Portraits of African lives

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.

[caption id="attachment_163" align="aligncenter" width="494"] Portrait of Molly and Yenzaogolthi, oil on canvas, 30?24in (76?61cm). Before embarking on this portrait I was aware of most of the difficulties I would face and needed to be clear about what I wanted to capture[/caption]

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.