People find painting people and portraits difficult. Even artists who can paint complicated landscapes without too much difficulty stumble when they attempt people.
Why? Part of the answer is the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley refers to the mechanisms people have for recognizing other humans. It turns out that these complicated mechanisms are difficult to identify and duplicate. Designers trying to create human-like robots or androids have yet to solve this issue. Close misses make viewers very uncomfortable even though they can’t explain their reaction. It’s the same with the paintings of people. Bob Ross, the famed TV art instructor, never painted people and confirmed in one interview that he wasn’t good at it.
A related problem is that a lot of artists have psychological issues when viewing and drawing humans. It’s hard not to react to models psychologically, which can be a big problem for some. Cezanne is an example of this. By the way, the solution here isn’t formalism.
How to overcome these problems? Sorry, there is no easy ‘one simple trick’ answer. Learn to draw and then your near misses will appear convincing instead of triggering the uncanny valley reaction.
If you can draw reasonably well but you still struggle, then this post is for you.
There are two painting techniques that help all painting but are especially effective when painting people.
First, paint things closer to the viewer above things farther away. Any consistent ordering system strengthens a painting but this one is an important one; it’s actually critical
Second, practice thick and thin, sometimes called fat over lean. Another way to say it is: paint your lights thick but keep your darks transparent. Paint is dull, even the best-manufactured paint, and can easily turn to mud. Painters must use every paint quality available to them. Contrasting thick and thin passages is very effective. Notice how this point has a natural synergy with the first point?
How about a flesh palette? Flesh, caucasian flesh, is a mixture of white, red, and yellow. What is red and yellow? Orange. I start with a warm orange color, burnt sienna. I mix three values of burnt sienna but my paintings are normally large. For smaller paintings, a single mid-level value is sufficient. I use these values to rough in.
For lighter areas, I add a light red. I use cadmium scarlet from Winsor Newton but any Vermilion-ish color should suffice. Light red is very effective for ears and noses.
Going into the shade I mix cadmium red-purple or alizarin crimson. These are cool reds. Cool means blueish. What’s the opposite or orange? Blue. Use blue to form neutrals. If your flesh is more red than yellow, use green, such as earth green, for neutrals.
Warm and thickly painted lights with cool and thinly painted low values.
Transparent shadows are best; keep white out of shadows.
Don’t use black in flesh.