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Painting Portraits: Principles

Portraits have been painted for many reasons, to:

1. Achieve a likeness of the sitter's features.

2. Preserve the identity of someone for future generations, particularly before the advent of photography.

Rembrandt van Rijn3. Create a souvenir, a loyal remembrance of someone now absent or dead.

4. Establish a public image, emphasizing the sitter's status, fashionable looks or personal qualities.

5. Record the artist's response to the living presence of the subject.

6. Represent the essential dignity or nobility of the human subject.

7. Recreate in a contemporary setting the norms of classical portraiture.

8. Explore the personality, psychology or inward qualities of the sitter.

9. Develop or extend the necessary painting skills.

The aims are far from exclusive, and portrait paintings today will be balancing many of these aims against the fee and expectations of the client.

Painting a Portrait: Some General Advice

Peter Paul RubensMost portrait artists begin with drawings of the sitter. These do not supersede photographs, but are generally preferred as the very act of drawing requires the artist to study and understand what he is seeing. Nonetheless, there can be problems. Some drawings will come off straight away, but many only after a great deal of effort, and on occasions nothing seems to give a likeness. For that reason, some painters, particularly the more experienced, begin immediately on the oil portrait. By moving from general appearance to telling details they avoid producing a photographically correct but facile/bland/unilluminating facsimile of the subject. Some general hints:

1. Use the appropriate medium in preliminary work: pencils for a small and/or detailed sketch, chalks or conté for the broader sketch.

2. Ensure the lighting helps to give strength, solidity and character to the face. It is very difficult to capture a full face likeness if the lighting and features are such that the features are not tightly organized by structure. Eyes and mouth that 'float' in a soft woman's face where you cannot put muscles, wrinkles and shadows are particularly difficult. Avoid full face if you can.

3. Never make the face full-size. Two-thirds is the normal limit and half-size is safer. Too large a paper or canvas size leaves wide spaces which are difficult to fill, and in which it is difficult to place features accurately.

4. Closeness to model is important. Many expressive details of eye folds and mouth are lost a few feet further out.

5. It's usually best to block in the broad tonal or structural masses and then follow in detail with the eyes and nose. The triangle between eyes and tip of nose is a useful reference.

Portraits: Painting on a Dark Ground

Théodore GéricaultSolomon {5} suggests these steps for portrait painting:

1. Make an accurate sketch in charcoal. Ensure this is correct.

2. Model tones only in turps-thinned raw umber and white.

3. Repeat stage 2 several times until modeling is correct. Each attempt should completely but thinly cover the previous. Pay attention to hard and soft edges, skin over bone and pulpiness elsewhere. Tone should be appreciably lighter than intended result dark grounds tend to absorb mid-tones and darken with age.)

4. Dry thoroughly.

5. Paint shadows in a mixture of Indian red and black, highlights with stiff white, and intermediate tones with a mixture of these colors modified with a cobalt or a very little chromium oxide green.

6. Dry thoroughly.

7. Glaze and/or scumble this grisaille with red and yellow pigments, either in oil, or oil and glazes mixed.

Portraits: Painting on a Toned Ground

The following approach is more general, and emphasizes the need to a. work out everything in advance and b. undertake oil sketches to solves problems as they arise.

1. Prepare ground properly: absorbent if you are using much medium with paint, less absorbent if you're using glazing approach. Grays, greens, pinks, browns and buffs colors are best, all pale.

2. Decide composition beforehand, either by roughing out in charcoal or by tonal drawings.

3. Work out palette prior to painting anything, and decide in this order: skin tones, then hair, then clothes and finally background. Adjust tone/hue/purity of color in clothes as necessary. You may need to make many oil sketches to harmonize everything.

4. Use lateral frontal lighting. Shadow pattern should aid composition.

5. Ensure movement of body does not follow that of head.

6. Make background some neutral color, not necessarily darker than shadows of head.

Portraits in Oil: Specific Hints

IngresThere is no "correct" approach, but many authorities suggest something like this:

1. Paint shadows to define broad structure, starting with nose.

2. Lower value in lower half of lighted area to help highlights above.

3. Make muzzle area the same color as rest of flesh but cooler.

4. Add touch of color where shadow meets light.

5. Try Venetian red as alternative to raw sienna which loses intensity with white. Paint hands etc. with these two colors and white.

6. Use cadmium colors for fair complexions, and earth colors for swarthy.

7. Shadows should be similar to background colors.

8. Add background colors to flesh tones to make area recede.

9. Tonal range of hair (light to dark) is often that of eye (highlight to pupil).

10. Highlights pick up structures and have to end on them.

11. Start with shadow areas. Cadmiums with black/cobalt blue/ultramarine and umber make good shadows. Deepen shadows if face lacks structure.

12. Break the face into planes, assign tones of one hue to these planes and paint them simply.

13. Warm skin areas always have a little cool color, and vice versa. But keep the light areas and the shadows distinct.

14. Thick flesh areas are warm and bone areas are cool.

15. Bring cheeks and chin forward with warm colors

16. Create warm backgrounds by taking shadow color and both lighten its value and weaken its intensity/purity.

17. Create cool background by choosing the cooled gray color that will represent the turning planes of your object. Cool with raw or burnt umber or with a little cobalt blue.

18. Don't let backgrounds overpower subject: make them more neutral to make subject come forward.

Portraits: Palette

Dante Gabriel RossettiMany mixtures are recommended, but it's essential not to mix more than three pigments plus white if brilliancy is to be retained. A little blending is acceptable but much better is to apply patches of paint with flat or filbert brushes and leave alone. Remember that shadow areas are an extension of the lit side, so use the same ingredients but vary proportions slightly.

Abbreviations in the mixtures that follow are:

Titanium White = W     Cad. Light Yellow =clY      Cad. Yellow = cY      Cad. Orange = cO
Cad. Light Red = clR Cad. Deep Red = cdR   Alizarin Crimson = acR      Permanent Rose = pmR    
Venetian Red = vR   Rose Doré = rdR      Permanent Rose = prR      Permanent mauve = pM      

Yellow Ochre = oY     Naples Yellow = nY

Cobalt Blue = cB      Ultramarine = uB      Prussian blue = pB     Phalo Blue = phB   
Cerulean blue = ceB    

Viridian = vG       Payne's Grey = PG

Raw Sienna = rS         Burnt Sienna = bS    Raw Umber = rU    Burnt Umber = bU   

These are some recommendations in books devoted to the art of portraiture.

Basic Oil Painting {1}

General complexions: W + rS + clR + cB

Softer general complexions: W + rS + V /  cB

Children's complexions: W + nY + clR + vG

Medium dark (yellow) complexions: W + yO + bS + uB

Medium to dark complexions: W + rS + pmR + cB

Red hair: W + cO + bS + pmR + cB

Dark brown hair: W + cO + bU + uB

Black hair: B + M + U

Gray hair: W + uB + cB

Parramon {2}

John Singer SargentThese are taken from Parramon's color schemes.

Warm Flesh Tints

Ordinary lit areas:   W + clY + clR + pmR + cB

Lower lip & rosy areas:   W + clY + clR

Highlights:   W + clR + clY

Stubble:   W + phB + cY + pmR

Blue-tinged shadows:   W + phB +cY +pmR

Basic shadow:   clR+ cO +phB + W

Darker shadow:    clR + cO + cY + phB + pmR + W

Upper lip:    pmR + vG

Eyebrows pmR +uB +phB +vG

Cold Flesh Tints 

Ordinary lit areas:   W + Oy + pmR + vG

Lower lip & rosy areas:   W + oY + pmR + vG

Light luminous flesh:   W + oY + vG

Stubble:   W + oY + pmR + vG

Blue-tinged shadows:   W + cB + cO + pmR +bS

Basic shadow:   c Y + cO + vG + pmR + W

Darker shadow:   vG V + W + pmR
Upper lip:   cY + cO + vG + W

Eyebrows pmR + vG +phB/bS

Angela Gair {4}

Graham SutherlandSome of these may apply better to watercolors. Experiment.

Pale complexions:     W + cO + pmR

Pinker complexions:    W + cO + pmR + cB

Pale orange-pink complexions:    W + cO + pmR

Golden complexions:    W + bS + cO + vG

Mediterranean complexions:    W + cO + bS + cB

Brown complexions:      W + bS + cO + pmR

Chinese/ yellow complexions:   W + cO + vG + bS

Deeper brown complexions:    W + rU + bS + phB

Rich brown complexions:   W + bS + cB

Cold black complexions:    W + rU + phB

Warm black complexions:   W + rU + phB + pmR

Rosalind Cuthbert {9}

Very Dark Complexions

Body:    ccR + rU + prB

Shadows:   acR + prB / acR + vG  / PG

Highlights:   nY/cR + W / cB + W

Mid-brown Complexions

Body:  uB + cO + oY + cO + W

Shadows:   rU /uB / rU + clR

Highlights:   cY + W / clY + W / clR + W

Olive Complexions

Body:    oY + W

Shadows:    cdR + rU/ rS + cB/pM

Highlights:   clY +  W / cY + W /  cB + W

Pale Complexions

Body:    cO + rdR  + W

Shadows:   cdR + cB / acR + rU  / cB + cdR

Highlights = W / nY / clY + W

The colours for highlights and shadows are added to the body colours. Some of these combinations give unpleasant or unhealthy-looking skin colours (Alizarin Crimson in particular) : vary the proportions or substitute with similar colours. Raw Umber may give 'dead spots': use Burnt Umber and a Blue.

Further Reading

1. 'Step by Step Art Schools: Portraits' by Jack Buchan & Jonathan Baker. Hamlyn. 2001. Not for the professional or advanced amateur painter, but a good introduction portrait painting techniques.

2. 'How to Paint Portraits' by José Parramon. Watson Guptill. 1988. Simple and practical.

3. 'Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color and Light in Oil, Pastel and Watercolor' by Chris Saper. Northern Light Books. 2001.

4. 'Complete Portrait Painting Course' by Angela Gair. Random House. 1990

5. 'The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing'. S.J. Solomon. Seeley. 1910.

6. 'A New Short Demo'. Portrait Painting Tips. A professional painter's blog.

7. How to Paint a Portrait With Oil by Marvin Mattelson. Artist Network. Stepwise approach from drawing.

8. 'A Stroke of Genius'. Portrait Artist. A good selection of portrait artists's work since 1996.

9.'The Oil Painter's Pocket Palette by Rosalind Cuthbert. Search Press. 1993.


Learn how to paint a portrait, portrait painting demo by Ben Lustenhouwer

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Portrait Painting in Oil, Paint a portrait without drawing. Part 1/4

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Learn how to make flesh colors instruction.

Oil Painting Techniques : How to Mix Oil Paint Colors


14a. 'Self-Portrait' by Rembrandt van Rijn. 1640. The National Gallery. London. The simplest of color schemes, but superb control of tones and great variety in texture, line and shapes.
14b. 'The Artist and his Wife in a Honeysuckle Bower' by Peter Paul Rubens. 1609-10. Alte Pinakothek. Munich. Rubens' wedding portrait: a carefully finished piece with forms smoothly modelled in thin paint applied over dark underpainting. Colors subdued, indeed rather muddy.
14c. 'Insane Woman' by Théodore Géricault. 1822-3. Musée des Beaux-Arts. Lyon. Another portrait of limited color range, but powerfully descriptive brushwork.
14d. 'Monsieur Bertin L'Aine' by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 1832. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Analogous red and red-orange throughout, but tone control, sinewy strength of lines and rhythmic repetitions make this a powerful work.
14e. 'The Day Dream' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1880. Victoria and Albert Museum. London. A decorative piece built on red-green complementaries.
14f. 'Henry James' by John Singer Sargent. 1913. National Portrait Gallery. London. Restricted palette and bravura brushwork.
14g. 'Somerset Maugham' by Graham Sutherland. 1949. The Tate Gallery. London. A split analogous composition (blue-gray in trousers) with facial features repeated in jacket and scarf