Portrait Painting Techniques

Realistic portrait painting techniques are not as difficult as they seem, especially not in oils: because you have time. You can work a long time before the paint is dry, and if it still isn’t right, you just go back to it on another day. Acrylics dry faster, but can be painted over. If you don’t have any major wrongs in your proportions, you’ll get it right sooner or later.

a childs portrait

Using photographs

Don’t be principal about using photographs. It’s good to do one session with the model itself, but while you’re at it, take some pictures too (do ask permission first). Then you can go on working on your portrait the next day, without your model.
You can can even skip the modelling session, and base your portrait on a given photograph, or a photo you take yourself. It is good however, to see the person live, and get to know him/her a little (if you don't already).

Proportions are the key

The major factor in getting a good resemblance, is proportions. Your model has to sit really still, or you need a photograph to get them. Copy a photo in black and white and draw a raster on it, to take over proportions. Take major points over to your canvas by that raster (edges of the eyes, base of the nose and lips, ears, chin, top of the head). Put then on your canvas as little stripes or dots of paint. For a model session, you can make a raster with wood and strings (like a square tennis racket) and put it before your subject. Draw the same raster on your canvas, and take over the proportions. This is how they did it before the camera age.

Preparing a session with a model

Eventually prepare a canvas with an underpainting layer in green earth (to see why, scroll a little further for this ancient portrait painting technique). Prepare skintone color samples, and bring them to the session. Hold them to the person's face to pick the right skintone. Eventually, have landscape pictures at hand, for addaing a background. And make a wooden raster, to take over proportions.

A heated room to work in will be nice for your model, as he or she has to sit still for some time. Before the person comes, prepare your materials and the place where he or she will sit.

Mixing skintones

Mixing fleshtones can be done in various ways. Take a good look at the skin – compare it to others if you need to. Suggestions for skin tones:

  • burnt siena and white
  • english red and white
  • yellow ochre, alizarine crimson and white
  • for Asian skintones, use a little more yellow ochre and some raw umber
  • for olive skintones, add raw umber to one of the above recipes
  • for dark skintones, add burnt umber to one of the above recipes
First prepare the darkest skintone to a uniform shade, then tone it in different shades with white.

A great ancient portrait painting technique

The ancient way to get lively flestones, was to first paint the whole portrait in a green shade (green earth and white). If you paint skin tones (like mentioned above)over that, it wil contrast with the green, and a lively reddish pink is coming out all by itself. For more on underpainting techniques, click here

portrait in green earth

Painting the green earth layer

Prepare three shades of green earth and white:

  • pure green earth with a hinge of white
  • medium shade of green earth and white (add a little more white)
  • a very light shade of green earth and white (add them 1:1

Paint the shape of the face, in these three shades (with a brush for each shade). Use this layer to define the shape and proportions of the face through darkness and light. This three shade portrait painting technique is also done in Icon painting If you put some green earth on the rest of the canvas too, the painting as a whole will have a unifying basis. If you prepare a few mixing samples (painted on white AND a green earth underlayer) before the painting session with your model, you can hold them next to the face.
I haven't tried this recipe with very dark skintones. But I'd think it works about the same way, only the green underlayer can be darker too. Over the green layer, eventually put a wash of raw umber to give it some extra warmth. When painting, look at the face: if there's a shine on it, that spot won't look dark.

Eyes and lips

First paint the whole face in skintones, including facial hair, eyes and lips. Keep the iris light (the colored part of the eye). Later you can mix some skintone with burnt umber (or another appropiate color) for eyebrows and lashes, a little extra alizarine crimson for the lips. Choose the right color for the iris, and black for the pupil. Experiment a bit with the white you use for the eyewhite. In some cases, it might need a hinge of blue (that will enhance the white), in others a hinge of green or red. Eyes are wet, and reflect their surrounding colors, even if it's only for a fraction. When painting the eyes, be sure to put a highlight on them - over the black pupil, if you have to.

Clothes and background

Besides the face itself, the clothes and background of you portrait figure are important issues. With the right colors, they make the face come out. Clothes and background also define the character of your subject.

  • The background: You can use it to tell something about the person you paint. In renaissance painting, landscapes were often used as backgrounds for portraits. Green and blue landscape-hues flatter the skintone. A landscape was constructed with elements that complement the shape of the face. In classical portraits (european, from about 1300 to 1900), the background often was made a very dark brown (burnt umber and yellow ochre, glazed with burnt umber and black), to make the person really stand on him/herself.
  • Clothes: what colors flatter a person, is dependent on the person's skin and hair color, and personality type. Don’t hesitate to change the hue of the clothes, if that is better for the painting (do consult it with your model). Blondes do well with light blue and pink. Dark people can have stronger colors like ultramarine blue, magenta, red, green, yellow, violet. People of the midtones (brown hair and skin, green or brown eyes) do well on a green background. The background is best to be either lighter or darker than the subject, and it shouldn't have strong contrasts (light/dark), that will take the attention away of the face.

Backgrounds can be abstract, but do need to give a sense of space. If you use warm colors, make sure they don't make a light-and-dark contrast with the skintone (then the face will look green and very unhealthy). Eventually, balance effects like that by putting a visual buffer between your subject and the background (a shadow, a plant).
Eventually, use a different photograph as a background. Don’t forget to give the person a shadow. Also make sure the colors match. There are two kinds of light: warm light (sunset, oldfashioned light bulb) and cold light (daylight from the north). If the cold light is on the face itself, the face will look more greyish, and the person may look cold, insecure, or lonely. In warm light, the skin gets a warm glow. You can make the person look very healthy by giving the face a warm glow anyway, even when there's cold light on the background. It will be as if the person is lit by a sunset, that's situated behind the spectator of the painting.

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