5 Tips to Make You a Better Figurative Painter

Teaching Figurative Art and Portraiture

I teach and mentor many artists from around the world.  I've had artists travel as far as China to come to my studio to learn how I paint figurative art and portraiture.  During that time it has been a great privilege and honor to take the skills and the knowledge I learned over the last 23 years of painting and give that knowledge to the next generation of artists.  During all these years I've seen numerous student portfolios and I can categorize my observations into five major areas. Here are my five tips to make you a better figurative painter.

1. Paint From Life!

Probably the most popular answer you're going to hear from any trained artist, especially someone academically trained, is that you MUST study from life.  I couldn't agree more.  Sure, when you're young it's a good idea to start somewhere.  If that somewhere to you is drawing comics, or movie posters or celebrities - great.  I have no issue with that.  What I would suggest is that once you've become more comfortable with your materials you have to begin drawing from life.  You need to see how light hits a face and casts shadows on the other side.  You need to see how light can bounce off a nearby object and cast secondary light onto the body.  You need to see how the inner parts of limbs are warmer closer to the body when the intersect and cooler when they project away from the body.  You MUST paint from life to see these things.  Think of your eye as a muscle.  It's weak unless you train it.  Without training you have weak drawings and paintings.  It's one of the most important figurative painting techniques you can learn is to observe from life.  The lessons are invaluable.

2. Skin is NOT One Color

 Stop painting skin with one color!!!!!!  White people aren't painted with burnt siena and white and  darker toned people aren't painted with brown.  Stop being so myopic and use your eyes!  The most challenging part about painting the figure or a portrait is that it takes an unbelievable amount of skill to see the subtle transitions of cools, warms, darks, lights, neutrals etc.  There isn't one part of any body I paint that is a simple formula.  I paint what I see.  Picking a color and using that color everywhere will convince me and others that you didn't take the time to observe and therefore you failed at rendering a convincing, realist painting.

3. Where Are Your Neutrals?

Neutrals, neutrals, neutrals.  I've seen so many figurative paintings that fall into the orange category.  People only want to mix warms with warms because they seem to have a certain synergy when used together.  The problem is that everyone looks like they are running a fever.  You need to use neutrals to "cut" down the temperature of your work, especially when painting figurative art.  As I mentioned in my first two points, the body is not one color.  Neutrals will keep the temperature as low as you need it to be.  The environment plays a big part in what the temperature will be in your painting.  If you were still painting from candlelight like Rembrandt I wouldn't have much of an issue but I've seen way far too many firey hot bodies in brilliantly cool outdoor settings.  It doesn't work. Match the figure with your environment.  Use neutrals in your paint mixtures.  They can be blue, green and many temperatures of grey.  Use what works for you.  There are many solutions to a problem..  A good rule of thumb I like to employ is to use colors you have in your environment in your formulas.  You can't go wrong if the same colors in your background are the same ones in your figure.


4. Figures Are Not Cut Outs!

We do not walk around with an outline around us and we most certainly aren't cookie cut outs.  The body is part of the environment.  The darkness of the environment may enhance the highlights in a piece and vice versa, a bright light may make the body seem like it has a dark shadow on it.  The thing to remember is what's in between.  The body recedes into space.  Your limbs are three dimensional.  When you fail to realize an arm or a leg or a torso will have a different value than the plane of the body facing you your figure ends up looking flat.  Ever heard the expression "the camera adds 10lbs on you?"  It's absolutely true.  Why you ask?  It's because a low quality flash flattens out the receding planes of your body.  Instead of allowing your limbs to recede back into space and marrying the environment the flash lightens those receding planes and makes you look wider because it makes you into a more 2D object.  The key take away is to make sure you treat the edges of your figure with care so that they marry with your environment.  They'll look more accurate and real and not 2D.

5. Finished Already?

The biggest problem keeping you from being a great realist painter is finishing too early!  People ask me all the time - how do you get the level of refinement in your work.  The answer is that I don't stop painting until it is finished.  You are not going to get the desired complexity of human skin in one session.  Some artists are great at alla prima painting and can mimic some of the look.  But if you want a polished form of realism you have to understand it is figured out in layers.  You have to be patient and keep looking at the painting and making calculated improvements to get the level of refinement you desire.  There are many figurative painting techniques to get you to that end point.  It isn't just one solution, but if you have more time with a painting you have more time to figure things out.  Don't give up.  Learn from each painting.  Your mistakes will serve you well if you learn from them.