Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, March 18, 2013

Head Study

This head study I did last week is modeled a bit more than I usually do. I'm not a portrait painter and the heads I paint are typically devoid of details, but from time to time I have to do a tighter head to reassure myself that my looser, suggested heads are by choice and design, not because I can't do otherwise.

Still, this cowboy head isn't all that detailed when compared to many of the realist portrait painters out there.

There are many ways to approach head painting. There's no one best way, and no rule or tip is absolute because there are so many variables in each situation. Even the most general good ideas are not exempt from context, so please take the following tips that I offer with grains of salt!

  • Have a good, direct light source. Yes, many paintings use diffused lighting, but I think it's best to first have a thorough understanding of light/form relationship. And to study that, direct light is essential. Once you have a good grasp of this Form Principle, diffused light situations will make more sense.
  • Have enough value separation between light and shadow. The darkest light is lighter than the lightest shadow. 
  • Big shapes and forms need to happen first, then smaller ones as subtler variations within the big shapes. Don't start painting eyelids and nostrils before you have established the front and side planes of the skull, in other words.
  • Wherever there's a plane change, there's a value change. Yes, you can show a plane change through color/temperature change alone, but that's not a substitute for an inability to control subtle values.
  • The darkest notes often define the features. Place them as accurately as possible. 
  • Find ways to soften/lose edges around eyes and lips. You don't want sharp outlines all around them.
  • Shadow patterns in and around the eye socket often connect with the dark shapes in the eye - a good way to lose edges.
  • Eyeballs are spheres. Eyelids need to sit on this spherical surface, so don't paint them as if they're on a flat surface. 
  • The mouth, too are on a curved surface. Don't make them look like they're on a flat surface. 
  • The front plane of the face also has a curve to it. The left side and the right side should have different values.
  • Just as there's a value change on a form from one side to the other, there's a value change vertically, too. The head is like an egg, not a box. 
  • Establish these value changes on big forms quite early in the process.
  • Often (but not always) the truest and more saturated local colors are found in the halftone areas. The colors in the lighter lights (including the highlights) often dominated by the color of the light.
  • The highlight may appear cooler than the surrounding area. The light will still feel warm as long as the general relationship  of warm light vs. cool shadow is established. 
  • Form shadow edges are softer, and cast shadow edges are sharper. You get more volume if you emphasize this difference. But don't overdo it, or you'll end up with a lumpy mass.
  • The darkest darks are usually very warm. Don't just mix black and be done with it!
  • The darkest darks are usually crevices and holes, or other receding areas. They're dark because they're not getting any direct, bounced, or ambient light. Painting these areas thin and transparent really helps to make them not pop forward.
  • On the flip side, if you want an area to pop forward, opacity and impasto are good tools to use.
  • When appropriate, make sure the underplane of the nose is clearly defined. You can often see a core shadow as the forms turns under ; a small but effective shape not to be overlooked.
  • Same thing with the underplane of the lower jaw. 
  • Colors of the shadow planes depend on that of the reflected/ambient light. You should be able to tell why a shadow plane looks warmer or cooler. Knowing the reasons will help you paint these planes more decisively, rather than mindlessly copying what you see.
  • Define a hierarchy of highlight strengths. If you paint them all the same, you'll have a head decorated with Christmas lights!

OK that's enough for now - I can think of others but I'll save them for next time. If I had to summarize the most helpful tip (or I should say, what I find most helpful in my own studies), it would be "big things first." (big shapes, big forms, big value changes, big transitions...) "Paint small things as variations within the big things." and "Place the darkest darks as accurately as possible."

Again, these rules and tips are just what I think about when I do my heads. Other people have different concerns and I don't really care to argue any of the points I made. If you find them helpful, great! 

Happy painting~


  1. Great post, Terry. Never heard the "rule" on special attention to the accuracy of the darkest darks, but it makes good sense, since contrast draws the eye. Thanks for sharing. Good blog content.

  2. Very helpful as always, Terry. Thank you for your invaluable information.

  3. Awesome! Thanks for taking the time to write out your tips.

  4. Thanks Candace~! I don't remember where I learned that one, either. Haven't heard it since school, but it seems to work well.

  5. Thanks Eva~! You've ruined me. I can never eat SF Bay dungeness again!

  6. Thanks Donna~! Glad you found them helpful!

  7. What helpful bits of information you've provided here. I'm very grateful to you for your time in doing this!

  8. Thanks Carol~! Your comment much appreciated!

  9. Great reminders! I am going to print out your post and tack it to my studio bulletin board.

  10. Thanks Linda! I'm flattered~ :-D

  11. Such an informative post..I thank you! Even though I paint portraits with pastels, the same idea is there! Your work is very impressive!

  12. hmuxo~ you're welcome and thank YOU~!

  13. Your work and writing is one that I understand and comprehend very easily , you hold a great strength to your work , I search for that in a persons work I admire Greatly ....

  14. Great article i like to read your article very much. I got huge of idea from your post. Thanks a lot for sharing these awesome post with us. I'll visit your blog again.

  15. Actually, many of these guidelines apply to our painting in general, not just the head. A really useful checklist! Thank you, Terry!