Monday, 20 September 2010

My Baby Portrait Painting Looks like a Small Adult

The novice portrait artist may illustrate subtle contour shifts on a baby’s face as lines or definitive shading, making the baby look more like plastic than soft flesh. Baby’s features are given outlines, such as around the eyes or mouth, resulting in an illustrative rendering of a baby, which may look more adult. How does the artist capture the essence of a baby’ face?

How Not to Paint a Baby Portrait

How to Paint Babies Faces
Rachel Shirley
Baby portraiture is a particularly challenging subject matter, such as the subtle contours and colours of a baby’s skin. But before facing such challenges, faulty practices in painting babies must be addressed, such as the following:
  • Treating all features of the baby’s face, such as eyes, mouth, nostrils and nose as separate entities and outlining each with a line.
  • Expressing in a linear way contour shifts on the baby’s face, such as cheekbones, Cupid’s bow, ball of the chin and temples.
  • Again, using lines to express creases on the baby’s face, such as a furrowed brow, smiling lines or double chin.
  • Mixing white with red or using a tube of “flesh tint” for the skin colour of a baby and then trying to darken the colour with black or dark brown for shadows.
  • Applying any blue, brown or green for the baby’s eyes and using white for the eyeball area in a “painting by numbers” fashion.
  • Rendering the baby’s hair with linear brushstrokes that look the same all over.
Working from memory or poor photographic reference, forcing the brain to fill in the gaps and make assumptions, resulting in a baby painting that looks more like a small version of an adult than a true rendering of a baby.

How Not to Photograph a Child

Working from a poor photograph will not help the artist paint the baby accurately. This may be due to:
  • Flash photography. This will bleach out the baby’s features and any facial contours, resulting in a flat representation of a baby’s face in the painting.
  • Blurred photography. This will make it impossible for the artist to bring out detail, such as the eyelashes, highlights or dimples.
  • A photograph showing baby’s face too small. Again, this will make it impossible for the artist to portray the baby accurately.
For this reason, I often produce my own photographs when commissioned to paint a baby portrait (since baby’s have a habit of fidgeting). The following tips on child portraiture will help.

How to Photograph Babies

The best photograph of a baby is ideally under natural lighting, such as outside or near a window. Avoid backlight, as this will make baby’s face look dark. Sidelight will bring out the contours of the baby’s face. Sunlit conditions may benefit from a fill-in flash or a reflective surface to soften shadows. Use a high resolution setting to capture detail and take several photos rather than just one.

How to Paint a Baby’s Face

The following tips on painting a baby’s portrait will help the artist get to grips with the challenges ahead.
  • Baby’s features have different proportions to an adult, as the features are closer together and cheeks, brow and chin consist of flat planes with few lines. To avoid adult characteristics from creeping in, remember to keep looking at the photograph. If necessary, turn it upside down. Keep standing back from the painting to get an overall impression.
  • A tonal shift in the baby’s skin is better expressed by adding a little complimentary colour (or opposing colour) to the skin colour itself, which in the case of a warm fleshy pink, will be blue or violet. Reserve black for the baby’s pupils.
  • Baby’s faces rarely show lines. It is better to introduce a little white into the mix and illustrate any small creases beneath baby’s eyes or mouth as paler than the surrounding area and then mixing a slightly darker colour and applying it to selected areas to suggest depth.
  • Baby’s eyes will exhibit many variations in colour, such as highlights, reflections and colour shifts. The eyeball is rarely just white but darkens where it disappears into the eye socket.
What Colour is Baby’s Flesh of Different Races?

Look for unlikely pigments in the colour of baby’s skin. This may include violets, blues, brown and even greens. Mix the skin colour of the baby from scratch and avoid using more than three colours for any mix and avoid using tubes of “flesh tint”.

Depending upon the race of the baby, I find the following oil pigments provide a good foundation for child portraiture. These are suggestions only. In real life, some colours may be omitted and other colours may be found.
  1. Caucasian baby: White, cadmium red and burnt sienna for warm colours and highlights; permanent rose, burnt umber and ultramarine for cool colours and shades.
  2. Half cast or olive skinned baby: White, burnt sienna and a little burnt umber for warm colours and highlights; Burnt umber, burnt sienna and pthalo blue for cool colours and shades. A tiny amount of viridian green can sometimes be found in dark skin.
  3. Black baby: White, burnt umber and ultramarine for warm colours and highlights; burnt umber and pthalo blue for cool colours and shades.
Art Techniques for Baby Painting

Soft brushes such as sables are a must for child painting. I often complete the baby or toddler portrait in a series of thin glazes. This entails mixing a little linseed oil with the paint and allowing each paint layer to dry before applying the next layer. I often work from mid-tone to dark and light, finishing off with the highlights and the darkest shadows of the baby’s face.

Links Relating to Portrait Painting


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Portrait Painting

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