Notes on Portrait Painting

These notes were taken by Susan Long at a workshop given by Dick Crispo.

Table of Contents

Matisse said to a subject who said her portrait didn't look like her, "No, Madam, it is a painting. Not a likeness."

BOOKS. Dick showed the following (some out of print):

  • Painting Lessons from the Great Masters, Watson-Gupill
  • The Technique of Oil Painting, Taubes
    [Comment: "Good examples and not of his best friends' paintings."]
  • Human Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger, Oxford (with photos)
  • The Artist and the Camera by Albert McCheney, Oxford
    [Comment: Painting with slides is essentially tracing = to say, a stiffness.
  • Lautrec and Degas worked from photographs. And it changed their composition.]
  • Eye Witness to Art, DK Publications
  • Techniques of the Great Masters of Art (a series), Chartwell

Western portrait tradition comes from the COPTIC-FAYUM Paintings--Egyptian. (See insert.) Hot Wax, Encaustic. See Stanford Gallery for a Fayum painting

BRUSHES (super important for Portrait)

  • Jerry's Artarama, a catalog store, has German Kolinsky brushes.
    Be careful ordering from catalogs. There can be hidden charges."
  • SOFT brushes fuse the brush strokes.
  • Bristle brushes are for texture.
  • Goat is a blending brush. British (cashmere): find it in a craft store
  • A delicate palette knife for scumbling: it needs to be flexible
  • Langnickle's Mongoose brush is not very good
  • The new brushes are now swelling: to say, brushes are getting bad.
  • Royal Sable is NOT GOOD
  • Brushes need to be FLEXIBLE. Now again we can get extra-long filberts.


  • Rembrandt didn't use any medium, just thin paint. He ground his own paint.
  • Linseed Oil
  • Walnut Oil: blends and fuses brush strokes
  • Poppy Seed Oil: Weaker than linseed oil and becomes rancid
  • Oleo Pasto: holds the paint; for thicker application
  • Drop of cobalt dryer: AVOID, as it dries too fast and cracks
  • Japan drier is BAD: it pulls too quickly
  • Liquin: a resin, good for outdoor painting
  • Turpentine: don't use it as a medium; it kills your colors

PAINT (Buy the best you can afford.)

  • Let your pallet fit the situation. Look to see the need. E.g., the difference between summer and winter.
  • Utrecht has the best prices for paint. In San Francisco or Berkeley.
  • Do not buy student paints. Do not buy "Hues."
  • The best, the most expensive, and highest pigment content are:
    • Old Holland
    • Blockx, Belgin
    • Schmenke, German (Musseni or Norma, tops)
    • Maimeri Puro, Italian (These can be found in the Italian Art Store Catalog and at Lens Art Store in Santa Cruz.
  • White Paint
    • ZINC is a forgiving paint, rich in oil, but brittle, little hiding power
    • PERMALBA is a combination of Titanium and Zinc, like whipping cream
    • FLAKE is lead. Used on ground and under painting. Yellows after time.


  • Wet paint into wet paint.
  • The surface MUST be alive all of the time. You CAN'T let it go dead.


  • (As opposed to Ala Prima)
  • You begin with the DARKS, waiting for them to dry before adding the lights.
  • This is UNDER PAINTING (e.g., to make lace)
  • See Diego Ribera: the darks are underneath; the lights come across the top.
  • NOTE!! The latest word is NOT to tone your canvas with acrylic paint. Use Gesso or colored gesso as it breathes. So you shouldn't use acrylic as underpainting.
  • THE ZING of Reverse Painting is glazing on a dry painting.
    • For glazing:
      1 part stand oil (thick linseed oil)
      1 part damar varnish
      4 parts turpentine
    • For heavier glazing:
      1/3 stand oil (thick linseed oil)
      1/3 part damar varnish
      1/3 turpentine


  • Master Piece wrapped canvases are 40% off case at Art Max in Seaside, CA.
  • Standard sizes: everything was standardized during the industrial age.
  • You can paint any size you wish, but frames come in standard sizes.
  • LINEN was the first choice.
  • Now it's very expensive.
  • "You can paint just as bad a painting on linen as you can on cotton."
  • COTTON came in with the Depression.
  • MASONITE, untempered and gessoed, is a good paint surface


  • HEAD and BUST: You've GOT to be able to draw! See Bourn Hogarth's book
  • THE HAND: One hand span on face, one to back of head
  • THE HEAD is a box, not an oval.
    • Top of eye brow to ear
    • Bottom of nose to bottom of ear
    • Center of eye to end of mouth
    • Pit of neck to edge of shoulder
    • Shoulder blades--reverse triangles, men to women
    • Shoulder to elbow, 1 hand width
    • Axis of Head -- front plane, 2 side planes, back plane -- A BOX
    • Eyes are one eye width apart
    • Looking for a likeness: You have to look at the individual measurements of the model. These are what make one person look different from another.

Matisse said, "I ended up discovering the likeness of a portrait comes from the contrast which exists between the face of the model and other faces, in a word from its particular asymmetry. Each figure has it own rhythm and it is this rhythm which creates the likeness. In the West, the most characteristic portraits are found in Germany: Holbein, Durer, and Lucas Cranach. They play with asymmetry, the dissimilarities of faces, as opposed to the southerners who usually tend to consolidate everything into a regular type, a symmetrical structure.


  • Take the time to look: what's unique about the model?
  • Not a symbol; not a stereotype.
  • Think in terms of planes and shapes.
  • EYES are in sockets.
  • SHELVES create shadows: brow, nose, lip, chin.
  • The MOUTH is a 1/2 barrel. The mouth goes around the face.
  • The NECK sits inside the shoulders.

--Carmel, California, Fall of 2000

Dick Crispo may be emailed at

Examples of his artwork are available at