Painting small figurative work

Hello - I love to paint small format (8"x8") figurative pieces. I’d love my fellow artist’s thoughts on:

  1. How to simplify the face; what facial planes are critical to conveying human face;
  2. Value contrast they find useful when depicting simplified faces - high? Low?

Hi Bev, fill out your profile with your link to your work! I was very interested in seeing some.

Hi Sunny,

Have admired your work for some time - your free brushwork especially. Plus, you’re one of the few artists I’ve seen painting people using acrylics.

I’ve linked my profile to my pinterest page; I have yet to create website as hosting fees are a cost I cannot yet cover with sales of my work.

I look forward to any suggestions. My inspiration is David Shevlino’s simplification - but he works with oils - which I’ve tried and find it’s much easier to blend colours alla prima; though I still love the easy wash up of acrylics.

With advanced thanks, Bev

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I think it must depend a lot on how the light is hitting your subject. I don’t know if you are comfortable with this but if you download a free program called Gimp (I am sure there are equivalents in Photoshop but I do not use Photoshop because of cost). Google “people” and go to the images tab. Now just select a random image with many people on it in various poses. Copy this into Gimp. Now on the “colors” tab select “desaturate” which is another way to say turn the image into black and white. Now on the same “colors” tab select “posterize” and choose a small number like 3 for the number of levels. If you paint people like this they will be simplified but still readable as people.


Hi Gary, I love the suggestion and will attempt (again) to play with GIMP - I’ve also used Value Viewer - which reduces the plethora of values to 3. When I paint in three values, the resultant work looks to me “weird” (how about that as a specific descriptor) though I love it when other artists do it:)

Shall continue to observe and experiment - thanks so much for your response.

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Bev, I’ve heard it said that the most important facial feature to capture is the shadow of the eye socket, for depth. Having tried that level of simplification, I can say that adding the shadow under the nose and upper lip are important to really read as “human face.” I like to do these with a blue-sienna mix…personally, I lean toward light values, but they don’t always give believable depth on the face. (I’m on the same quest you are, I think, with simplifying figures and faces?) My current personal conclusion is that it helps to to take a small brush and add in the lash line and upper eyelid to give a finished, intentional look. I’ve been really inconsistent with that detail–but plan to experiment. My hope is that those three or four shadows plus the highlights on the cheek and upper lid will be a formula for a simple and believable face. Good luck to us! PS I’m going to try GIMP for three values, sounds useful!

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Hello, Ann,

Am so glad I am not the only one who has struggled with this challenge. I have experimented with the socket, nose & lip shadows; never finding the right value difference - too light = insipid, too dark = too cartoon like. If you’re on Pinterest, check out my board “Featureless Faces” for other ideas. I’ll share with you whatever discoveries I find. Cheers, Bev

Hi Bev,

squint to see the planes.
keep squinting!
When you are in doubt of what your next stroke should be: squint again!

When you’re away from the easel, study anatomy (I learned the head construction from books loomis’ Drawing the head and hands and Dr. Paul Richer’s anatomy book) and then practice sketching heads in public

This method takes a while, but it’s efficient.

Oh, and it’s like cycling… if you stop doing it for a while, you wobble :wink:

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Hi Johan,

Squint: Yes, I’ve been told this - even have my watch timed to remind me to step-back & squint. I’m not a very adept at squinting - I wobble when I squint :smirk:

When I squint, I still seem to get more info than I wish to include and I’m experimenting with which info to include and which to edit out so the result conveys just the right info. I am coming to accept that I must experiment. I think I was trying to expedite my experiments but that’s the “work” of art, eh.

Thanks so much for your kind reminder to keep working, keep experimenting, keep squinting - even when I wobble while doing it. Bev

Hey Bev, you’re not alone!
We all have to keep experimenting and practicing.

When working from life, I found that having a strong light source and changing its position sometimes helps to find the planes.When I can’t do that I walk around the model (without disturbing the others too much as I can’t afford to pay a model on my own).

When working from a photograph, we are much more relying on our constructive knowledge. therefor it helps to quickly sketch the planes of the head (or any body part for that matter) first on a piece of paper. I do this with ballpen or a fine marker. These thumbnails also help to establish an interesting composition as especially when working small, it can be interesting to choose not to depict the complete body of the model.

Hope it helps and thanks for motivating me to continue to experiment, Bev.

Hey Bev! You can connect your Art Talk profile with your DPW.
Go to your profile at the top, right side of Art Talk.
Down at website, put this in:

I love your “Lounging Lady” and “Beach Bums”, so clever!

I hope you get lots of feedback about your figurative/portrait questions.

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Thanks for the info& the praise - these small “gifts” keeps us returning to the work. :smile:

Andrew Loomis, Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth. An indispensable resource, IMO. Check it out.

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Hi Bev
To answer the second question first I like strong oblique lighting across a figure, usually from two opposite sources, one warm one cool. Lighting like this gives me lots of contrast and colour.
In reply to your first question, I find, it really is a question of simplifying the shapes you actually see, and not those you think you see. In general terms I go for the shadow of eye sockets under the nose and mouth.

There is no substitute for the rich buttery feel of oils. I do love them but find I am impatient to wait for drying time. I didn’t like the water soluble quick dry oils. I haven’t found the right medium for oil for me yet. Though I do have a couple I want to try-special medium mixes I have seen on others’ videos. But the acrylics-they require more layers. At least, the way I paint they do. So I do like both.

Hi Rafael

I was just wondering if this book goes into how to paint small figures within paintings, landscape/street scenes etc.

Be careful. I squinted too much one day and my face froze like that. Now I have wrinkles and look old, even though I’m only 58.