Becoming a Portrait Painter


‘Rasta Picassa’

I started painting portraits in 2010 with the creation of ‘Rasta Lisa’, a whimsical parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ — complete with dreadlocks and a Rastafarian style knitted cap. I didn’t really set out to be a portrait painter; initially I just wanted to paint something to fill the empty walls of the Rasta Pasta restaurant in downtown Austin where my son worked. Continuing with the ‘Rasta’ theme, my portrait painter portfolio quickly expanded with ‘Rastafarian Gothic’ (based on Grant Woods ‘American Gothic’), ‘Rasta Picasa’ shown here (from Picasso’s ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’), ‘Rasta Vincent’ (homage to Van Gogh’s ‘Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear’), as well as realistic and impressionistic oil portraitures of Bob Marley. 

In addition to the original oil paintings and giclee reproductions, I also had some t-shirts made up with the images from the portraits; and the restaurant sold a few dozen of these. Ultimately my interest in ‘Rasta’-themed portrait painting came to an abrupt conclusion when the restaurant closed in early 2012. And, despite recurring demand for Haile Selassie portraits from overzealous insistent patrons, I never did end up painting one of him.


Painting More Portraits


‘Lake Tahoe Wedding Portrait’

Unlike most portrait painters, I work from photographs, not sitting subjects. While this method provides persistent images of the setting, lighting and person being painted. It eliminates the possibility of repositioning the portrait’s subject or ‘second chances’ to get the composition right.

But on balance, this system has worked out well; it’s allowed me to concentrate on the colors, lighting, shading and impressionistic effects I am trying to achieve. Fortunately most of my clients have been able to provide photos that gave me good hints about the true 3-dimensional shapes and textures of my subjects. And I just made up the rest!

About six months into my career as a portrait painter, we created a Facebook business page Photo To Portrait to showcase my paintings and illustrate the results of this methodology. And within a year we developed this website/blog to get better artistic control and presentation — and engage a larger audience.



‘Wall of Fame’

Improving as a Portrait Painter

My next major portrait painting project was the ‘Wall of Fame’ — a collection of 12″x12″ oil-on-canvas paintings of friends and relatives. These impressionistic portraits share a common theme of turquoise hair, and I put the set (16 so far) on display in a 3 column by 7 row matrix in my art studio near Lake Travis in Austin, TX.

Working on these really improved my skills as a portrait painter and my ability to work under pressure. Although these are impressionist portraits (with blue hair!), I wanted enough realism for the subjects to quickly recognize themselves — and be pleased with the results!

Well, there haven’t been any complaints so far, even after the 7 high by 3 wide array had to be transformed into a diagonal arrangement along the staircase in our new home. When I have some spare time (haha) I’ll attack the remaining 5 squares.


Paintings from Commissions


‘Charly with a Pearl Earring’

During 2012 I received several commissions for portraits, and this broadened my artistic perspective a great deal. In addition to the novelty of painting people I didn’t know (less pressure, LOL), I also enjoyed discussing the projects with prospective clients to find out what they were looking for and see how they reacted to different ideas I had. Although I was resigned to at least a small fraction of these clients not liking the resulting portrait, I was pleasantly surprised — everyone loved their paintings and weren’t bashful about saying so; and this brought me even more business. Not bad for a portrait painter with only a year’s experience!

And through all my years as an artist, the thing I’ve enjoyed most is painting portraits of my granddaughter Charly. Here are a couple examples — the first ‘Charly with a Pearl Earing’ is a take-off on Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. This was the first of a series of three homages to famous painters. 2nd was ‘Charly with Medal’ (after Boticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Youth with Medal’) and 3rd was ‘Princess Charly’ (after Winterhalter’s ‘A Young Girl Called Princess Charlotte’).


Austin TX Portrait Painter Valerie Rawlings


And the last image shown here is a collection of three portrait paintings of granddaughter Charly. 

Now as I enter my 6th full year as a professional portrait painter, I am very excited about new projects and some new techniques I recently learned. A few years ago I attended a painting workshop in Austin by V. Vaughn where we learned to paint quickly with a limited palette.

A couple years later my cousin Karen and I participated in a seminar in Florida where we practiced using transparent underpainting and applying color on top of this to create highly colorful effects. Ironically, the subjects in these courses were landscapes and floral still life art. But the techniques I learned are equally applicable to portrait painting; so I applied these in a 2014 figure study series ‘Curled Up With a Good Book’.

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