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A Portrait of Robert Burns


An acrylic portrait of Robert Burns by John MacTaggart

'O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!'

Acrylic Portraits can be done using a range of possible painting styles and techniques. Our portrait of Robert Burns uses a method of carefully modelling the figure with glazes of acrylic colour on top of flat underpainting. One of the great strengths of acrylic paint is that you can create deeply luminous colours by building up the image in thin transparent glazes of paint. The result is very similar to oil painting but the difference is that acrylics dry in minutes whereas oils take days. This is one of the major strengths of acrylic paint as it enables you to work more quickly.

Each stage in the development of our Burns portrait is explained in our step by step tutorial. Over the following pages we describe and explain the techniques and ideas involved in creating our image of the great poet.


The Portrait Commission


Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth

Robert Burns (oil on canvas, 1787)

Our acrylic painting was a portrait of Robert Burns, commissioned by Edward Thomson Meek, a former president of the Bridgeton Burns Club.

On agreeing to a commission it is very important for you, as the artist, to discuss and consider your client's ideas about the work in order to ensure that your approach to the project is acceptable to them. In this particular case, the only limitations imposed by the client was that the portrait should be '16X24' inches and based on the 18th century oil painting by Alexander Nasmyth. As there are so few first hand likenesses of Burns in existence, it was also suggested that a description of the poet by the young Sir Walter Scott be used to inspire the image: ".....the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time."

The artist's aim was to create a painting of Burns that not only incorporated the ideas of the client but also reflected the vitality of the poet for modern times.


The Preparatory Drawing


Pencil Portrait of Robert Burns  by John MacTaggart

Pencil Portrait of Robert Burns

Whether you are working from life, photographs, or in this case another painting, it is necessary to create a preparatory drawing of the subject. This drawing is done to help you to resolve some of the difficulties that lie ahead:

  • A preparatory drawing should address any problems that you envisage in creating the image, e.g. the correct balance of proportion, tone and detail that give you the likeness you desire.
  • A preparatory drawing should be the same scale as the painting so that it can be used to trace and transfer the final image onto the canvas.
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