Prelude to a Kiss…Gotta Paint Lips First!

11 Aug 2011

In this large scale painting by Stephen Bennett (Beach Baby, 2001, acrylic, 80 x 64), the faint lines and varied color on the lips are faithfully rendered.
In this large scale painting by Stephen Bennett
(Beach Baby, 2001, acrylic, 80 x 64), the faint lines and
varied color on the lips are faithfully rendered.

As an unrepentant smart mouth, I know how much value two lips have, in real life and especially in a portrait painting. The saying is that the eyes are the window into the soul, but the mouth is one of our most expressive facial features as well.

It can show tenseness or pleasure; indicate a stern bearing or welcome you with a smile—and in portraiture it is almost a necessity that we figure out how to make the mouth tell part of the story we are trying to communicate through the entire painting.

For me, painting the mouth has always been a challenge because my instinct is to revert back to second grade and start with a heavy outline and make an unnatural smiley face. Thankfully, since then I've learned a few tips about painting the mouth from oil painting portrait artists with years of experience. Here are a few pointers that I try to keep in mind.

There is a lot of dimension in a mouth. Its topography is as complicated and involved as the peaks and valleys of a mountain range. It has many curves and edges, and it can turn and twist based on countless factors, including facial expressions and the position of the entire head. But I've learned that the more detail I put in, the less real it looks.

Because of all this, I know that when I paint the mouth I want to blend color more than add color. I need to use highlights and darks to give the mouth form but I try to remember that I'm looking for a visual effect and not a mirror image. Multiple highlights on the lower lip can be condensed into one. The seam between the lips doesn't have to be painted all the way across the mouth. One or two light marks will do.

I also always try to remember to seat the lips within the landscape of the face. The shadow beneath the mouth where it meets the chin is essential to paint in order to make a portrait look believable. And adding the subtle shadows at the corner of a mouth position it realistically against the slight plumpness of the skin where the cheek starts.

In Sargent's portrait of Mrs. Charles Fairchild, the mouth is half in shadow because of the turn of the head. In Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, shadows and highlights around the mouth give form to the face.
In Sargent's portrait of Mrs. Charles Fairchild, the mouth
is half in shadow because of the turn of the head.
In Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, shadows and
highlights around the mouth give form to the face.
Red lips are for Disney characters. Unless I'm painting someone in full makeup, red lips probably aren't what I'm looking at. In fact, most of the time natural lip color is the skin tone of my model slightly tinted, so I add pigment with a very light hand.

Now, these are basics for painting a single feature on the human face. For a broader understanding of portraiture—going beyond the nuts and bolts of the face—is where Mastering Oil Portrait Painting with Ron Hicks comes in. This video workshop allows you to sit side by side with an artist and his model as he starts an oil portrait with thumbnail sketches and takes the painting to completion. Along the way, Ron explains his personal way of working to try to tease out the personality and emotions of a model, so that his paintings are always more than a simple rendering. And now we are offering an amazing deal: Mastering Oil Portrait Painting is available for immediate download for only 10 cents!* That is not a typo. 10 cents! Enjoy!

*The offer is good through Friday, August 19, 2011, at 11:59 p.m. MT.


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