An obsession with painting faces

By: Helen

I would never say I’m skilled at portraiture; but it’s something I end up coming back to time and time again with my artwork.
There’s an element of frustration that goes into painting faces; because one wonky eye or odd nose placement sends the viewer to uncanny valley territory. Because of my lack of skill when it comes to realism, and because all of my favourite portrait artists tend to portray their subjects in off looking ways; I found enjoyment in creating strange looking portraiture of my own.

Self-portrait, acrylic on canvas board

I experimented a lot with portraiture throughout university, and struggled with it as many other people on my course where exceptionally talented at painting faces. I knew that I’d never reach that level of realism in my own work; yet I wanted to continue painting these ‘off’ looking pieces, inspired by artists such as Marlene Dumas and Yuko Nasu.

Three faces, acrylic on canvas

At the time, I was using a lot of acrylic and my colour palette was very dark or neutral. For referencing, I used photos of myself, my pals and ads from fashion magazines. My focus was on creating stark feeling, bleak paintings, with little to no backgrounds. The reason for the lack of background was a desire to suspend the subject matter in nothingness. I was going through a fairly difficult time and it felt like wading through fog, so my art was quite emotive and self indulgent.

Crackle, Ink on Fabriano paper

Around this time of portrait exploration, I, by luck, discovered an interesting technique using pen ink. It entailed laying thin handmade or blotting paper over thick fabriano paper that was brushed with water, painting a picture on the first layer of paper with pen ink, and then peeling it off, leaving a warped looking face beneath. I used this technique to create large ink portraits that at the time, I was kind of proud of. My tutors were not as into them as I was hoping for, but I persevered.

Oh dear, ink on fabriano paper.

My reason for concentrating so much on portraiture was partly for the challenging aspect of it, but mainly for the desire to create something creepy and unusual looking. After graduating from Uni, and taking a long break from art, I picked it back up and started to paint portraiture again.

Untitled, Gouache on watercolor paper

The first painting I had done in a few years was a brightly coloured gouache face. It was quite different to my older work because I actually used colour, but the style was still present. It was Lize who got me back into art again, and after I made this piece, I started painting more.

Spook boy, acrylic on acrylic paper

Kisses to u all, gouache on watercolour paper

Experimenting with bright colours definitely motivated me to keep creating work. One of the reasons for stopping painting was a feeling of disenchantment with what I was doing, it was very samey and I wasn’t sure which direction to take it.
My subject matter these days has changed, and I’m more focused on painting plants and weird mushroom creatures than portraiture, but sometimes I’ll feel the pull to go back to it and it’s still as enjoyable as ever. I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to look hyper realistic either. It’s important to find a style you enjoy and just go with it.
If you’re a fan of painting portraiture, then we’d love to see your work! You can submit your art for a chance to be featured on our gallery page.

Happy painting,


Smile :)
social-3 social-media social-2 social-1 social