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How To Paint Ballerinas

From lack confidence or experience to beautiful ballerina portraits.

If you told me back in 2001 I’d be able to create these gorgeous portraits, I’d roll my eyes and laugh. But what did it take to get from my first sketch this?



One answer, “No Shortcuts To The Top”. I am reminded of the biography of the same name by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts. It is a book about climbing the world’s 14 highest peaks. What I learned in reading that book applies directly to portrait painting:

There are no shortcuts to the top

  1. Learn and practice the fundamentals. Focus on just one component at a time. There are a ton of free YouTube videos that focus on each fundamental. Perhaps a quick sketch keeping just one aspect in mind: dark vs. light value, light source, overall composition, drawing proportion and perspective, color, and how components fit together.

  2. If you think you don’t need to incorporate each fundamental in every piece, you will toss the piece out or be incredibly frustrated with the result. Missing fundamentals will come back to haunt you!

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.

  1. Quite likely you will not be the next Da Vinci, so getting to the top is pretty unrealistic. Exploring as you put one step in front of the other is a more reasonable goal.

  2. Stay with the quick sketches. Your art is probably done long before you are finished. If a piece is not coming together quickly, climb down that mountain and try a different day.

Mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

  1. I don’t have a Fine Arts degree. I don’t have any clue what I’m doing.

  2. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is being able to unlock your mind, enter a space you didn’t know existed. When you do that, your art will flourish.

Every person has his or her own Annapurna … the trick is to find a way of converting adversity into something positive, a challenge to look forward to.

  1. And the biggest lesson: I happen to be battling a rare chronic disease. I don’t define myself by it. I don’t much like to talk about how tough that battle is. But it is the toughest climb I’ve ever known.

  2. The hours, days, weeks, months I’ve spent getting treatments. Laying flat on my back unable to do much of anything. My exploration into art has saved me. Perhaps you can discover the same.

Back to the ballerinas. Here was my approach.

  1. I found a model that included my focus components. I wanted to focus on making hands look like hands and feet look like feet. Not dead appendages, but rather active and athletic forms. This can be done by looking at a photograph or attending a live performance and simply remembering a form. In my case, I found a few photos online.

  2. I focused on just two components: a) proportion of hands and feet to overall body and b) muscle tone to create action and movement.

  3. I looked at what I THOUGHT I saw. This is important. For example, when I look at a hand, I don’t see a hand. I see several components that don’t even resemble body parts. Such as the curve and smoothness of a fingernail, a knotty mound that ends up being a knuckle. The value of one finger compared to another based on the light source. I break proportions down into smaller parts then build. There is no shame in using a ruler or masking tape to create a grid. A light sketch followed by a bit more detail.

  4. Even the most delicate human figure has tone or clothing or skin or something to indicate where bones and muscles are. I looked at a human anatomical drawing to learn where muscles are. I learned which muscles are taunt and which are relaxed in various poses. I emphasis this in my paintings, even if I don’t really see that in the model.

  5. Pay attention to the light source! This is something I struggled with for years. Always determine this up front. I emphasized the light source with the ballerinas to create an illumination and sense of movement.

  6. I worked quickly through these components. Several attempts ended in the trash can. This is because the ones that didn’t give me The Vibe right away usually don’t pan out to be something I’m happy with.

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