Painting Portraits of Friends

I love painting humankind.

I used to stay at some friends’ houses during travelings, I love living with close friends and watching them being themselves at home, without any restraints. When they were watching TV, chatting, cooking, or smoking, I tried to capture them in the most relaxing mood. 

These days at school, I painted portraits of several friends.

First, it’s Friedle.

I like this photo I took for him when he was in the garment I designed, the red garment matched well with the background and his blond/brown hair, the position of his hand and head was dynamic, the impression of his face was also nice. 

I guess he seldom saw himself in this way,  so I decided to choose this photo to paint a different Friedle as his special memory.

The hardest part was painting the skin, I used to paint skin with single colors, but this time I tried several layers, dark brown, red, flesh, then white. I remembered seeing the painting from Federico Barocci at National Gallery, the woman and babies’ face were so pale and pink, I tried to draw Friedle’s face the same effect.

I also squeezed some acrylic to stroke, different with oil paints, after getting dried, acrylic lines ‘ shrunk’, unfortunately, I couldn’t see the details of the squeezed acrylic I have added.

So for next portrait, I chose a bigger canvas, which was 60cm X 90cm, and put more obvious details.

My second model was Shuyuan and her bear Miang.

I did a quick drawing of Shuyuan before, during a study trip to Greenwich. She was telling me her stories with her ‘daughter’ Miang, who accompanied her for 6 years.

I like the Shuyuan’s yellow sunglasses and white outfit in the photo. Then I found another photo of her in a white sweater with intricate patterns and 2 toy unicorns in the background. which was perfect for the portrait painting. 

So first, I drew Shuyuan hugging her bear Miang and 2 unicorns behind her, to show a lovely girl living in a fairyland. Then I found some space left on the bottom, I was thinking to drew some rabbits, but remembered what she told me about the element of skulls in her fashion design. So I found her skull design and drew them on the bottom, representing another side of her, the side few people could see.

I really love the contrast of cute toys and skull in this painting. Let’s say, a lovely girl hugging a teddy bear was sitting on bloody skulls. what a dramatic scene!

I forgot to take photos of the process, I have drawn so many layers, from dark colors to lighter colors,  then squeezed the details on the figure of characters, and exaggerate some parts of Shuyuan and Miang’s bodies like mouths, eyes, feet, heart. In the end, to make the bear and girl as one, I squeezed several shapes of the bear on the top of Shuyuan, to make it messy but still have focus.

I also added the blue crosses as a frame, I found it helpful to highlight the characters in the composition. 

In this painting, I used bears and skulls as symbols to present Shuyuan, and painted 2 sides of her personality on one canvas.

Later, when I started to paint Lynus’ portrait,  he showed even stronger dichotomy in him  — but I wanna try a new way to present this dual character

To paint Lynus, the challenge was that, I didn’t have any of his photos, actually I even didn’t remember what he looked like exactly. I could only paint him based on a few memories,  so I listed down what impressed me the most:

  • Muscle man outside, little body inside.
  • Cold outside, warm inside.
  • Eyes: his eyes were like black grapes, but when he laughed, his eyes became curved like the crescent moon.

Before painting, I studied Rose Wylie’s paintings, because it’s childlike and primitive, like my art, but hers is more uninhibited and free, the colors are soft but rich. I wanted to learn these techniques from studying her paintings.

I like the way she painted on 2 square canvas and joined them into one piece. Why not draw 2 Lynus on 2 square canvases? Maybe one could be the serious/cold muscle man with black grape eyes, while the other could be the happy/warm little boy with the crescent moon eyes?

I even did several drafts before starting painting on canvas, I can’t believe it, so serious to be childlike!

After watching the picture of Rose Wylie’s painting carefully, I put the first layers as background, a mixed color of yellow ochre and titanium white. I like the texture on the surface due to matte gel, so for the rest of the painting, I added matte gel with every color to have the effect. 

To paint the Black Grapes. I tried to imagine a muscle man posing or running or jumping or mixed posing? I used flesh to paint the shapes, then added more titanium white to light up, considering it’s a  birthday gift, I painted the shorts in red as a color of celebration :D. Then I painted lots of grapes and grape leaves surrounded him, his eyes were also 2 grapes and his eyebrows were grape leaves. I also added some golden colors, they matched well with the brown.

When I painted the Crescent Moon, first, I just painted a big face,  moon eyes, smile mouth and crescent moon in the background. But I felt it was too simple, I can’t bear any blank space, so I squeezed flesh acrylic into flower patterns to fill in his whooooooole big face, and added some green stars in the background. Like all the moon and stars were shining together with happiness, flowers blossom on the face.

I was so satisfied with this pair of paintings. Even I couldn’t remember Lynus’ appearance, actually, my drawing didn’t look like his real appearance and body, but these paintings showed how I understand a person personally. Compared to painting photos, I like painting the depth of soul and human connections.


Looking back, when I captured different elements to paint my friends, it was also like painting self-portraits. I painted Friedle in the garment I designed was like I myself in my garment, I painted Shuyuan with her bear and skull was like my contradictory life, I painted Lynus in dual character was like me being cold outside warm inside and wish to have that happiness.

I saw parts of myself in them, I tried to capture these rare elements to remind them and myself “This is what makes you so special, please keep it with you.” With this feeling, these portraits are so special for me, I hope they will also like their portrait.

Next, I plan to paint some friends in a more abstract way, to discover their inner world.


Royal College of Art, London
2018. 11.20


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