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Portrait Commission

This is a demonstration of a portrait commission of Sam Church Jr., past President of the United Mine Workers of America.

Original photo

This is the photo I'm primarily working from. The client provided other photos which show him smiling. I will try to incorporate the beginnings of a smile in the portrait.

First sketch

I did a full size sketch as the first step of the process. I could see that I was going to run into trouble working this size. I will be doing the oil on a 24 x 20 inch canvas. With the face this size, I risk having too much uninteresting space at the bottom.

Corrected drawing - 1/2 done


The corrected drawing, in progress. This is a better composition. Behind, there will be a fuzzy representation of a flag and a bookcase with books and, perhaps, a jar or cup. The suit will be a medium gray instead of the light beige in the photo.

transferring the drawing to the toned canvas

Next stage is to transfer to a toned canvas. I prefer to use a toned canvas for portraits, a medium gray tone made with alkyd white and raw umber (both quick drying oils) because it allows me to work out to white and black from a medium tone instead of fighting the pure white canvas. It also sets off the skin tones nicely.

The toned canvas

I transfer to the canvas by applying charcoal to the back of the drawing and tracing the main shapes. The important elements on this portrait were the placement and shape of the head and body. Here you can see that the canvas was toned a medium gray tone. (Well, it looks brown in the image, but that's a factor of the inside lighting.)

Drawing transferred to canvas

And here's the drawing transferred to canvas.

I began work on the facial features first

I began by establishing the facial features in paint first.

Here is the first undercoat

Here is the first undercoat. The purpose of getting the first layer established is to set the lights and darks and basic color pattern. The suit coat will be a medium gray, lighter than is shown here.

Half done portrait

January 25th - The portrait is now half done. From here, it is a matter of adding detail and ensuring that I have the proportions of the face right. Looking back at the original photo, I see that I've made his face and little slimmer than it really was. That can be corrected. I'll also work on the detail in the tie and the background, although the background will remain out of focus. The challenge now is to complete this by the 30th so that it has time to dry. With all the rain we've been having, it's slow to dry.


February 12 - The portrait is now about 3/4 done. Meeting with the client in late January, the comments were that the jacket should be a lighter gray, I should remove the yellow fringe on the flag, they would provide a photo of the mug so that would have more detail, and the books should represent those that are actually on shelves at the office. Also, they realized I hadn't worked much at all on the tie, but remarked that the colors in the tie should be more in keeping with the gray suit. I have now inserted the revised flag, and have toned down the bookcase and roughed in the UMWA mug. I made a few swipes at the tie but haven't really concentrated on it yet.


98% done

February 21 - About 98% done. I feel that I need to mute the orange in the shelves behind Sam Church, further work on the books, perhaps the tie. The hair also got a little redder than shown in the original photo. Needs to be toned down. The mug could possibly be a little more impressionist. Right now, it stands out. I'm happy with the face, the jacket and the flag.

99 percent

February 24 - 99 percent. Eliminated the "orangey" tone that existed in the prior shot. Some little changes to the face, and more dark back in the hair. Still need to work on the tie and books and mug. This is just an update.

Portrait of Sam Church Jr.

March 31, 2010 — Complete (subject to client approval.) There are only minor changes between the "99% complete" and this one. (Kind of like the "Find Elmo" puzzle.) Basically, I let the painting dry for some time, then I worked on the tie and books and mug. Finally, after this final layer had dried, I used a glazing medium to put some very subtle shading on the tie and the books to give them some modeling, and, satisfied, I signed on the lower left (not really visible on this reduced version, but you can see the final portrait on my website.)


Last updated: March 31, 2010
Copyright c. 2010 by Pam Coulter Blehert. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.