Fifty Shades of “Pink” ~ Looking at the Dark Side of Portraiture!

I’ve been taking some time to further explore the art of portraiture, analyzing different styles and techniques.  I’ve even been experimenting with going to the dark side of portraiture!  That is, developing stronger shadows by using darker darks, transitional mid-tones and stronger highlights.

Portraiture runs the gamut from Renoir to Rembrandt as far as lights and darks on a face.  Some portraits are soft and subtle like many of Renoir’s. I love this painting by Renoir of Jeanne Samary-La Reverie painted in 1877.

Other portraits have strong lighting with deep shadows like many of Rembrandt’s. Rembrandt painted 90 self-portraits from 1620-1669.  I find it fascinating how artists all see and paint faces differently.

A portrait painter, along with shading, sometimes struggles with coloring. The human face on a Caucasian isn’t just pink or flesh color in a tube but it can be fifty shades of “pink” and numerous other colors. Blues and greens help create cooler tones on a face.  Alizarin crimson, cadmium red and yellow ocher all help to create warmer skin tones.  

I usually tend to paint my portraits on the softer side.  I shy away from dark shadows on a face.  My colors tend to be lighter.  I’ve been using very little black when mixing colors.  To create darker skin tones I might mix in a little bit of green, brown, red, or blue to make the pinkish color darker. 

An advantage of working with darker shadows is that there can be more of a range of colors and shades.  Highlights pop more if they are played off darks, like the shine on the end of a nose or the twinkle in an eye.  Fine lines like wrinkles in the face can stand out more.  That can be good or bad, depending on whether you are the artist or the subject.  :-)  Not everyone wants their wrinkles to show. 

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on several portraits, painting in darker darks, adding more mid-tones and stronger highlights than I usually do.  Placing dark colors on a face is somewhat unnatural to me.  If you can believe it, a strong shadow on the dark side of one’s face might actually be a mixture of burnt umber, viridian green, black, alizarin crimson and a little dab of a neutral lighter color (or any combination of those colors).  It is actually a very dark color, not pink at all.

Having darker darks makes your lights darker too.  For instance, if the overall face is dark in tone, then the “whites of the eyes” are way too white if you paint them white.  The “whites of the eyes” have to be toned way down and are actually shades of grey.

Every artist is different.  There are many methods and styles to painting a portrait.  Here are a few examples of portraits that I find interesting and that exemplify a masterful ability by the artist to capture a personality on canvas.


Draft Age by arguably the most famous contemporary American artist Jamie Wyeth, has ultimate lights and darks.  It’s very realistic, creative, and makes a statement not only about the subject but about the times.  I viewed this portrait at the National Gallery of Art many years ago and was awestruck by it.  I also saw Jamie Wyeth’s painting of President John F. Kennedy that he painted when he was only 21!  Amazing!

Check out this painting of Shorty by Jamie!


The Girl with the Pearl Earring painted by Johannes Vermeer in 1665!  This painting is copied by many artists as a study in light and dark.  Vermeer’s ability to use strong lighting on a face without losing the soft feminine skin tones is masterful.

Monet’s Self-Portrait With a Beret I find marvelous in it’s simplicity and intriguing because I , like I imagine most people, don’t often associate Monet with portraiture.

I love this painting of the writer Thomas Wolfe done by the contemporary painter Everett Raymond Kinstler.  It’s a very large, painting (44” X 56”) that caught my eye one day while wandering the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  The white background is so unusual in professional portraiture but it is striking, combined with the light suit.  Rich skin tones, beautiful highlights, reflected light, and a unique and captivating pose all help make this painting exceptional.

Darkness in ones face can not only help develop a three dimensional quality but also can create mystery and intrigue into the personality of the subject. The question the portrait painter has to ask himself/herself is, do I show every bag and wrinkle or do I use artistic license and flatter someone?  A plastic surgeon is paid to take out the bags and wrinkles but sometimes a portrait painter is lauded for painting them in.  When painting one’s portrait one thing’s for sure, it’s all a delicate balance.

The bottom-line is that Portraiture is not only an art form but a science that can be analyzed and studied.  Masterpieces can range from simple in appearance like say Monet’s self-portrait above, to very complex like Jamie Wyeth’s intense photo-realistic Shorty.

 It’s time to get back to painting and studying the art and science of portraiture.  Venturing over into the dark side can be kind of scary but in order to see the light it helps to experience the dark!