How to paint a portrait with oil paints

How to paint portraits with oils.

Tip: Oil paintings rarely look smooth and natural up close. Frequently take 4 or 5 big steps back, to see what your piece really looks like.

1) Select a great picture with deep shadows. Painting a person will be so much easier if there are clear blocks of light and shadow. If you select a picture taken by a normal flash camera, the whole face will be lit up and you’ll have no way to depict the nose, eye and mouth areas except by outline, which will look cartoonish at best.

2) Sketch the picture in pencil, and then outline your sketch with a mix of turpentine and raw umber or another dark color. (Use turpentine instead of oil because it is runnier and easier to paint lines with.) If you aren’t a good drawer, you can get a cheap art projector like the “Artograph Tracer”. This will save you tons of time.

3) Next, take some raw or burnt umber and paint in the shadows. They can be pretty rough, but make them as dark as possible; they are always darker than you think they are.

4) Let dry! It is tempting to blend in the light areas and flesh tones right away – I usually make this mistake myself. If you do, you’ll probably go just a little too far somewhere, and make the dark tones weaker than they should be and need to repaint them later. Do yourself a favor and wait until the warm dark browns dry and are there for good.

5) if you have other things to block in – such as clothes, or background, you can do it after the shadows dry. (In this picture, besides adding the dark hair and clothes, I darkened the shadows in the face.) To get your shadows really dark, mix some dark blue in with your brown. Notice how the picture almost looks complete, even though all the highlights in the face are just raw canvas.

6) Add the flesh tones. Start with a warm, creamy color (I used to use yellow ochre, white and cadmium red but you can just buy a tube of flesh tone)… warmer is better, because you’ll mix out a lot of color when you add white. Try not to paint over your shadows: Put your wet brush where the face is the lightest, and pull the paint over to the sides – it should already be pretty dry when you get to the shadows. You can kind of ‘push’ the light over the edge of the shadow a little, but don’t paint over the whole thing.

7) Highlights. Once your flesh tone is blocked in, use white for highlights. Be sparing – put a tiny dab or almost dry brush just where you want it. Highlights are usually well-defined and less blended than the rest: the line on down the nose, the bright part of the forehead…

8) Details. Go back and outline or sharpen the picture. Work over the lines of the eyes, darken the nostrils and the line of the mouth.

9) Finally, add your signature and put it on the wall!

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