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!

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2 Responses to Expressing Mystery – Self-Portrait as a Fox

  1. Cynthia Richter says:

    It is so interesting to watch how you go from one step to the next and how it changes in each step. The final step is always a surprise to me. It is wonderful!