Painting the expressiveness of a person’s mouth helps establish his or her likeness, personality, and vitality in a portrait, yet many artists have difficulty representing that facial feature. Here’s how I teach students to paint a mouth in either oil or pastel.
by William A. Schneider
2007, pastel, 17 x 12. Private collection.
The mouth is the second most expressive feature on the human face after the eyes, but artists find it to be one of the most challenging features to represent accurately and uniquely. They often revert to the symbol learned in childhood of an outlined oval divided in the middle, with two rounded lumps on top. Artists fall into the trap of painting what they know rather than what they actually observe.
In my workshops and classes, I offer separate demonstrations of how I paint the eyes and mouth. I want to help students avoid preconceived images and, instead, to paint with the same freshness and animation they use in capturing other aspects of a model’s personality. I start by listing six tips for painting a mouth (see sidebar) and showing how those can be applied to painting either with oil or pastel.
Before I offer those demonstrations of how to paint specific features such as the mouth, eyes, or hands, I establish a context for the discussion by first painting the entire human head. I want students to understand that I have a modified alla prima method, meaning that I work wet-in-wet on each section of a painting but may not cover the entire canvas in one sitting. If I’m not satisfied with a section after working on it for several hours, I remove the paint or pastel and start over rather than trying to make adjustments another day. My goal is to record what I observe during one session, not to re-evaluate things days later.
The second reason for painting an entire head is that it helps to keep in mind the way light reveals the structure of the human form when we start to consider details. (There is a physical, topographical reason why the upper lip is usually in shadow and the lower lip catches the light and casts a shadow.) A third reason is that I need to talk about the four critical aspects of painting in the order of their importance: The first is drawing, then relative value, followed by color temperature, and edges. The success of any painting—whether it is a full figure or a pair of hands—hinges on those four elements.
2007, oil, 9 x 12. Private collection.
I start the demonstration by using vine charcoal to find the position of the mouth. I don’t draw an outline. Rather, I just identify the bottom of the lower lip, the center point between the lips, and the placement of the corners of the mouth. I describe the mouth as a sculpted object made of rounded, angled forms of varying size. I point out that those shapes ultimately depend on a person’s age, gender, and ethnicity. Then I mention I will be “drawing” the mouth, by which I mean that I will actually be working the brush or stick of pastel around the forms and not filling in lines that mark the edges of those forms. I remind students that the mouth is a fluid and expressive part of the human face, so it is best to strive for a soft understatement rather than a sharply defined representation.
For the purposes of this article, I documented a painting demonstration in pastel because that dry medium made it easier to show the basic concepts. My demonstrations are usually done from life because that is always preferable, but my classes include instruction in working from photographs because most professional portrait painters (especially those who paint children) find it necessary to use a combination of photographs and sketches done from life. When working from life, the model’s expression changes constantly. Over a two- or three-hour session the mouth will sag into a relaxed position that is almost a frown. The artist needs to pick one image and return to it, remembering that the expression is largely defined by the position of the corners of the mouth.
2007, pastel, 16 x 11. Private collection.
One advantage to working from life is the opportunity to evaluate color relationships that are specific to the model and the lighting on his or her face. Photographs are not as helpful in identifying the best palette for painting the face of a young child, rugged man, or makeup-enhanced woman; nor are they very good at capturing nuances of color temperatures. Many artists make quick watercolor, pastel, or oil sketches of their portrait subjects so they have observed references with which to judge the color distortions in their photographs.
However one judges the color relationships, it is important to maintain a consistency in the range of pastels or oils an artist uses. Anders Zorn tended to blend flesh colors dominated by ochres, John Singer Sargent was more apt to use blacks and grays, and Henry Hensche pushed the intensity of warm and cool pigments. Those approaches worked because the artists were consistent in the way they judged relative values and temperatures, and in the way they modeled the forms.
In my experience, it is easier to paint models posing under a cool north light that creates warm shadows. White is usually used to lighten colors, and since it is the coolest color on the palette the resulting tints become cooler as they get lighter. However, under a warm light source, objects will get lighter and also become warmer. This is more challenging since one has to mix in small amounts of cadmium yellow or transparent oxide red to warm the white. It’s easy to overdo and create an unrealistic color.
|The Beauty of Youth
2007, oil, 14 x 11. Collection the artist.
The directness of pastel allows artists to layer one color on top of another to achieve the right balance of value and temperature. When working with oils, however, painters have to consider the ways in which the texture of the brush hairs and the addition of solvents or mediums will affect the composition. For example, I usually start oil paintings using bristle brushes and paint thinned with odorless mineral spirits; and later I switch to smaller, softer Royal & Langnickel brushes and add a small amount of oil medium. As a final touch, I might use a palette knife to apply thick highlights.
|Six Tips for Painting the Mouth
1. The mouth is in constant motion, so a painting of it must have soft edges or it will appear too stiff and seem inappropriate for the rest of the painted face.
2. It’s better to understate the mouth rather than overstate it. Suggestion goes further than careful delineation.
3. There is a sequence of lit and shadowed planes that describe the topography of the mouth. Under most situations, the light hits the top of the upper lip and casts a shadow beneath the top lip; whereas light touches the upper plane of the lower lip and causes a cast shadow beneath it. If you simplify the values of that sequence, the mouth will read correctly.
4. Structurally, you can conceive of one ball (the fleshy center part of the upper lip) resting on two below it (the two lobes of the lower lip). See the diagram.
5. The deep darks in the mouth are almost always warm, regardless of the temperature of the light.
6. Highlights on the bottom lip have a definite shape and color and are usually cool, even under warm light.
Ultimately, one of the biggest advantages to trying this exercise is that it helps in understanding how to capture fleeting gestures that convey a sense of a model’s personality. Whether an artist is painting a mouth, hands, eyes, or hair, it is better to develop the soft look of shapes rather than the harsh outlines of individual features.
About the Artist
William A. Schneider studied art at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, but pursued careers in music and finance before returning to fine art in 1990. He honed his skills at the American Academy of Art, in Chicago, and participated in workshops with Dan Gerhartz, Scott Burdick, Harley Brown, Scott Christensen, Huihan Liu, David A. Leffel, and Richard Schmid. He is a signature member of Oil Painters of America, American Plains Artists, the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society, and the Pastel Society of America. He is also a member of The Plein Air Painters of Chicago, the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, and the Portrait Society of America. His oil and pastel paintings have been featured in numerous juried shows, art magazines, and books; and they have received awards in major art competitions. The artist maintains a studio in Crystal Lake, Illinois. For more information on Schneider, visit his website at www.schneiderart.com.
16 x 12. Courtesy Lee Youngman Galleries, Calistoga, California.
15 x 16. Collection the artist.
2007, oil, 40 x 26. Courtesy The Weatherburn Gallery, Naples, Florida.