For many reasons, going back to the basics of a creative discipline can really help build your skills and confidence as a designer. Re-reading a book or taking a refresher course, for example, can reinforce your understanding of core principles or teach you new ways of working. It’s for this reason exactly that I recently took a weekend workshop in oil portrait painting.

Although I’ve never really used oils, I do like to paint the odd portrait in my own time, so I embraced the challenge and looked to add a new string to my artistic bow. I expected the workshop to be a round-up of everything I already knew, but I picked up a few tips, ways of working and, perhaps most beneficially, I noticed the little shortcuts and things I skip in my creative process.

Canvas in hand and brushes in my rucksack, I arrived at the studio ready to start the weekend workshop. Quick hellos were said, and tea was offered before we jumped straight into the basics. I quickly learned that the initial steps were really important – and incredibly exhausting.


We were taught how to get the basic composition of shape down, and how to sketch the ‘envelope’ that the entirety of the head and hair will fill. We also learned about proportions, angles, and how to measure using a pencil. It felt strange to apply such methodical means to what I always considered a free and expressive practice. When drawing before, I would always rush through this stage looking to fill out the bulk of the drawing at the same time. I realised the lesson here was that, like most skills, you have to learn and practice the primary framework from which to build. Nobody starts out as an expert and things are often foreign and methodical at first (though there are ways to speed up this process). Once the rules are learned they then become second nature and are so ingrained in your process that a freer means of working will develop, allowing you to be looser while still producing accurate drawings. It’s when practising exercises like this you realise how you can pick up bad habits in the creative process that will just be magnified as the drawing unfolds.


Basics down, we moved into sketching with paint. We followed the same process: composition, measuring, proportions, checking, double-checking, and refining. Then we had to block-in areas of shadow, dividing the sketch into either light or shade. This seemed an unnecessary step – surely you just take this into account as you paint in the tones of painting?  That’s what I’d normally do.

By distinguishing between shade and light, blocking out shadows ensures the lightest shadows are always going to be darker than the darkest highlights. This is something you would think to be ingrained in the working process of portrait painting, but the lesson here is an important one: we might know the theory of the creative process, but in practice we can let the rules slip – which in this case would reduce the depth and realism of a painting when adding in tone section by section.


Next came the scary part – filling out the tones across the face. After working so hard to get the sketch as accurate as possible, it was really difficult to apply paint over the top, knowing I would be hiding all the work I’d done up until then with the added risk of losing the likeness I’d built before. There’s an inevitable point of any art or design project after you’ve done all your research and preparation, where you don’t know how the end product will actually turn out. The key here is the work you’ve put in before this point. Everything done in the prep work was done for a reason and provides the foundations to support the rest of the work – in this case, ensuring the likeness and correct proportions of the portrait. From here it was just a case of working from broad strokes to small, filling in mid-tones and details. It was important to keep an eye on the end product and to keep re-evaluating the painting, not just going ahead and slapping paint on without consideration. This part of the process was more familiar – but it did make me wonder whether I often just click into autopilot mode while painting, as opposed to this sustained critical thinking. As artists and designers, it would be a shame to lose the active part of our brain that drives our creative projects, consequentially falling into a mind-set of producing with muscle memory and the recycling of ideas.


As my painting neared completion, I was aware of two things: one – I was absolutely exhausted from the sustained concentration, and two – I’ve picked up many a bad habit during my time painting. Over the course of the weekend I learned the odd tip, and reinforced the knowledge I already had. Going back and relearning the basics (or learning them properly for the first time!) seems to be a great way of keeping your creative processes in check, and you might learn a thing or two from how other people choose to work.

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Shay O’Donnell

Managing design consultant

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