Project 2 Exercise 4 – Conveying character

We are to do either a portrait or self-portrait, head and shoulders (I would presume as the idea is to convey character through facial expression). We were told that we could choose to paint someone we don’t know, a television personality, for example. I decided to look at whether I could do a convincing portrait of Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) in his Peaky Blinders character.

There were a few things to consider with this, firstly I had to make sure that I included key elements essential to his on screen persona, i.e. the infamous peaked cap with razor blade in the rim, regulation cigarette dangling from his mouth, smart clothing with a hint of griminess underneath the veneer of sophistication and his soft, gentle eyes which belie just how violent he could be given the requirements of a situation.

I have used soft pastels a fair bit during this part of the course, as well as acrylics, i decided for this portrait that I needed to get back to the oils. I wasn’t expecting anything great to come of this attempt, so decided to take the pressure off my expectations and work in my A3 sketchbook. I first primed the surface with various tones of gold-yellow and orange-yellow, which I felt would help with the mid-tones of Mr. Shelby’s face. After priming, I mapped out the drawing with a soft pencil and rubbed areas where I knew there were shadows. I used a reference photo from the internet as a guide for this portrait.

I decided to only work on the eyes and main facial features onces I’d got most of the shadows down, but ended up working on the face at the same time. I mixed various tones for the face from pyrrole red, ochre, white and cadmium yellow. I find it very hard to figure out where to put tones of colour on the face when I’m doing a portrait with paint, I can see it much better using a drawing medium but when I start to paint skin tones, I move about a lot and can end up getting very confused. Anyway, I decided to slow down and try and take time to get the volume of the face down as well as I could. Then I moved onto the clothes and the background. I used ultramarine blue, dabs of black and white to create the varying tones of grey for the cap and darker blue for the suit. I applied light dabs of white with a fan brush to create the illusion of herringbone on the fabrics. I decided to leave it overnight to dry off.

painting half complete, letting it dry a bit.

This morning, I took a long look at it and thought that the first thing I needed to do was bring in more shadow on the right hand side of his face (left hand to the viewer). I knew that if I tried to paint over it with a ‘wash’ of dark grey it would lift off the underlying paint and cause a big problem. I only wanted to basically ‘dust’ the darker tone onto his face and neck. I decided to use pigment powder applied with first an eye make-up remover pad and also a cotton ear-bud. The pigment powder is actually eye make-up but it was the perfect shade of dark grey / blue to work in the shadows. I did some more work on the face, sharpening up the eyes, side of face and mouth with a pencil. This is the final look of it:

I am resisting the urge to do any more work on this as I know I will just stuff it up. I’ve shown it to a few people and they all can see Cillian Murphy in it – one person said, ‘Isn’t he the chap who also played Scarecrow in the Batman film?’ So I think I’ve definitely captured both the Peaky Blinders character and also the resemblance to Cillian Murphy.


I have been staring at this portrait for a while now and there are a number of things that I needed to fix with it. I had a go today, it’s a bit better but I won’t do anymore.

Portrait conveying character – Thomas Shelby – Peaky Blinders – Cobra water-soluble oils on paper.


We are asked to look at all our portraits and consider which ones are the most successful. Personally, i think the portrait of Daniel is the best one because it has the most emotional attachment for me, I suppose. This is a discipline that demands an enormous amount of study and dedication/practise.

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