11. Knowledge : People Painting : Female Face Oil Demo – Part 1


The first thing we saw soon after we were born, and have seen just about every day since, are faces and people.  So why are painters so panic-stricken about painting portraits and people?


Key #1 : Knowledge of Painting Female Face Demo


I invite you to explore this question as we continue our artful adventure together at ‘Lessons With Lesley’.  In the following lesson/demo we will demystify and simplify the process of painting the people and faces.  I’ll help you to understand the nuances and planes of the human face, as we discover, together, a variety of fun, relatively simple exercises.  We will explore ways to plan, see and understand portraiture by “inventing a face”.  That’s right!  You won’t need a model for these first exercises; Instead, we will follow the exercise and see who emerges!

We will be dealing with how to paint portraits by using a live model in later lessons, but in the meantime, this “takes the sting” away from having to ‘paint a likeness’, thereby helping you to learn in a less-intense, freer way.

Over the years, I have done literally hundreds of these faces and no two ever look alike.  (Sometimes, it can be disconcerting when someone comes up to one of these and says “I know that person!”).  You can have great fun with the faces that emerge, decorating them with character, limited only by your creativity.

I love the unique variety that makes up the human race; I love to paint all ethnic groups, ages and skin colors; All are incredibly beautiful and rich in their diversity, but for the purposes of this demonstration I will use the one most familiar to me:  My own, rosy-cheeked, English skin type.  (At the end of this lesson, I will share a few examples of a wide variety of live models I have painted over the years, at the end of this demonstration.)

Demo:  ‘Mapping Out ‘ & Painting The Female Face

We’re going to start by learning how to plan, plot and paint a caucasian female face in oils.  I have used oil paints for the following demonstration. I will also be offering a variety of alternative, inexpensive ways to practice understanding portraiture and light on the face in the next lesson or two.  The following is my list for this particular demo… Please note that you can do this easily with pastel, acrylic or even watercolor.  (I will prove that to you in later demos.)

Ground:  I prepared rough, cold-pressed watercolor paper with grey gesso for this exercise.
Paints – Cool:  Ultramarine Blue Deep, Viridian Green, Mineral Violet, White
Paints – Warm:  Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Oxide Red, Yellow Ochre, and Juan Brilliant #2 (I think of Juan Brilliant as a warm white.)
Medium:  Liquin and mineral spirits
Brushes:  Variety of Langnickel badger hairs, and #3 filbert bristle.
Attitude:  Great!

Here we go with the kingdom of shadow!

Mapping and measuring the distance:

Skull Measurement Mark: Using warm, thin paint, loosly sketch a circle for the skull ball, then place a small mark (used as a measuring device)

I like to use terms that describe the shape of the various components of the basic head shapes, such as skull ‘ball’, jaw ‘wedge’, and neck ‘post’.

Jaw Mark and Jaw Wedge: Measure distance between central dot to edge of ball, then, using thicker, darker paint, add a 'landmark' for bottom of jaw (chin mark), that same distance. Then loosly draw the 'jaw wedge'. The skull ball is always sat on top of the neck so add a 'neck post'.

The jaw and neck differ from males to females.  In general, the female neck is smaller than the males’.  Also, the jaw wedge is often less angular, less pronounced, and the chin more round than males (which I will show later on another demo/exercise.)

Apply Hairline Landmark: Using turpentine or mineral spirits, erase the first measurement dot in the center of the skull ball. Now place a "landmark" (a thicker, darker dot) for 'hair line'. (On a bald person, you can usually tell where the hairline used to be; it's at the junction where the forehead becomes the scalp).

Between the hairline mark and the jaw bottom mark, we now we have the parameters for our features.

Directional Line & Eye Line: Place a vertical line between brow mark and chin mark indicating direction of head. Then place an 'eye line', which on a female is approximately half-way between them.

Insert Shadow Landmarks: Eye corner marks; nose bottom mark, lip/mouth opening mark; dental arch mark. (See explanations below)

  1. Eye Landmark:  Along the eye line, paint four marks (dots) equal distance apart.  This will create 5 spaces of equal distance, which is a basic, generic measurement for the spaces between eyes and ears.  These lines provide the marks between which to lay the all-important eye socket shapes below (hexagonal).
  2. Bottom Nose Landmark:  On a feminine face, measure halfway between the newly created eye line and the chin mark and make the new ‘nose’ mark.  This represents the landmark upon which the shadow shape for the bottom of the nose.
  3. Mouth Opening Mark:  Half way between the nose mark and the chin mark place the “mouth opening mark”.  This is the landmark upon which is placed the shape representing the ‘lip pusher muscle’ which is the central of 3 muscles creating the upper lip shadow shape.  (See below)
  4. Dental Arch Mark:  Half way between the lip opening mark and the chin mark is the dental arch mark.  Upon this mark there is a unique shadow that indicates the dental and jaw structure below the surface of the chin.

Note:  As we shall see, it’s really interesting to note that so many of the features of the human head consist of 45 degree angles, and I recommend that the shadow shapes/features of the face be considered as a variety of polygons.  The eye socket can be viewed as an irregular hexagon.  The jaw can be viewed as a trapezoid.  The nose bottom shadow, the dental arch, the keystone (which is the space between the eyes) as well as the chin shadow can all be considered and painted as a trapezoid.  Let me demonstrate:

Landmarks For Shapes: Eye socket shapes are inserted between the eye line marks; Upon the nose bottom mark there is a trapezoid; upon the lip opening mark paint a "bean" for the lip pusher muscle shape; on the dental arch mark there is another trapezoid shape; and on the chin mark there is another trapezoid shape.

Applying Light 2 - Form Shadow: Decide the direction of the light source (notice little arrow on top left). With thin, soupy paint (this was Transparent Oxide Red, Blue and Viridian plus Liquin and turp), apply to the shadow side of face and neck. (Note the small, triangular shapes applies to either side of 'lip pusher muscle shadow shape'. I always paint each shape separately.) Soften the edges with a soft cloth. This creates the 3-dimensional planes.

Finished, the kingdom of shadow.


 Look how human-looking, and we haven’t yet drawn two of those ovals with spider legs on them that usually stand for eyes!  Achieving ‘likeness’ is all about planning for and painting shapes in shadow, and shapes in light.  Or, as my kindly old teacher used to say, “Where light hit, and where light don’t hit!”


Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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