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Creating a recognisable portrait: a hundred different babies - "Caitlin" WIP5-8

Have you ever struggled to make your human portraits resemble whom they're supposed to? Do your portraits go through numerous renditions on the way to being finished?

Perhaps moreso than with any other subject, the human face poses difficulties for the artist because the slightest change in proportion, shadow, highlight, colouration or form causes the portrait to become less-recognisable as the individual under scrutiny. Upon first glance a portrait may seem to resemble the individual, however with further observation we pick up subtle differences. Interestingly, this effect seems to occur even when we study a photo for a prolonged period of time - our visual recognition of someone is based not on a still image, but on a combination of moving images and interactions - it's a composite impression.

This problem of defining the recognisable elements of a face is exacerbated for the artist who labours over a portrait for many hours, because the longer we look at a subject beyond a certain point, the less accurately we are able to observe it because the subject becomes somewhat imprinted on our minds and stale. This means that our judgement for proportion and other facial elements becomes distorted with time. It certainly helps to see the subject in real life intermittently, rather than working solely from photographs!

Visual recognition of familiar faces is perhaps one of the earliest and most difficult skills learnt by babies as they develop - it is estimated to develop to a high level of proficiency (higher perhaps, than that of adults) within the first few weeks of life (after which the skill narrows to being specific to a particular racial and/or age group of people). If you've ever wondered how people from a different cultural background can tell each other apart visually when they appear superficially so similar, then you've touched on a facet of this skill that you might not have developed as strongly as others. After all, parents and friends of identical twins are usually very adept at telling the twins from one other.

Given that this portrait of my little niece Caitlin is only the second real portrait I've ever attempted, I was bound to encounter some difficulties in mastering this difficult subject! I've included a series of work in progress images showing how the painting developed (see work in progress images 5-8) from where I left off on my last blog post of this portrait (14th April, 2014). Since I've now worked out how to do time-lapse photography of my paintings, I also made two short videos along the way, which can be found here:

  1. Time-lapse video 1: shows adding the background around the face (

  2. Time-lapse video 2: shows modifications of the face and lowering of the hairline (

The main problems I encountered with the portrait, and the steps I took to correct them were as follows:

  • After laying and blending the background face layer (WIP4 from 14th April, 2014), the face appeared quite flat - it lost both definition and form unfortunately

  • So I blocked in the background to work out colour combinations, and then worked on adding colour and form back into the face (WIP 5), time-lapse video 1

WIP 5.jpg

  • At this stage the skin appeared quite rough, so I worked on skin tones and tried to bring shape back into the features (WIP 6)

WIP 6.jpg

  • Unfortunately, somewhere in planning the proportions of the face I made the forehead a little too high, so I needed to lower the hairline. The face was also a little too wide, because I had left an allowance on the left hand side for showing a small amount of Caitlin's ear - so I tried to narrow the face slightly (WIP 7), time-lapse video 2

WIP 7.jpg

  • Somewhere in the last few steps I defined the outline of the eyes too sharply (making them look like she had eye-liner on!), and distorted the shape of the chin and lower right cheek by cutting them off where the jacket overlapped, rather than having them still present underneath. So I removed some of the outer lower eyelid definition, and changed the shadowing on the right lower cheek (WIP 8).

WIP 8.jpg

In the end I felt like I had painted perhaps a hundred different babies in an attempt to create the right one! I'm still not convinced the portrait looks quite 'right', and Caitlin in real life is a lot cuter than in her portrait, but for now I feel it was a reasonable effort, and that along the way I've improved my skills in painting portraits!

I gave the portrait to my brother David and his wife Helda for Caitlin's first birthday, and they both seemed to love it!

How do you create recognisable portraits? Do your portraits go through numerous modifications trying to make them look like their subject, or are they correct from the start?

#may14 #pastel #portrait #baby #painting #proportions #skintone #timelapse #video #recognisable #resemble

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Laura is a visual artist, veterinarian, conservationist and disease ecology Research Fellow trying to juggle a multitude of passions - and she's too stubborn to drop any of them! She is particularly fond of bush walking, rogaining, camping (especially with her mother, Jenny), bird watching and photography. She lives with her partner Pete in sunny Brisbane, Australia, and dreams of having an art studio in the rainforest!

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