How to Paint a Portrait in Oil Paints

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Portrait painting in oils can be challenging and complicated. There are many factors to consider, like the colors you choose for the palette, tonal variations in the complexion, techniques for painting hair, and lighting. Here are some tips to help you paint a portrait in oil paints, with beautiful results.

Prepare to Paint

  • Start with a room that contains plenty of natural light. Poor lighting puts strain on the eyes, and can affect the colors you choose. If you can't work in a space with a lot of windows, get a good daylight lamp.

  • Organize the paints on the palette. Squeeze out a line of each color toward the edge of the palette. Use titanium white, ivory black, ultramarine blue, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, viridian, and pthalo green. This is a general portrait mix that varies among artists.

  • Mix some basic values that you'll need in grays, browns, and flesh tones. To create a variety of flesh tones to work with, create values (dark, medium and light) of the following mixes: yellow ochre and white; raw sienna and white; raw sienna, cadmium red and white; cadmium red, white and a touch of raw sienna. Neutral tones can be mixed from raw umber and white as well as black and white.

  • Pose and light the subject, if you're painting from life. If using a photograph, tape it to the wall or the top of your easel so you can see it clearly. Take a few moments to study your subject before you begin painting, mentally noting the proportions, coloring, and lighting.

Paint the Subject

  • Paint an "underpainting" first, which is just blocking in the dark, medium and light values on the canvas. Start with the dark values first. You can use acrylic paints for this, since they dry quickly and oil can be painted over them. If you use oils, don't add any linseed oil or other slow-drying ground at this stage.

  • Start by painting the shapes of dark and light that you see when you squint at the subject, adding detail in later layers. Oil portraits are generally painted one layer at a time.

  • Use cool shades with less intense color in the background to make it appear further away.

  • Place the pupils in the middle of the head; the bottom of the nose should be between the pupils and the chin. The center of the lips should be located 1/3 down the face from the bottom of the nose. 2/3 below the nose is the chin crease.

  • Line up the tops of the ears with the eyebrows. The ear hole should line up with the bottom of the nose. In a smiling mouth, the edges line up with the pupils. The line of the shoulders should be two head lengths (not widths) wide. From the chin to the shoulder should be ½ of a head length.

  • Paint the hair in masses of dark and light, adding in detail for a few strands but not the entirety of the hair. Use your paint brush to give the paint texture, rather than painting in individual hairs.

Tips & Warnings

  • When using a model, make sure they aren't in a pose that will tire them out quickly. Give them something to lean on and rest their feet on.
  • The jaw area and neck are typically less highly colored (with a bit more neutral added into the mix) than other areas of the head.
  • The younger the subject, the more highly colored the ears, cheeks and nose should be.

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