Acrylic Paintbrush Techniques – For the Portrait Artist


There is a dizzying array of brushes to choose from and really it’s a matter of preference as to which ones to buy. Synthetic brushes are better for acrylic paints and Cryla brushes are good quality. Again, better to buy a few good quality brushes than a whole load of cheap ones that shed most of their bristles onto the canvas. Having said that a series of fairly cheap hog hair brushes are great for applying texture paste and scumbling.

The biggest rule of thumb when using acrylics is not to allow the paint to dry on your brushes. Once dry they are solid and although soaking them in methylated spirit overnight softens them a little, they usually lose their shape and you end up chucking them out.

It is recommended that portrait artists invest in a water container that allows the artist to rest the brushes on a ledge so the bristles are submerged in the water without the bristles being squashed. The artist then needs a rag or a piece of kitchen towel handy to take away any excess water when I next want to use that brush again. This saves having to thoroughly rinse each brush after each use.

Brush techniques

Brushes need to be damp but not wet if you are using the paint quite thickly because the paint’s own consistency will have enough flow. However if you are wanting to use a watercolour technique then your paint should be mixed with plenty of water.

Use a large brush for big areas and for more detailed work use a thinner brush with a point. Hold the brush nearer to the bristles for increased accuracy or further away if you would like more freedom with the stroke. Start your portraits by holding a large brush halfway up to quickly give the background a colour. Artists should not be so worried about mixing the exact colour as they can often mix colours on the canvas by moving my brush around in lots of different directions.

One method for family portrait artists would be to start on the face using Payne’s Gray to fill in the shadows before applying a fairly opaque background of flesh tint when the shadows have dried. After that build up the skin tone with lots of different coloured washes and glazes.

Two different methods could be explored here by the portrait artist:

• Mix up a large quantity of a colour on the palette with a lot of water and apply it liberally to the canvas in sweeping movements to create an overall tint.
• Or ‘scumbling’, which is where your brush is relatively dry, loaded only a quarter full and dragged across the surface in all different directions allowing the dry under painting to show through.

Family portrait artists use the scrumbling technique a lot especially when painting highlights and places where light hits the skin like on the tip of the nose, top lip, forehead and cheeks. The scrubbing motion tends to wreck fine brushes so only use hog hair brushes for this.

The majority of the family portrait is built up using glazes of all different colours. The portrait’s appearance can change quite dramatically at different stages leaving subjects looking seasick, jaundiced, embarrassed or like they’ve seen a ghost and had a lot of heavy nights out.

Look for subtle shades, like there’s often yellow and blue in the skin tones under the eyes, pink on the cheeks and under the nose, crimson red on lips and ears and greens and purples in the shadows on the neck and forehead.

Finally, use fine brushes for adding details like eyelashes. It may help if your rest your little finger on the canvas to steady your hand at this fine detail stage. At the end of all this you will hopefully have a family portrait that looks lifelike and resembles the person or family you are trying to capture on canvas!

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