Kai Lun Qu: I Paint Light, Not People

Updated: Feb 4



The human portrait has been one of the most prominent subjects in the history of art making. It is also one of the most difficult subjects to study and overcome for artists of all skill levels. There are many different variations and approaches to the portrait, whether it be utilizing certain measuring techniques like Sight Size and Comparative Measuring, or constructive hybrid techniques such as the Reilly Method.


For me, visual simplification is the key to a successful piece on any subject, portraiture included. The best way to approach portrait drawing is to dissociate yourself from the subject. I am drawing the presence and absence of light, not the person.


A. Finding the Rhythm and Balance of the Composition

At the start of a piece, I first squint and identify what type of rhythm the value patterns are forming, and simultaneously decide where to best let the portrait settle itself onto the surface of my work material. I try to think in terms of the presence and absence of light as a whole as I begin my abstraction.









B. Separate the Presence and Absence of Light

It is then that I will begin to separate the values into two components, light and dark, and avoid focusing on details. The goal here is to reveal the overall structure of the subject. As I work, I identify nameless abstract shapes as opposed to specific anatomy. I compare the height, width and angle of not only the positive dark shapes (shadows, which I highlighted in Red) but also the negative light shapes (space between the shadows, which I highlighted in blue) in order to find the correct likeness.

I imagine I am trying to paint the model as if I were seeing them from afar, because from a distance I would see only the essential shadow and light shapes. Worrying about facial details early on is the downfall to any portrait drawing or painting. Simplification is the key during this stage.




C. Introducing the Mid-tones

As I arrive at the final stage of the painting, I begin by targeting the smaller mid-tone shapes that are in between the bigger light and dark shapes previously established. This is also my opportunity to fix any minor drawing issues by checking the angle relationships between all the shadows. As I work, I constantly remind myself that I am not drawing a portrait, I am drawing light.


This demo was done using Trekell brushes.

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