How to Paint People With Acrylic

Acrylics is the most versatile of paints for fine art. There are many attributes of acrylic paints that make it my choice of paint. There are 3 main advantages of acrylic paints to oil paints and watercolors.

1. Varied Viscosity and Textures

Acrylics can be purchased with different levels of viscosity. This allows the artist to apply color using infinite choice of different techniques. One can apply the impasto technique by slapping on thick globs of paint on the support, or choose to thin the paint with water and make color wash like watercolor.

Acrylics have strong molecular bonds. The material is tacky and stretchable. This makes is possible to be mixed with solid granular or fibrous material to create interesting textures.

2. Different supports

The molecular structure mentioned above allows the paint to stick well to any thickness of material, from paper to wood or even metal, as long as the surface is not totally smooth.

3. Quick Drying

Quick drying paint is a boon to artists who paint layer on layer. Layering is not easy with oils because they take long to dry between layers. Watercolors are not color fast. Layering with watercolors is tricky since the paint is not color-fast. Layering of watercolors lead to bleeding and smudging of the under layer if one is not patient enough.

Within the scope of this article, I shall explain more of painting, as in applying color and not so much on drawing.

Skin Tones and Realism

Contrary to what many art teachers subscribe to, I do not believe there is such a thing as a formula for the color palette. One can use any combination of colors to create paintings of the human figure. I personally, use a very limited palette of not more than 2 colors plus black and white to paint people. The colors used should reflect the artist's own painting style, and also the tone of the subject matter.

The use of black is actually optional. Some artists do not use black, but rather mix two complementary colors to produce a dark. One great mix would be Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine. However, one can also use Cerulean Blue instead of Ultramarine for a more 'realistic' skin undertone.

For eyes, hair and lips, when trying to achieve realism, less is often more. Keep the color of these features muted if unsure. The exception is, of course, when the intention is to exaggerate these feature.

Clothes and Accessories

Clothes and accessories make paintings interesting. If possible, try to paint these last after painting the complete figure. I tend to use the figures as the support for these accessories.

Different Physical Techniques For Painting People With Acrylics

Creating art is free. There are so many ways to apply acrylic paint. Here are 4 broad techniques one can explore.

1. Color Washing

This method is similar to watercolor painting, except that one can use this method to paint on paper or canvas. Use the most fluid Acrylic paint, and thin it with water. The best results are obtained when the paint is really watery-thin. Paint from the highlights and darken as you go. The way to darken the tones is to wait for each thin layer to dry and then paint another thin layer over.

The more layers, the more control one will have on the skin tones. Start with the lighter skin tones like the yellow highlights and gradually add the burnt sienna, and the blue tones for shadow.

The idea for this style is to keep the colors loose and free.

2. Impasto

This techniques looks best on sturdy medium like stretched canvas and wood. It will not look so stable on paper. Visualize the famous portraits of Vincent van Gogh. The paint is thickly applied as if it was just squeezed out of the tube. Acrylic paints look like oil paint when applied this way. Buy paint which has high viscosity. If you need thicker texture, add acrylic gel medium. Apply the colors each stroke next to each other until the canvas is covered. While painting skin tones, most artists applying this technique would paint the darks first. This is because you want the highlights to appear on top of the surface. Hence, start with the shadows.

Extent of realism in this technique depends on the size of the brush strokes and the thickness of the paint. More realism is generally achieved by smaller strokes and less viscous paint.

3. Layering

This is the technique I use most in my present portfolio. The idea is somewhat in between the first two techniques. Use paint of varying viscosity. For lighter areas of the body, use paint thinned with water, and for areas which are darker of less detailed use slightly thicker paint.

For more control on realism, use thin layers. One can also adopt this technique called "Grisaille" method where the first under-painting is monotone to block in the shades.

4. Collage Techniques

Very popular with abstraction painters, and many artists today. This technique is not so much about painting with the traditional brush. The versatility of the paint allows us to mix and stick objects to the paint and onto the support. One can, use these objects under the paint or on top of the paint. Either way, there will be infinite possibility of textures and styles. Normally, realism in painting the human figure is not priority with this style.

Getting that X-factor in a painting

Human figures are the most interesting subjects to have in a painting. Even a landscape, a tiny figure of a person becomes the focal point. We are always drawn to body language. That is why I find it easy to communicate with art by painting people.

In order to add more drama, more expression in a figure painting, one can try experimenting on lighting, foreshortening, composition and clever use of color and brushstrokes.

The possibilities of painting people with acrylics are endless. An ultimate painting of the human figure can speak volumes and express a whole lot.

Nik Helbig is an artist and art blogger living in Austria. She specializes in figurative paintings on canvas.

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