about. And I also just finished a real time walkthrough/discussion.

Blick Art Materials


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