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Ever wondered how Picasso painted his masterpieces? Find out how to paint a cubist portrait inspired by Picasso’s Bust of a Woman 1909

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A bit of background

A head is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.
Pablo Picasso

In around 1907 Pablo Picasso, along with his friend Georges Braque, invented a new style of painting called cubism. Inspired by African sculpture, Picasso and Braque used simple shapes and a small range of colours to paint objects, people and landscapes. This gives many cubist paintings a sculpted look, like the figure in Bust of a Woman. Picasso and Braque often moved around the model or objects that they were painting, and painted them from different viewpoints within the same painting. This adds to the abstract look of their artworks.

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Are you ready to paint a Picasso-inspired portrait?

Use this guide to remind you of each step.

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  • Oil paints – burnt sienna, French ultramarine, yellow ochre, ivory black, titanium white.
  • Brushes – a couple of flat head brushes (large and small) and a small round head brush.
  • Palette – an old plate or tray makes a good palette for mixing paint.
  • Turpentine – you can buy this from an art shop or hardware shop. Use this to thin your paint and also to clean your brushes.
  • Rags – to wipe your brushes in between colours.
  • Canvas – Seymour used a canvas 20” x 24” (approximately 50cm x 60cm). You could also use a canvas board or paper treated for oil paint. You can buy these from an art shop.
  • A model! Ask a friend or family member to sit for you. Or you could paint a portrait of yourself using a mirror.
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Use black or blue paint thinned with turpentine, and paint a rough outline of your model’s head and shoulders.

Keep your outline simple. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake as this is just a rough guide and the paint layers will hide it.

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Step 1: Paint your outline
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Roughly paint in the background area around your figure. Use a large flat brush and burnt sienna paint thinned with turpentine.

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Step 2: Fill in the background
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Look carefully at your model and notice the light and dark areas of their face and shoulders. This will help you to see the structure of their face. (E.g. The area around the eyes and under the chin are usually darker, and features that stick out like the forehead, cheekbones and chin are usually lighter).

Paint in the light and dark areas. Try and paint these areas as simple shapes. Use your paint thinned with a little turpentine and a flat brush.

Don't be afraid to mix your colours to create a range of light and dark tones.

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Step 3: Block in your figure
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Now use your paint without thinning it and work into your painting. Use your flat brush to make square chiselled brushstrokes. Use the direction of these marks to help show the flat planes or shapes of your model’s face.

Add a bit of abstraction. You can do this by moving around your model so you see them from different angles, or by asking them to shift their position slightly. How does this affect what you see? Add the new shapes of the features that you now see to your painting.

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Step 4: Build up your layers and go abstract!
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Paint into the background of your painting using a darker colour and thicker paint. Seymour used French ultramarine blue to contrast with the browns of the face and make it stand out.

Now add in highlights. Look at your model and notice the lightest areas of their face. Use a round brush and a light coloured paint and dab small strokes of paint to make these light areas stand out.

Use dark paint to emphaszie any really dark areas. You could paint these using a dark line, or small dark brushstrokes.

Now stand back and look at your painting. Can you add to it? Could it be better? Make any final tweaks using your imagination. With cubism, it is more important that the painting works well and looks good, than is an accurate depiction of your model.

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Step 5: Finishing touches
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More about Picasso and cubism
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See all cubist artworks in Tate's collection
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