Portrait Painting Techniques & Lessons

(Scroll down to see the full list of lessons in this section)

Portraits painted using oils can have a life and glow about them that can’t be acquired using any other medium.

This is because oil paints can be applied in layers called glazes, which create a realistic depth to skin tone. This article will give you a few basic portrait oil painting lessons to get you started.


Set up the area in which you will be painting. If you want to paint the background of your portrait, then you need to decide on props, as well as the simple question of the location.

Painting outside can be difficult as you constantly have the movement of the sun to consider, as well as the wind and other factors. Painting inside means control: You can have full control over lighting, no matter what time of day it may be, and you don’t have to worry about wind, rain, etc.


If you are painting inside, then you need to pay special attention to lighting. Use as many lamps as you see fit to create interesting shadows, to highlight specific features and to light your subject well enough to see incredible detail if you want to. Don’t go too crazy with contrast – remember to make use of highlights, mid-tones and shadows in a well-balanced composition.'

 beginner painting lessons

Skin Tones

When doing a portrait oil painting, you as the artist have the advantage of being able to use glazes to create skin tones. Skin is made up of reds, yellow and blues, with white to lighten the skin tone and to create highlights. Good yellows to use would be yellow ochre, raw umber or burnt umber. Use cadmium red or alizarin crimson for red and for blue use ultramarine blue.

Titanium white is usually the best white to use for creating tints and lightening skin tones. You can choose either to mix your skin tone before hand and then to create tints and shades of the skin tone for details, or you could apply one color at a time, building up the color of the skin in glazes.

Base colors

Before you can create details in your portrait oil painting, you need to begin with the basics. Start off with doing an under-painting using one color. You can use any color that you feel like using, and the way that you choose is by paying attention to just that. What do you feel about the person you are painting?

What color feels right to use? Go with you instinct here, but remember that warmer colors (red, orange, etc) will give the painting a warmer and possibly more passionate feel, and cooler colors (blue, green, etc) will make the painting feel colder. After you’ve applied the base color, use another color to block in the area that the subject takes up.


Squint your eyes and blurrily look at your subject (whether live or a photograph). Notice the block areas of highlights, mid-tones and shadows, and fill in the shapes that they make on your canvas. Then, focusing on smaller, specific areas, do the same, but with smaller shapes. You will essentially be working your way from the largest, most simple shapes, down to the smallest, most detailed shapes.

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List of Portrait Painting Techniques & Lessons:

  1. How to Draw the Human Eye in Portrait Paintings
    Learning how to draw the human eye in portrait paintings is easier said than done. There are many essential elements for drawing a natural looking human eye in a portrait painting, including the light source and placement of the eye.
  2. What Paint Colours Are Best for Skin Tones
    One of the hardest things to accomplish, as a painter, is to know what paint colours are best for skin tones. This process is usually perfected by practice and time.
  3. How to Paint People Ears, Noses and Hair
    Ears, noses and hair can be challenging to paint realistically in portraits. In this portrait painting lesson, we are going to look indepth into the various elements of the human face.
  4. Learn How to Paint Self Potraits | Self Portrait Oil Painting Lessons
    Painting self portraits is something that every artist interested in portraiture should do. Many artists don’t have a choice, as they don’t have any other live models, but that’s not the only reason why.
  5. Painting the Background in a Portrait Painting
    When painting the background in a portrait painting, the important thing to remember is that the subject of the painting is the person, not the background.
  6. Step by Step Portrait Painting with Acrylics
    Although oil paints are often the preferred medium for creating portraits, acrylic works just as well and is useful for artists who don’t enjoy watching paint dry.
  7. How to Set Up the Portrait Painting Props | Setting Up Portrait Painting Using Oils
    Portrait painting is not exclusively about the subject. Props can play a large role in portraits, and setting them up can be tricky, not to mention choosing them in the first place.
  8. Why Artists Should Paint Self Portraits
    Self-portraits had been practiced back in the earliest times but it wasn’t until the mid 15th century that many artists started to frequently portray themselves either as the key subject or one of the main characters in a painting.

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Learn Portrait Painting Techniques | Portrait Oil Painting Lessons

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