Expressing Mystery – Self-Portrait as a Fox

"Self-Portrait as a Fox" - an acrylic painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

In my latest webinar, I showed some unconventional ways to make portraits. This week, I show how to build the sense of mystery for a portrait. Here’s my sample project, an acrylic painting that I made on a sketchbook. It’s called “Self-Portrait as a Fox.”

In Finnish, we have a saying “ketunhäntä kainalossa” – “to have a foxtail under the arm.” It means that someone tries to hide the true thoughts or goals, and you are noticing it. So it’s like a mystery that’s partly revealed without intention to do so.  When building a mystery for the portraits, you somehow have to show that foxtail – to reveal a part of the mystery. Otherwise, the viewer doesn’t realize there’s any mystery at all. Think about leaving the fox out of the portrait above and just trying to express it all with the eyes. It wouldn’t have the same effect.

Expressing Mystery 1 – Start with a Mysterious Space

The lighting has a lot to do with mystery. Think about mysterious scenes in the movies – the light plays an important role there. Instead of trying to add spots of light after adding the face, start by painting the space where all happens.

Step 1 for expressing mystery. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Expressing Mystery 2 – Discover Facial Features

Once you have painted the background full of fun details, try to see a person there. You don’t have to see the whole face, but a cheek, an eye or a nose is enough. Add more facial features so that you can better see the face. Don’t outline everything. It’s a mystery, remember! The face should look like it rises from the background.

Step 2 for expressing mystery. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

I rarely get the facial features to look mysterious enough at this point. I suggest that you don’t even bother to try. Just make it clearer where the person is. For this project, I didn’t use any reference images for the face. If you do, use the reference to get some ideas, but don’t make the face too defined.

Expressing Mystery 3 – Connect the Face and the Background Together

Now add more elements to the background. Add geometric shapes to outline hair and to dig out other interesting stuff. You don’t have to know the mystery yet. Keep the process mysterious enough!

Step 3 for expressing mystery. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

To me, it usually happens that if I don’t know the mystery, I don’t have the idea of the facial expression either. I covered the mouth so that I don’t focus too much on that. Working with acrylics is easy because you can always add new layers.

Expressing Mystery 3 – Add Symbolic Elements

Boost the mystery by adding symbolic elements that create tension for the person. I chose a fox and a rose.

A fox and a rose. Photography by Paivi Eerola from Peony and parakeet.

To maintain the mysterious atmosphere, I painted the fox and rose petals so that they partly disappear into the background.

Step 3 for expressing mystery. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

If you use reference photos pick just some details that you replicate more carefully. Put the reference photos away after a while so that they don’t dictate you and reduce the mysterious feel.

Expressing Mystery 4 – Finish the Facial Features

Build connections between the elements and the face by adjusting the facial features. Think about something happening at the scene and the reaction that it embarks. Here, the woman and the fox react differently. The woman looks surprised, but the fox doesn’t. If I had continued with this setting, I would have also added the element that causes the reaction toHowever the picture.

Step 4 for expressing mystery. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

However, I was not satisfied with the idea of the woman and the fox reacting differently. So I repainted the nose and the mouth and made the face shorter so that the woman looks as conniving as the fox. Now the focus is on what they think and initiate.

Detail of an acrylic painting. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Expressing Mystery 5 – Repeat Some Shapes and Colors

To make the painting more unified and to highlight the mysterious feel, add similarities between the biggest elements. I made some of the triangles resemble the fox’s ears, and continued the fox so that there’s the tail too. The tail is very similar to the woman’s hair. This kind of vagueness – when the viewer doesn’t fully see what belongs to where – also adds to the mystery.

"Self-Portrait as a Fox" by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. An acrylic painting on a sketchbook. See her tips for expressing mystery in portraits!

I hope you enjoyed these tips, and hopefully, I will see you at Innovative Portraits as well!

Innovative Portraits – Refresh the Way You Make Portraits!

In the new upcoming class Innovative Portraits, we will discover new paths to painting and drawing portraits. This class is about increasing artistic looseness, adding more style by using shapes and colors, and inventing ideas so that you never wonder what to put in the background. >> Sign up NOW!

Innovative Portraits, drawing faces and portraits in mixed media. An online art class by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Innovative Portraits includes a 3-month membership in my art community Bloom and Fly so you will also get monthly live sessions and weekly feedback Tuesdays. >> Sign up NOW!

Recent News and a Sketchbook Tour Full of Ideas!

Curiosity by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. A painting from Paivi's sketchbook.

My short blogging break is over and to celebrate that I have a full sketchbook to show you!

The Last Page of the Sketchbook

This morning, there was one page in my big A3-sized sketchbook that wasn’t finished. It was a very ugly one! Even if I covered it with a layer of dark colors, it didn’t please my eye at all.

Sketchbook page in progress. The background before adding elements to it. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

But then I got an idea to highlight just some of the elements and paint a young woman on it. At the same time, I had the opportunity to play with the ideas that I am gathering for the new class.

A painting on a Pink Big sketchbook by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

I am often fighting against time when I am creating. When I make videos for the classes, I have only 1-3 hours for each project. My principle is that class videos are for guidance and inspiration and nobody wants to watch me paint for a day or two. Even if I speed up most parts, I usually include so much background information and art theory that I have to limit the time that I spend with painting or drawing. And often for blog posts, I have the same couple of hours even if it’s a bit easier if I don’t record the process or try to build a pedagogical package. So when painting this one, I would have liked to continue for a longer time, but I kept telling myself that the sketchbook is not where you make a detailed painting! Anyway, it’s detailed enough to get the idea.

Foxes and Inspiration from Natural Science

During the summer, foxes seem to have appeared in my art. This one is just a quick graphite drawing, but it’s something that really speaks to me: making new creatures and celebrating the potential and diversity of nature.

Best in Show, a whimsical graphite pencil sketch by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Here’s another one with a fox:

Flora and Fauna , an illustration by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her full sketchbook on a video!

This sketchbook page is inspired by the microscopic world, and even if it’s a loose portrait, it also has a fox ear!

An illustration by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. Inspired by microscope images. See her sketchbook tour on a video!

I also have a tiny painting in progress that has a fox, but I will show that later in the fall.

Ready for a Sketchbook Tour? – Here We Go!

I have made a quick flip-through video of the full sketchbook. The sketchbook is from Pink Pig. There’s also a glance of the summer’s big project on the video – our Japanese garden!

Plans for the Fall

Here’s what will happen here at Peony and Parakeet during the fall – come along!

1) July-September: Watercolor Journey, you can still sign up, and if you love watercolors this really is the class to take! (When you sign up you will get immediate access to the material provided so far.)
2) Sept 10 – Nov 30: The Exploring Artist – a soul-searching coaching program for any artist who wants to get clear where to head next! There are only 12 seats available so sign up fast!
3) Oct-Dec: a new class with a working title “Portrait Revolution” as a part of my art community Bloom and Fly.

I hope that you have reserved some time for creating and will join me! And as always, the best way to stay up to date is to subscribe to my weekly emails!

Painting Fantasy Portraits

"New Year", a small acrylic painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. Watch her creating this on a video!

This year, I have been thinking a lot about the balance between technical skills and the imagination. It seems that when I focus on either one, the other one suffers. Now when the year is nearly in the end, I have wanted to play with the imagination and cared less about the execution. I have always enjoyed creating intuitively: starting without intention and then figuring out what I want to express once the work has progressed.

Fantasy Figures Keep On Appearing!

Recently, I have seen fantasy figures whatever I am creating. I don’t know if it’s because I have been following fantasy artists lately or just that I haven’t been playing with portraits for a while. Here’s one of the colorful clusters from my sketchbook that I turned into a fantasy figure.

Fantasy portrait in progress. See the intuitive approach for painting fantasy figures!

I had a lot of fun with her imagining that she is a digital nomad, re-connecting with nature, running away from her phone!

"Digital Nomad", a mixed media painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her intuitive approach of creating fantasy figures!

Fantasy Portrait in Oil

I also have two oil paintings in progress, and the first one is a kind of portrait too. After the geometric background, I wanted to put a giant pansy in the center, and then couldn’t resist adding a face. I have painted it using a reference for the most important facial features. Then I completed the person with a more loose approach.

Oil painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her tips for painting fantasy portraits!

This is just a beginning of the painting. It will have more details and color.

Painting Fantasy Portraits – An Intuitive Approach

The best fantasy is never borrowed but takes place in your imagination. I think the way to get connected to it, is to start freely without any reference photos. The painting that is shown at the beginning of this post looked like this before I discovered that there’s a face!

Painting fantasy portraits. See Paivi Eerola's intuitive approach!

Painting this one was an exciting process, and fortunately, I recorded some parts of it. I used a couple of tricks that I learned from my skillful artist friend Eeva Nikunen: using a dead color when exploring values and adding an even color wash over the whole painting to make it more unified.

Painting Fantasy Portraits – Watch the Video!

Happy Holidays! – See You in “Bloom and Fly”!

I am not sure whether I blog next week or not. So with this painting about the new year, I want to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Thank you for being there!

And of course, I hope to see you in Bloom and Fly at the beginning of January! We’ll start by planning your creative goals, then pick easy ideas from Rococo, explore abstracts together, etc. I will help you to express yourself so that it’s adventurous and imaginative!  >> Sign up here!

Create Pastel Softness!

Soulmates, an illustration by Peony and Parakeet. Read more about using pastel colors and see how this artwork was made!

This time it’s all cute! I had the feeling that this blog is getting too serious. Don’t get me wrong! I want serious, I love serious and hope that you do too! Still, behind all good art, there’s a big portion of imagination. And the best way to embark that imagination is to play a little!

Pastel Colors in Teddy Bears

Cute collector teddy bears manufactured by Steiff and Teddy Hermann

So I asked my teddy bears if they were willing to help me with this post. And they responded: “Yes, sure!” When I interviewed them, they reminded me that there are two big factors in cuteness: softness and pastel colors. “My friend is a black teddy and he does not get so many hugs as I do”, said Apple Blossom. Pink Princess continued: “It’s not just the color, but it’s the fluffy softness that’s important too!” And then they both agreed that the huge nose and strong eye contact make a teddy even more successful.

Pastel Colors in Old Scrap Pictures

Then I showed them the old scrap pictures that I had found from an antique flea market some years ago.

Cute vintage scrap pictures. Read more about using pastel colors in art!

“Oh yes!”, they giggled. “If you want to create something cute, these sure are good examples! Round shapes make them look reaaaaally soft!”

India Ink and Circles

I picked up my India ink bottles (used also in the video blog post last week) and tried to think about what kind of soft and cute to create with them.

Dr Ph Martin's Bombay india inks. Read more about creating pastel colors with them!

Then I remembered the round shapes. That could be the start.

Read more about using pastel colors and see how this artwork was finished!

So I painted some round shapes with pastel colors on a thin watercolor paper. While painting, I noticed that to get beautiful pastels you need to use a lot of white. Sometimes adding a lot of white can create hues that lack softness if the base color is cold. You can fix that by adding some yellow or a tiny portion of black. Speaking of soft and white, meet another teddy of mine called Niamh …

A white teddy bear, Niamh, manufactured by Charlie Bears

I am not a big fan of white but who could not love the color after seeing her!

Clustered Shapes

Back to the painting: Small shapes were added near the large ones to create cute creatures. I made some large shapes form the part of the background. More shapes were painted to made creatures more interesting.

Read more about using pastel colors and see how this artwork was made!

I made the shapes look dimensional and detailed with colored pencils.

Read more about using pastel colors and see how this artwork was made!


I finished the painting by adding more details and sharpening them with a white gel pen and a thin tip black marker. As a final touch, I added white acrylic paint on the face of the biggest creature. It lightens up the work and makes a great contrast with the black. Namely, if you look at the scrap pictures and the teddy bears, the black color makes pastels look so soft and bright. Small black dots here and there on a pastel colored circles can be enough to create a page that’s all soft and cute.

Soulmates, an illustration by Peony and Parakeet. Read more about using pastel colors and see how this artwork was made!

So, why not have a go: create a pastel colored art journal page to soften the hard world!

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