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  • Jane E Porter

Fifi Trixabelle: How to Capture Expression and Personality in a Portrait

Updated: May 28


portrait of young girl with bright red hair, silver glitter top hat, sticking her tongue out.
Fifi Trixabelle

I’d like to share one of my favourite portrait paintings, Fifi Trixabelle. It’s a commissioned piece of Mimi, the daughter of one of my closest friends, Daisy Jo Bear. The story begins with Daisy Jo announcing, ‘By the way, I don’t really like portraits…’


Well, that was a kicker 🤪! How was I going to paint a portrait she’d love when she doesn’t like portraits? However, I love problem-solving; it’s like a drug to me, so I was up for the challenge.

Luckily, I was given carte blanche when it came to choosing the reference photo so I opted for the one that was the most ‘out there’. As artists, we have a trained eye to see potential in what may be considered a risky or even bad choice. Daisy Jo was a bit surprised by my choice but after, what felt like a long ponder said, ‘Go ahead. I trust you!’ And that was that.


The Portrait Painting Process


I approached the digital painting process in a similar way to how I’d create a piece in oils. I started off with sketches, then I did a watercolour and ink painting before moving to digital. I mixed the colours on the canvas (see the process video below) before applying them to achieve variations of the hues. The colour and textures were built up in layers, some transparent, others more opaque.


I try to emulate traditional methods when painting digitally, for example, using grainy pencil brushes to create hand-drawn elements and the use of broken colour, a kind of impressionist style I love. That’s achieved by using dry, textured brushes so that the hues underneath shine through. I think of it like scumbling in oils, a technique I have used traditionally for years.


In her true form, Mimi is a strawberry blonde. However, I cranked up the heat as I did with all the colours in the palette to make the painting really pop. Orange and blue work really well together because they are opposites on the colour wheel. When you use opposites, each colour stands out against the other. Conversely, when you mix opposite colours together, they become neutral, cancelling each other out. That’s not relevant here, but an art tip for creating neutral greys.


Art Bite: To make your paintings really pop, use opposite colours on the colour wheel. Each colour will stand out against its opposite.


The glitter on the hat and the sparkles in the background finished off the piece, adding a bit of a theatrical vibe, reminiscent of Mimi’s personality.


Capturing Expression and Personality



When painting a portrait, capturing expression and personality is paramount. It brings the piece to life and helps create a narrative.


In real life, Mimi has a captivating character. She is funny, creative and determined. Because she’s a child, she still possesses those qualities most of us desire; wonder, playfulness and authenticity. Expressing those qualities in a painting is a major component of its success. Mastering colour and composition we can learn and it only takes, a million or so, hours of practice. However, portraying personality takes a bit of research.


Here are a Few Tips


If it’s a commissioned portrait, we need to ask questions, for example, how would you describe his or her personality? I’ve put a link at the end of the article with descriptive words, but here are a few examples.


Is he or she:


  • Quiet and introverted or the star of the show?

  • Very feminine or more a tomboy?

  • Fiery and heroic or more of a bookworm?

  • Laid-back or energetic?

  • Gentle or mischievous?

  • What are their hobbies and interests?


Because Mimi is energetic and vibrant, I chose a colour palette to reflect that. Using props can be another way to portray personality. The sparkly hat gives this piece a playful touch, another one of Mimi’s traits. The expression on her face, with her tongue out, adds attitude - carefree with a touch of cheekiness. It’s really important to consider all these elements when it’s a commission and check with the client.


It is also a good idea to ask how they want to be portrayed. She may be quiet and reserved but would like to be expressed as confident or heroic. You may be thinking of a calm and gentle personality, pastel hues and flowers 🤔, when in fact, she wants to be portrayed as a superhero. All of these features also add to the narrative.


Why is Narrative Important?


I’m inspired by artists from history such as Toulouse Lautrec, Frida Kahlo and Francis Campbell Cadell to name a few. I greatly admire the narrative element, a prominent feature in their art. Their paintings ignite stories in our imagination from first viewing, a concept I try to embrace and convey in my own work.


As humans, we love stories, we are hardwired to respond to narratives. Stories trigger our emotions, and imagination and save ideas to memory. They can even shape our beliefs and behaviours. When we see a story in a piece of art, we interpret it based on our own experiences, uncovering personal meaning. This is a good thing! Each such experience offers a little nudge forward on life’s journey. Anything that sparks our imagination is a little deposit in our self-discovery piggy bank.


The narrative behind Fifi Trixabelle is one of wonderment and the innocence of childhood. The lack of self-consciousness and embracing life as it is, are all key elements in the story. The painting can remind us of those latent qualities within ourselves, perhaps hidden but still there. I believe that owning our true self and our story can help to set us free. And that's a massive deposit in the piggy back.


Conclusion


To wrap up, we went from, 'I don't really like portraits' to OMG! how am I going to pull this off to crafting one of my prized pics. Oh, and Daisy Jo loved it - TG!


I hope you found this article enjoyable and engaging. If there’s anything you’d like to ask me about my process, narratives or anything else, please leave a comment below or reach out to me by following this link.


Wishing you a wonderful weekend.


Janee





 

Jane E Porter is a fine artist and illustrator from Scotland, dedicated to exploring and understanding the fascinating interplay between art, psychology and philosophy. She shares insights and observations made over the past two decades with a delightful mix of wit and wisdom. Join her as she continues her journey, delving into these themes, offering you fresh perspectives and insights on art, identity and storytelling.

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