Losing a Likeness and Finding It - Again and Again

It's not rocket science but if you "lose it" as often as I do, you'll need a sure-fire way to get it back with a minimum of fuss and bother.

I work in many layers - building light and skin tone as I go. It is all too easy for my lines to take a hike and this is when I "lose the likeness." But you don't have to work in layers to adapt this method.

It is not that hard to get your likeness back, but it is important to do it when you first notice so that the corrections will be small and relatively easy.

In another post I explained color banding. After I was done with that, I saw that my likeness was gone.


So here's what happens next:

Since I correct with raw umber, I put a thin glaze of that (with Liquin as my medium) on the dry surface to "warm it up" a little. 

And then I let this glaze dry before moving on. (If it isn't dry you'll have a real mess to deal with.)

Above is the acetate with my original drawing. It is positioned over the painted face that needs correcting. I will reuse the acetate in this manner each time I "lose it."

By using clear acetate instead of tracing paper to transfer a drawing, I am able to see through it. So whenever I wish, I can always easily reposition the acetate accurately in order to make a correction.

Note: I only use "Prepared Acetate" - meaning that you can draw on the surface. I always use an "Ultra Fine Point Sharpie" permanent marker to draw on the acetate because that brand won't bead or smear.

I rub a pastel (this one is white) into one side of a sheet of tracing paper and use it like old fashioned "carbon paper" to transfer my drawing.

I have several sheets of different (neutral) colors and values handy - If you're careful, they'll last for years. 

I correct with thinned raw umber if I need a darker line or area. And use a thicker raw umber/titanium white mixture if I need to lighten an area or cover up something. 

Value matters much more than color in correcting.

In the picture above you can still see the transferred pastel lines. The pastel will simply "melt" into the wet paint as you correct.

Since highlights help define form, I am careful to check their location and reposition them if necessary.

The corrections are done (above) and I have brought back the likeness. 


This layer must be dry before moving on.

To eliminate that "chalky" look, I have "tapped in" a burnt umber glaze over all the skin tones.

I use the term "tap in" to describe how I apply a glaze. I use a tapping motion with my brush as I do not want any brushstrokes show. By the way, please note that ALL glazes are transparent (and sometimes translucent) colors. Glazes are not ever meant to be opaque (think of looking through a stained glass window).

TA DA! I'm back on track.

When this is dry, I'll begin yet the next layer of skintone scumbles, building light, color banding - and correcting yet again if I have messed up.

Working in layers give my portraits that Old Master lighting and glow....it takes time and I paint other things (and blog) while I wait for my paint to dry.


Christy DeKoning said...

I'm so glad I found your blog a few days ago, while hopping from one blog to the next.

As a portrait artist myself, I love reading what fellow artists are up to. I have never (ever) worked with oils - I only use watercolor, so this is eye-opening for me. Your blog posts are very thorough, thank you! Maybe one day I'll take the plunge and try a little oil experimenting. So much to learn - the techniques are almost completely opposite to transparent watercolors where the whites are left on the paper and the darks are built up last (usually).

I'll be back often.

My Painting Studio said...

I'm glad you stopped by to visit my blog.

I painted with watercolors for a couple of years but when I began my first oil painting I was surprised at how quick and easy the transition was.

I immediately got hooked and never looked back.

One I got the hang of how thick the light is in oils, I found it easier because I don't have to pre-plan the light in such exquisite detail (as in water color paintings).

Meanwhile there are so many "truths" in painting - it really doesn't matter what medium is used.

Anonymous said...


Karin, I only just noticed your palette, and hate to be the bearer of bad news... this has been a shock to many painters: a study on the effects of zinc white in oil and aklyds (which includes liquin)... which not only applies to zinc but some titanium and lead white, many of which have zinc mixed in. If you follow this thread you will find a link to the results of a 28 year study... and an interesting interview with hopper who noticed the effects years ago. The researcher at the Smithsonian say it is safe to use with casein which you might have fun exploring... as it is just as painterly as oil, dries quickly and makes a wonderful underpainting for oil. That being said I am only just now beginning to explore the medium but i see much potential.

sorry if this is bad news... it was quite an eye opener for me.

vanessa morris said...

Hi Karin,

What problems does black or white carbon create in transferring a drawing?



My Painting Studio said...

"What problems does black or white carbon create in transferring a drawing?"




I don't use carbon. I use a pastel rubbed onto a sheet of tracing paper. I slide this under the acetate in order to transfer my drawing.

I use a pastel color that will ultimately be in the same family and will blend in well. If say, I am working on the face, I will go slightly lighter (or darker) than the skin tone but it will be easily visible.


For some reason or other, warm colors usually blend in better than cool ones.

http://twitter.com/jpohl said...

karin thank you again! You should think about writing a book. I can't believe this didn't occur to me before it is so simple, so obvious and so smart.

In the past I've always worked freehand, but this is not as easy or desirable with egg tempera which tends to require more planning. I've been debating pouncing or transfer. I'd read that Raphael used pouncing in detailed areas and it was suggested this method could encourage more freedom of line, and can be speedier process (which could be especially useful if you are painting a domed ceiling).

Your method is very versatile and freeing, and clean. Your are able to be completely free in the layering process and easily get the drawing back. I love that you don't degrade the original sketch with this method of transfer.

Nor do you don't have to punch thousands of little holes and weaken your sketch paper!

I will have to try it.

p.s. Happy Easter. (-:

My Painting Studio said...

Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones.

Glad you liked it.


Anonymous said...


I just discovered your blog and I am amazed at the wealth of information you provide... I think it's unusual to find such a comprehensive blog written by someone who is clearly a very talented and accomplished working artist. All of the information is extremely helpful (and inspiring!) as I return to painting after close to 15 years away.

I'm not sure if you are looking at comments to old posts, but I have a question about your drawing transfer method. For some reason I am not understanding the acetate method - is the line sketch on your acetate the original drawing? Or did you make a more complete drawing on paper, and then transfer just outlines to the acetate? Also, what tool do you use to transmit the lines through the acetate to the pastel transfer paper? Do you go over the acetate with the Sharpie again? Or do you use some sort of stylus which doesn't leave new marks on the acetate?

Thanks!... from a fellow "New Hampshirite."

My Painting Studio said...

Oops, I am sorry I didn't see this and reply sooner. Here is how it is done:

1. I placed the clear acetate over the photo to get accuracy.

2. I drew directly on the acetate with a Sharpie Fine Point Marker.

3. I attach the acetate with the drawing on it to the exact place I want it on my canvas and tape it down.

4. I slide that sheet of tracing paper, pastel side down facing the canvas, and use a ball point pen on top of the acetate to transfer my drawing to the canvas. The reason I use the ball point pen is that I can press hard and it won’t mess up the acetate. I don’t worry much about “messing up” the acetate. I just need it to last until I am done with the painting and them I toss it.

My acetate drawings are very simple and tend to lack the detail that I know I can get “by eye.” I use this drawing to exactly locate the features so they don’t “walk around” when I am painting. If an eye or a mouth is off a fraction of an inch…you just won’t get a likeness. It is easy to end up in a hopeless quagmire as you reshuffle and adjust features that don’t need to be moved. Clear acetate makes this job so easy.

Because the acetate is clear, I can always see through it at whatever stage of painting I am on - and make sure I still have the features in the correct place.

And actually, I make sure they are in the “right place” on all of the underneath layers but I don’t really go for that exact likeness until the end.