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.

It is also easy to water down to create glazes, because unlike oils which need to be mixed with a specific medium to create glazes, acrylic can simply be mixed with water and/or acrylic medium.

First, you need to prime your canvas. You can use one layer of gesso, or, if you want a very smooth surface and don’t mind taking the time to do it, apply multiple layers of gesso which you sand down after each layer.

Next, sketch your image onto the canvas. If you want to, you can sketch it on paper first and transfer it to the canvas later. Because acrylic dries so quickly, it can be tricky to dive straight into painting without making more mistakes than you may be comfortable with.

Also, if you want to blend your colors, you need to work very quickly before the paint dries, so it may be easier to think ahead and to work predominantly by applying layers, and to mix your paint on your palette.

If you want to paint a background color before sketching and painting the portrait, then feel free to do so. Just remember that the color you use will affect the overall mood of the painting when it’s completed.

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Block in the biggest areas of plain color that you see in your subject, painting the shapes that the colors, shadows and highlights make. If you don’t know what colors to mix to create your skin tones, try using a combination of yellow ochre, cadmium red, ultramarine blue and titanium white. Add white for highlights, but add blues, greens and even purples for shadows.

Because acrylics dry so quickly, you may find it easier to quickly paint and blend all of the areas of skin in the painting before moving on to other features. Focus on shadows (including those in the hollows of the eyes) and highlights, and the colors in the surroundings that reflect off the skin (the nose often reflects colors more obviously than any other part of the body).

Once you are finished with the initial details of the painting (basic skin tone, clothes, etc), it’s time to get to work on some of the finer work. You’ll want to use smaller, finer paintbrushes for details like eyelashes, cracks in the lips, and for pulling out a few individual hairs in the body of the subject’s hair.

It can be very difficult to paint fine details with acrylic when it’s too thick, so thin it down with water, or with water mixed with medium, before dipping your brush in the paint. Some artists like to buy painting pens, which they fill with watered down paint. These are excellent for painting very fine details.

The moment that you consider your painting to be finished, step back, wash your paintbrushes and don’t do any more work on it for a few days. When you do come back to it, look at it in a mirror to get a different perspective. This will help you to see any mistakes which were not obvious the first time around. Looking at the painting upside down can also help you to see how you might be able to improve the composition and color scheme.

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