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Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

"Becky Laura" by Becky Syroka

Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

Postby Becky Syroka » Tue Oct 27, 2009 2:03 pm


In September of 2007 I made my very first (ever) visit to an art museum. I went to the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. At that time, I was not quite one year into my learning how to paint portraits (but already obsessed) and I headed straight for the European oil painters section. I strolled slowly through the paintings, admiring several of them and disliking many others, when I turned a corner and stopped in drop-jaw awe at a lifesize painting of a peasant girl. This was my first introduction to the paintings of William Bougeureau, a French artist (1825 – 1905).

"The Haymaker" painting by William Bouguereau from ARC website

I lingered there in front of that painting long after the rest of my family had proceeded on to other floors of the gallery. I was amazed with the realism of Bouguereau’s portrait, consumed with the desire to discover the secret to his realistic skin tones. Even close up I could almost sense the pores of her skin breathing and I wondered HOW did he achieve that realism? As I studied and pondered, I suddenly noticed all the COLORS which were reflected across the skin….blues, greens, violets, yellows, etc. The colors on the skin appeared to perfectly reflect the environment, such as the direction and degree of light or shadow, the background, the clothing, even the time of day relating to the color of the light during that time of day.

I have become intrigued with studying faces in real life and trying to discern the way that various colors are reflected over the surface of a person’s skin. As a small child, I recall a game my sister and I used to play. We’d pick dandelions and hold them under each other’s chin just to see how our sister’s chin would suddenly illuminate with yellow! Now, as an artist, I am fascinated to see how those reflected colors will change completely depending on the type of light (indoor or outdoor….sunny or overcast, early dawn or sunset, etc.)

As porcelain artists, we have a unique advantage over portrait artists in other media, such as oils or acrylics. Because our china paints are translucent, we can achieve a glorious realism by applying thin washes of colors so that even our undercolors reflect their subtle influence over the finished painting. No other media can create such depth of realistic color variations. It is for this reason that I personally prefer to bring my skin tones up gradually over perhaps 4 or 5 firings. (This is just my own personal preference, with no disrespect intended to the beautiful results others are able to achieve with only a couple of fires using entirely different techniques).

The reason for this lesson is not to teach you HOW to achieve those colors in your paintings. Rather, I simply want to urge you to begin observing faces and the changing colors reflected over those faces and skin under differing environments. You will feel like your eyes have been opened to a whole new world! How will this benefit you when you begin to paint your next portrait? Well, now you will begin to discern small details and nuances which have been previously hidden from your once “casual” eye. All these small details are what come together to enhance the realism of your portrait, so the more you can discern and “see”, the more realism you can recreate within your own painting. How pleasing it is when your portrait subject “belongs” or appears to be “planted” naturally within the background. So, next time, please take note with your study photo, how the environment will have influenced the colors cast across your portrait subject’s skin.

In July of 2009, while attending the WOCP convention in Omaha, Nebraska, Marci Blattenberger and I had the opportunity to spend a couple hours at the Joslyn Art Museum, just sitting together and studying another of Bougeureau’s paintings (The Knitter). I suspect we could spend our entire lives trying to unravel the secrets of Bouguereau’s incredible technique, yet we would never figure it all out. But what a delightful journey of discovery!

"The Knitter" painting by William Bouguereau from ARC website

Want to stroll through an entire gallery of William Bougeureau paintings (229 of them!)?
Visit the William Bouguereau Gallery at the Art Renewal Center Website:

Added By Marci:
Hey Becky , thanks for bringing up the Art Renewal Center website .. Its one of my favorite places. ..and anyone who loves realistic portraiture owes themselves a visit to that website.
( WARNING: bring lots of coffee.. Youre gonna be there for awhile :) )
Becky knows what a Bouguereau junkie I am ! 'yep; ( even though I STILL have no clue how to pronounce his name ...BOO-guh-Row? BOO -Juh-Row? ;pacifier;
It was an internet search for some of his paintings that led me to ARC. ARC is devoted to the revival of traditional painting styles and they have not only an extensive library of high quality scans of Bouguereau ( however the heck you say it ) but of other artists who paint in realistic styles. You can find not only portraits, but also still life and more and they also have a wonderful Salon competition which brings out the best of the best of contemporary painters.
I also just found this: http://www.bouguereau.org/. I have not yet had a chance to look but it promises to be a treasure trove of more Bouguereau.

I second Becky's challenge to start doing some close observation on your own .. The more you see, the more you will see. Thats how it works. ;thumps;

One thing thats kind of fun and will get you on the road to seeing is to take some brightly colored pieces of cloth ( Yellow, magenta, green etc ) ...and , in good light ( sunlight is perfect ) , hold the cloth close to your arm , then pull it away , then pull it close to your arm again an watch how your arm skin tone will reflect back the colors. Doing it with a very intense color to begin with will show this very dramatically ( Like Becky's dandelion under the chin... We used to use buttercups. Apparently dandelions hadnt been invented yet when I was a kid :) )
Then , once you can see the dramatic color shift, train your eye to see more and more subtle color shifts. Youll be seeing those tiny differences in no time.
And check out some of the really large scans of Bouguereau's stuff on ARC. You can really see the colors he used. Very enlightening.
Becky, thanks for all youve already put up here. There is a wealth of info . :urock:
Becky Syroka
Portraits on Porcelain
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Becky Syroka
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Re: Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

Postby patludy » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:04 pm

Well written, Becky. ;bravo; ;bravo; ;bravo; ;bravo;

I have to tell you...Merlyn told me in class yesterday..she dropped her portrait on the cement!!! It broke into 3 pieces and fragments zz zz She is UPSET with herself. Maybe if you drop her a commisserate line, it'll make her feel better. She said she would tackle it again next year. Carolyn is working on finishing hers and doing great. Super lessons here!

My Reply:
Dear Pat,
OH NO!!! Poor Merlyn! ;o( ;o( ;o(
She had done such a great job on that portrait....I feel so bad for her, poor sweetie!
Thanks for letting me know, Pat
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Re: Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

Postby Sol Labos Brien » Fri Dec 18, 2009 9:52 am

Dear Becky,

You are a wealth of information, I have read with passion everything you said here and on your other posts and about the Bouguereau paintings. What a treat! You express so well in words what we feel in our hearts and can not convey. You are an amazing teacher as you are able to make us understand all these subtleties that we feel but can not grasp.

As for the Art Renewal site, I have to tell you that I have been a fan for many years. So much so, that a couple of years ago, I spent weeks viewing every single painter and each of their work (and you know how many pages some of them have) one by one starting with the letter A. In the process I saved many paintings as reference for fear that I will never find them again and hopefully some day I will try and paint them.

We have a couple of Bouguereaus in our Montreal Museum and I too stood for many minutes in front of this one trying to figure his technique.

I even joined a class in oil painting on canvas to learn skin painting a la Bouguereau, it was all done in 14 lessons, one glaze over one glaze over one glaze with blues, greys, greens etc...Who would have thought that we have so many colors in our skin.

Thanks Becky, you are a true teacher!
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Re: Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

Postby minervacox » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:28 am

Becky, I have written several poems about "seeing" here is a link to one....
I agree with you, learning to "see" what we are looking at is very important in learning to paint anything, especially portraits...I was fortunate enough to see one of Bouguereau's paintings in a museum about 10 years ago in Rome and immediately fell in love. I think besides this skin tones being magnificent, what impresses me is the contrast of values. The lights/darks are exquisitely rendered to give form to what otherwise would be flat. As Sol wrote, you explain so well in words what most of us "feel" in our hearts/souls and cannot verbalize, THANK YOU!!!
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Re: Portrait Basics - Adventures in Observation

Postby Becky Syroka » Fri Dec 18, 2009 8:59 pm

Dear Sol and Minerva,
You will never know how much your compliments of today touched my heart and lifted my spirits! I owe you both a debt of gratitude for all the times you each have shared your experience with me over the past 3 years in helping me learn how to do portraits and gently ;kiss; ;thanks3; ;rose2; guiding my progress. I highly value the judgement and opinions of both of you.....so your compliments to my own lesson is a priceless gift.
Love you both!

;rose2; ;love2; ;thanks3; ;kiss;
Becky Syroka
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