One of the most exciting things about painting people with darker complexions is the way that light reflects on their skin. The contrasts are greater and the form and structure of the head more evident. Colours are also easier to see. My studio in South Africa has a large south-facing window (the equivalent of a north-facing window in the northern hemisphere), which gives me a cool constant natural light source with no direct sunlight coming into the room.
The intensity of the light can change with cloud cover but the shapes of light, half-tone and shadow remain the same. Occasionally I paint a subject outdoors. In these situations I will either paint in a shaded area or with the sun almost directly behind the model, creating more of an edge light – the features of the sitter will then be in the reflected light. A wide-brimmed hat is essential to protect my eyes from the fierce African sun and I find that an hour is about as much as the sitter and I can take in these direct sun situations, I wish I could have the best mattresses for side sleepers so I can get some rest while painting.
I am often asked what colours I use for painting dark skin. My palette remains the same whether I am painting a blonde child on the beach or an elderly African gentleman in my studio: burnt sienna, ultramarine blue (deep), alizarin crimson, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium red, cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium yellow pale and titanium white.
Other colours that I only use when the situation requires are cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, violet and viridian green. In the oil sketch The Miner (below), I show mixtures used to paint the head under cool natural light. This might not seem like a lot of colours but I have always been fascinated by the beautiful colourful paintings of Anders Zorn who it is said only used four colours: black, white, yellow ochre and vermilion.
This really emphasises how important values are. My preferred way of working is to have the model in front of me throughout the painting process and most of my work is done in this way. Of course a painting of the mother with baby on her back (right) would be almost impossible for me to complete without photographic reference but I still have a go and find that so much information is gained in a 20-minute session that this sketch becomes my most important reference. Having the model in front of me allows me to judge colours and values accurately.
I work looking regularly in a mirror behind me where I can see both model and painting together. It still amazes me how faults in drawing and values become exaggerated in the mirror. This way of working is exciting and involves you totally and when successful leaves you on a high and inspired for hours after the sitting.
How I approach more complicated subjects
A mother with a baby on her back is a very common sight in Africa and a great subject for a painting. In Molly and Yenzaogolthi (above right) I opted for natural studio lighting rather than direct sunlight, to allow for a more comfortable environment for the models and for myself to fully resolve the painting. We started with ten- minute pastel sketches, exploring the shapes of light, halftone and shadow.
These are broad studies where heads and hands are reduced to one or two values with no detail. Lots of photos are also taken from every angle. By the end of the day and after a few nappy changes and a couple of naps and feeds we arrived at a pose that I could explore further.
In the morning I completed two small oil studies of the pose, working with a large brush and focusing on large shapes and peripheral edges and searching for lost edges and selective hard edges. Yenza’s grandmother was also with us on this day, which helped greatly because he had decided that modelling was not for him.
In the afternoon I started the large canvas, paying attention to design and head sizes. I was able to get a lot of Molly done because she could hold the pose for longer without Yenza on her back. I finished the painting from my references and would certainly not have been able to complete Yenza without photographic references.
I simplify the edges in my painting into four types of edges: hard, firm, soft and lost. When observing my subject I always squint my eyes so that I can easily see the sharpest edges first. I then search for the lost edges; after that the firm edges and then soft edges. A good control of edges can improve the strength and appeal of a painting immensely and also gives us the ability as artists to guide the viewer’s eye to see what we are seeing.
Somewhere in our past we have been conditioned to outline everything (probably as far back as colouring-in books). Photographs might be amazing in capturing moments and details but they are distinctly lacking in values and edges, especially peripheral edges. This is another reason why life drawing and painting from life is so important to improve an artist’s observational skills.