7 Step Acrylic Self Portrait Tutorial by Aine Divine

Well this was an exciting project to embark upon. There’s something satisfying and settled about painting a picture for the purpose of a step by step feature. I love knowing the process will be picked over afterwards. Knowing each stage of its evolution will be seen.

At the time of painting, I need to simply be as present as I’m able, and when I stray, to gently guide my straying mind back to the glorious task of being attentive. My artist friend Ray Hedger said to me, “the richness of each day depends on our attention to it”. We can bring the focus of our attention to anything and then the curiosity to delve deeper, see even more keenly, arises.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist in any other medium and will be lost.”

Martha Graham

This is both inspiring and- in the last line- tragic! And is the spirit with which I approached this self-portrait.

After a period of busyness and lacking space for real creative play, I was delighted to read from this book ‘Free play’ and find that place of curiosity in myself again for this well seen, weathered and known face.

Holding the mirror in my hands I wandered around until I found a light that inspired me and gave me the feeling I wanted to express in my face; A kind of power. I was glad of the tonal contrast provided by the evening light through the window. I rested the mirror on the piano and began the job of observing again, fresh and new, my own face. As I looked, the chin crept higher the gaze shifted to the light. Off I went.

Step 1

In this first step the joy of that venture into unknown blank territory was palpable. It must feel like the great explorers….venturing beyond safety. This is where we human beings come alive to our potential, move through and beyond fear into the territory of freedom.

Anyhow this is the spirit I approached the board with, music loudly filling the air, my body limbered up dancing back and forth, ‘fencing’ with the easel, I made my first marks. They arrived in great sweeping statements from the shoulder. I love to know the energy in each brushstroke begins and ends out with the page. Particularly in the early stages I’m keen to inject gusto and come from a place of courage.

Love this quote ‘You can make a wild goose tame but you can’t make a tame goose wild’.

I used a mix of cadmium red and sap green to make the colours on the shadow side of the face, an addition of burnt sienna to this sets the skin of the neck apart. The heel of my hand helped pull the skin of the face upward on the left.

I recommend physically engaging/merging with the painting process, it is fun and encourages an intuitive response.

Step 2

Here I’m making sense of the face shape, painting the hair up to meet the edge of the skin. Frances Bacon said ‘I want to have order in my work but for it to have come about through Chaos’. It is only because of the chaos of the early moves that I can bring order to the portrait now. I love the energy of the opening marks still being fully felt in the final painting.

The hair here is a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Crimson and sap green together make the cavities in the skin of the neck. I use the 1” burgundy flat brush for all of these marks. And continue my dance with the easel stepping backwards and forwards regularly.

Step 3

There’s quite a bit more drama evident now. I’m sculpting the form of the face by applying big sweeps of colour in carefully chosen directions. Then with a damp paper towel I wipe away retrieving the light and modelling form. The paint is still applied fairly thinly, wherever I’m inspired by a flash of colour I place it down…hence the cerulean blue jaw and crimson drawn marks in the face. The red allows me to see the position of the features more clearly over the muted browns in the skin.

I’m constantly reminded to breathe, move, shake, roll back my shoulders and fully occupy the space I’m in. It is from here that the creative spirit is free to flow.

Step 4

I’ve started using thicker more opaque paint here. Finding the shard of light skin above the left eye I mixed white and burnt sienna together. This set the scene for further light tones, on the line of the nose, around the mouth and chin, forehead and cheek on the light side, also on in the edge of the neck to the left.

With the introduction of light I have a licence to increase the depth of the dark tones, in the eye sockets, upper lip, the hair and the shadow side of the face. I love this stage, it feels as though I’m modelling in clay, observing faithfully the exact shape and tone of each part and its relationship to the whole face. Lovely to have the lively inspiring surface of the energetic early moves to work over here. Now it’s a concentrated exercise in seeing, and regularly drawing back from the easel to continue to ‘take the heat off’.

Step 5

In the spirit of ‘taking the heat off’ and of keeping my creative self inspired. I fling on some fluid cerulean and allow it to run upwards, by turning the board on its head. Our creative brains respond well to novelty. We never want to rest on our laurels, give in to complacency and safety….so as soon as any timidity arises, do something to go wild again. It’s bloody good medicine apart from anything else, and can often make you laugh out loud 🙂

We have the attitude of abandon. A willingness to risk losing it all. Here the life in us is felt in all of its fullness, and we delight in the sacred process of creativity.

The blue here works to make the warm facial tones sing out.

Step 6

I continue to darken the hair this time with neat ultramarine blue, I love the clarity that comes when I whirl the painting back upright again, here it was evident the head needed to be ‘pulled’ to the left a bit more, hence the diaginal blue strokes of hair over the left ear. I also increased the volume of blue hair meeting the left shoulder. To me this enhances the composition, and anchors the back of my figure in space.

Step 7 Final image

I want the evidence of the painting process to still be seen at the end. I’m enjoying the loose pattern of the lively underpainting and am resisting covering it with new marks. Acrylic dries quickly and allows for this glorious spontaneity. Lemon yellow brings a warm glow to the skin of the chest and ear. I heighten the contrast of tone with white highlights.

I at last find the position of the second eye, it seems important to fill that space, and to me adds to the expression. In painting myself I’ve noticed a different attitude in each eye, one usually has more empathy and compassion the other is harder and exudes focus….not sure which is which here…! They both seem pretty driven in attitude to me 🙂

Loving the blue, I lashed on some more here, and let it be for a while…over the days following I touched it here and there as inspired. I’m glad I stopped when I did; there is a new commitment to doing less, to really maintaining the life in the work. I’m happy that I still feel alive to myself here….what do you think??

Have a go at painting yourself…you’d never know what revelations may arise.

Above all…enjoy the adventure 🙂

A few notes on the set up;

Make sure your equipment and materials are easily accessible to you, and that you are looking at yourself at eye level, the piano is a good height for me – of course explore what angles work for you. This is my preferred angle.

Where possible stand at arm’s length from the easel, make sure the board is vertical to avoid distortion in your drawing.

Begin with a physical warm up (aka crazy dance to loud music!) And throughout the process of painting, keep a radar up for any tension that arises and shake it off.

Remember to breathe, and keep the chest open, softness in the muscles of the face, that jaw, belly, knees and maintain a lightness that has you fencing with the easel.

Here are the colours I used;

System 3 acrylic: Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine blue, Burnt sienna, Lemon yellow, Titanium white, Cadmium red, Crimson, Sap green.

I used a pre primed gesso panel (ampersand gessobord; loved this! – shiny surface), and the flat brushes from the royal and langnickel burgundy brush set.

9 Responses

  1. Aine you are a bloody genius, you cant believe how much you inspire people with your beautiful and unique paintings and the freedom to not be scared and let yourself go with your heart I am still learning and you are the best teacher I have ever come across.

  2. I love this. I do self portraits all the time. You are very inspiring. How do I get to hear about your workshops? I’m on your mailing list for the newsletter.

  3. Aine, you have outshone Henry V’s speech at Agincourt! “The Killers” are blasting loud enough to wake the neighbours, I’m out of my seat throwing paint at the canvas – to heck with the wallpaper. Timidity is displaced by gusto! Lethargy fades, drowned in passion. I don’t know what my wife’s going to say about all this wild abandon going on in my little studio but it will be the best self-portrait I’ve ever done!! Thanks for a great tutorial.

  4. Fabulous! Love your use of colour and bold brushstrokes – maybe i will have to try! Thanks for step by step!

  5. I’m amazed at the way you describe things around you…from figures to still life. You’re a genius! It’s so inspiring…thank you

  6. I’m so excited to have just recently found you. You bring in such an integrated approach to painting; minding the physical and spiritual. Your paintings are full of life and emotion. I will be following you.

  7. I think Aine is the best too using watercolour for fully expressive painting . I started on portraiture years ago inspired by the oil portraure teaching of Helen Van Wyke now sadly deceased. I did not get switched on the water colour at all for years, until I came across Aine painting Mow Molem. From then on I got into watercolour portaiture with great enjoyment! I even teach it now!…….All because of Aine Devine!

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