Ask the Expert…Adam Clague

Question: What do you look for when creating a portrait sketch and what decisions do you make to create the final painting?



Golden, Oil

Of all the subjects I enjoy painting, none has brought me more enjoyment than the head study. People have always been my favorite subjects, but I was not introduced to the joy of painting portraits from life until figure painting class in college. The adrenaline rush from the limited time frame coupled with the challenge of capturing a complex subject quickly had me hooked.

The typical brevity of a life painting session simply does not allow enough time to capture everything. This time limit can be exhilarating, but it is also challenging, as it forces the painter to set goals, prioritize, and simplify.

My goal is to truthfully capture the subject’s beauty. On a technical level, this can be achieved by faithfully depicting the subject’s appearance in these four areas: drawing, value, edge and temperature. By prioritizing these four in this order, I find I can capture the most important information in the shortest time possible. I don’t always meet my goal to my complete satisfaction, but I find I can consistently come close using the systematic process I’ll demonstrate.


I build a head study (or “portrait sketch” as I call it) as one would build a house–from the ground up. I start with the foundation of drawing (the act of placing the correct marks in the correct places). I then build a framework of general shapes of value (shades of dark and light). At the same time, I consider the basic relationships of temperature (a color’s relative “warmth” or “coolness”). Next, I analyze the edges between each shape of value. In the beginning, the shapes I paint are broad and simplified, but they become gradually smaller and more specific as I progress. Likewise, the edges, temperature relationships, and colors become gradually more refined. I paint the details last.

Toning & Drawing

Becca 1First, I tone my surface. Darkening the initial stark white of the canvas makes it easier to gauge values. I usually tone my canvas with a grayed version of the scene’s overall, average color. Using a flat brush with a fine edge, I draw with thin, precise lines. A general outline of the head establishes its size and placement. A line down the center of the face helps capture any tilt and/or rotation of the head. Perpendicular to this line, three lines can be drawn to place the center of the eyes, the base of the nose, and the mouth opening. Remembering a few general rules of proportion can greatly assist the drawing.

•  The centers of the eyes are halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top of the skull.
•  The base of the nose is about halfway between the brows and the bottom of the chin.
•  The mouth opening is at the top 3rd between the base of the nose and the bottom of the chin.
Once I’m confident I have a reasonably accurate foundation of drawing, I’m ready to start thinking about value. However, there is never a point in the process when I stop drawing. Even as I make my final brush strokes, I am still concerned with placing the correct marks in the correct places.

Establishing a Value Range

Becca 2Capturing the effects of light and creating the illusion of 3-dimensionality begins with value. Painters must carefully analyze the relationships between the values in the subject, or else risk the painting looking “flat.”
The first values I paint are the very darkest value and the very lightest value in the subject. I paint these first to establish a value range for my painting. These initial two values serve as anchors against which I gauge the other values.


Blocking In General Values of Light and Shadow

Becca 3It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast array of values visible to our eyes. That’s why it is essential to simplify the subject’s values, especially in the beginning stages. At this time, I paint two more values–one average value for the lit side of the model’s face and one average value for the shadowed side. To mix these values accurately, I study them with my eyelids halfway closed. Squinting like this makes comparing values easier. While squinting, I look at the lit side of the model’s face and ask myself, “How much darker is this value than the very lightest value?” I look at the shadowed side of the face and ask, “How much lighter is this value than the very darkest value?” I compare the lit side to the shadowed side in the same way. I mix one average value for the lit side of the face and one average value for the shadowed side, then paint these two values as large, general shapes.

Certainly, there are many variations of value within these two shapes. However, a careful inspection reveals the variations are surprisingly very closely related to the initial average values. When I become preoccupied with painting all the minute value variations too early, I usually break the delicate relationship between the lit and shadowed values of the head, and my portrait ends up looking “over-modeled.” I also resist the urge to become preoccupied with color. Remembering my time limit and priorities, I resolve to put value above color at this stage of the painting. Now is the time to establish a strong foundation of value to capture the appearance of light and form. Later, I can take time to mix more specific color, but for now, one average color for each value shape will suffice.

Though I don’t focus on specific color right now, I do consider the basic temperature relationship between the lit region and the shadowed region. Because the model is illuminated by a light that is cooler (whitish or bluish), the resulting shadows are comparatively warmer (containing a bit more yellow or red). Very early on, I strive to establish this temperature relationship by mixing my average color for the lit region cooler than my average color for the shadowed region.

Blocking In Midtone Values / Most Intense Color

Becca 4Next, I block in the “halftones” or “midtones”–the values that occur between the lit and shadowed regions. I maintain accuracy by continuing to squint and compare. It’s a good habit to paint the most intense or saturated color at an early point. Much like I use the very darkest and lightest values to determine other values, I use the most intense color to measure other colors. When mixing a new color, I ask questions like “How much grayer is this color than the most intense color?”



Blocking In Other Elements

Becca 5Just as I “blocked in” the face, I now simplify the other elements into two values for each–one value for the lit side, and one value for the shadowed side. Still squinting, I compare each new value to ones I’ve established previously. As I mix each new value, I ask myself, “Is this value lighter or darker than one I’ve already painted?” Then, I ask “HOW MUCH lighter or darker?” Asking and answering these questions helps establish correct value relationships, which in turn enables the convincing portrayal of light and 3-dimensionality.


Painting Smaller Shapes

Becca 6Once I’ve laid a foundation of broad, general value shapes, I start building on top with progressively smaller and more specific shapes. For each new shape, I squint and compare. If you squint at this image, you’ll notice that the large initial regions of light and shadow are still evident. Even though I now add value variations within these regions, I strive to carefully keep these variations properly subtle and closely related to the general value families I’ve established. To keep from pushing these subtle value variations too far, I remember that within each object, no value in the lit side can be as dark as any value in the shadowed side. Conversely, no value in the shadowed side can be as light as any value in the lit side.

Painting Even Smaller Shapes

Becca 7Once the basic shapes and values of the eye sockets are in place, I begin painting the smaller, more specific shapes on top. At this point, time has run out for the life painting session, but I will complete the portrait later using a photo.





Interpreting Edges

Becca 8The block-in stage helps to properly understand the subject’s forms in a simplified fashion, as though the forms were composed of a mosaic of angled planes or facets. However, now it’s time to consider the edges between these planes. An abrupt angle change between planes will yield a harder edge. A gradual, rounded transition between planes will yield a softer edge. A “lost edge” occurs when the boundary between two shapes is indiscernible. To avoid my painting looking labored, I strive to paint edges with as few strokes as possible. I create softer edges in two main ways– 1) by dragging one shape into another with a clean, dry brush or 2) by adding a shape of intermediate value between two other value shapes.

Typically, very few sharp edges occur within the human face. While relatively sharp edges may occur in spots like the top edge of a nostril, the highlight of an eye, or the outer edge of the jaw, the majority of edges within the face tend to be relatively soft. At first, I like to slightly over-soften the facial features. Later, I may place a few smaller, sharper-edged strokes on top, but only if necessary. Just a few of these sharper-edged shapes, contrasted by an underlying foundation of softer shapes, are enough to convincingly convey the great variety of edges that occur in real life.

Painting Details

Becca 9Here is a close-up of the mouth in the block-in stage.

Becca 10

I soften the blocky shapes of the mouth to more closely match the edges in the subject. Softening can also reduce glare by flattening the surface of the paint. To do this, I use a dry, soft-haired brush (such as a mongoose hair or sable brush) to make very light vertical strokes, so that the brush hairs barely touch the paint.

Becca 11
Now, the mouth can be finished with just a few smaller, firmer-edged shapes on top.

Becca 12
This is my framework of basic shapes for the eyes.

Becca 13

Painting on top of this framework, I bring the eyes to completion with a few little shapes of detail.


Becca 14
Becca, Oil

A question I’m commonly asked by students is “how do you know when your painting is finished?” Artists have many different answers to this question. I consider my painting finished after I’m satisfied I’ve met my goal of truthfully capturing the subject, but before I ruin visual energy and vitality resulting from the life session. At this point, it is time for me to call the painting “done.”

Adam Clague has a Masters degree in Fine Art and lives an Missouri. To learn more about Adam and his work, visit his website.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s