Behind the painting - Dafne


 Last week I watched the movie Logan with my colleagues. I was blown away by the performance of this young actress - Dafne Keen. Feeling inspired, I decided to do a portrait of her. I quite like how the painting has turned out, so I decided to share the process here.

Source Photo

 After searching the web a bit, I came across this photo. I love the angle and the lighting of this photo so I decided to use this as my reference. Obviously, I had to crop out the empty background and keep the portrait orientation. But besides the background, there are other things I have to process before make it into a watercolor painting:

  • Value range - If you've seen my portrait before, you probably know that I don't like to paint portraits and figures with strong contrast. I don't want to fight the transparent nature of watercolor. If I wanted to paint a high contrast portrait with heavy dark colors, I would go for oil. So very early on I decided to keep my painting mostly in high keys with few darker areas such as the hair and the eye areas.
  • Colors - She's lit by a yellow-ish light. It gave her skin a nice warm glow. But if I try to paint it with the same colors, she will end up looking too yellow and unhealthy. We need to remind our self that we are trying to capture the color of light by using the pigments. Pigments are artificial while the light is natural. What I need to do is to paint with my own color scheme while maintaining the same look and feel of her warm skin tone.



 Drawing is probably the most important state of the whole painting. Nothing is more important than getting the gesture, structure and the proportion of the head right! You don't want to build a house on a shaky foundation. Neither would you want to do a painting on a bad drawing, especially a human head! Head drawing is a whole different topic that deserve it's own course (which I'm hoping to have a complete head drawing/painting course out next year), so I am not going to go into detail about it. I have to confess that I'm not a natural when it comes to drawing, so I often spend 20 minutes just to get the drawing right. I draw quite a few of light construction lines to get the structure of the head. Then I put some darker marks to where the anchor points(or land marks) are. I will erase the lighter lines to keep the drawing clean. I use a mechanical pencil with 4B lead. This allow me to draw darker marks without pressing down hard on the paper. Mechanical pencil gives me a fine point all the time without sharpening it.

First Wash

 First wash is just to get a basic skin tone down. It should be flat and clean. Resist the urge of trying to do too much with first wash. If you try to fuss with the first wash too much, you will end up with many undesirable edges. I started from the nose with mixture of Cad Red and a touch of Cad Orange. As I painted out I used some cerulean blue to cool things off. It is one wash, so get the coverage you need before the wash is dry, otherwise you will end up with hard edges. Keep in mind that because the first wash is really wet, it will dry much lighter.

 Have the wash extend outside the face. Since her hair is dark, I can easily cover the first wash with darker, more opaque paint later. It will end up looking cleaner too. So don't be afraid to go outside the face if you know the outside area will be darker.

Second Wash - Start modeling

 After the first wash is completely dry (go ahead and take a break!😉), you can start the second wash. I usually start from the eye, get some dark shape down so you have a value reference. I then start to paint the darker skin tone for the eye socket area and the wash down to the right side of her face. The subtle value and hue difference between the left and the right side of her face will be enough to give it some dimension. One thing to note is that when you are painting the eye. Don't fill everything in. Leave out some white for the highlight. A lively eyes has moisture and it catches light!

 I added some Burnt Sienna to my Cad Red and Orange mixture for the darker skin color. I use some Cerulean blue at some areas to cool things off so the color doesn't get too hot. 

Third Wash - cast shadow and the darks

 The third wash starts pretty much right after the second. What happen was after I complete the wash on the bottom(the neck area), the top part(eyes) is dry. I can jump right into the third wash! Just make sure where you want to paint is completely dry. I started to paint the cast shadow on her face. Those shadows were cause by her hair block out the light, so those need to be sharp edges, hence the wet on dry. Even though the cast shadows are fairly dark in the reference photo, I don't want to paint it as dark in my painting! If I paint them too dark, the face can look muddy really fast. Keep it nice and transparent, as long as people can read the difference between the value, you've done the job. I also added some cool colors in this wash to make the shadow shape more interesting and not as flat.
 This is also the time to get some darker marks in such as the nostril, the eyebrow, the mouth, and the shadow of the nose bridge. At the end of this wash, the face should popping out of the white paper!

Final Wash - Hair and final touches

 Time to paint the hair! She has a dark brown hair, so I made sure the hair is nice and dark. The mixture was much thicker, with just enough water allow it to flow. I like to drop in some strong Cobalt Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Cad Red to make the dark hair more interesting. Hair is a huge part of her head, if I use only one color it will end up looking dead and too heavy. I tend to keep the hair loosely painted. The face is our main focus, so the hair is just supporting it. I did some quick dry brushing for the loose hair strands. Keep in mind to keep some highlight when painting the hair.

 While waiting for the hair to dry I started to add some really dark marks on her face. Those are the small anchor marks that will give the face some more punch. Such as the corner of the lips, corner of the eye, and the pupil. After those are done the hair is pretty much dry, allow me to went back in and added some dark essences.

 I took this chance to carefully model the shape of her face, as you can see from the photo. I slowly painted around the right side of her face, making sure the silhouette is looking good, then I extended the shape before it dry.

 Finally, I painted her shirt and the background very loosely, a little hint of the shadow on her right shoulder and it's finished.

 Here's a quick timelapse video of the painting. I will be doing a in depth painting demo video at some point.

New YouTube painting demo - Rainy Day in Vancouver

 If you haven't checked it out, I uploaded a new YouTube painting video. It is a in depth painting demo of my recent painting - Rainy Day in Vancouver. Hope you enjoy it!