Oil painting portraits are an incredibly subtle niche. If you feel yours appear dull or uninspired, it’s time to return to the basics.
While I’ve painted for years, I’ll still return to the fundamentals of light and shadow for refreshment. You’d be amazed by how just one or two tips can breathe new life into a portrait.
My guide will help you put down a tonal underpainting as well as a color overlay. By the end, you’ll have a stronger grasp on what makes classically styled portrait paintings so stunning.
- Tools You’ll Need for Your Oil Painting Portrait
- How to Paint a Portrait With Oil Paints
- Step #1: Choose Your Reference
- Step #2: Do a Warm-Up Sketch or Painting
- Step #3: Draw the Final Sketch Onto Your Surface
- Step #4: Choose Your Color Palette and Mix
- Step #5: Start Your Underpainting By Blocking in Shadows
- Step #6: Never Neglect Midtones for an Oil Portrait Painting
- Step #7: Add in Highlights Last When Painting Portraits
- Step #8: Add in Smaller Details or More Definition
- Step #9: Soften Edges With a Blending Tool
- Step #10: Double-Check any Unfinished Areas or Missing Details
- Common Mistakes to Avoid in Oil Portraits
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Painting Oil Portraits Will Help You Master the Fundamentals
Tools You’ll Need for Your Oil Painting Portrait
This guide will be simple so you can start as quickly as possible. That said, I’ll still include a few additives and tools that can make your session more enjoyable.
Your Favorite Oil Paint Brand
Any oil paints will work for this tutorial, whether student-grade or artist-grade. Student-grade paints have a lower pigment count, while artist-grade oils will have more pigment for a richer look.
Oil of Choice
Just one oil is enough for this tutorial, so consider your own painting style before picking. Linseed oil improves blending and has a strong finish when dried, while safflower blends more slowly.
Consider switching to walnut oil if you don’t want your painting to yellow over time. Poppy oil also is less likely to turn yellow.
Palette and Palette Knife
You’ll need somewhere to mix your paints and figure out the best hues for your portrait painting session. Glass and wood are both great choices for an oil paint palette.
A linen surface is a famous canvas for oil because the lighter weave helps you put down more detail. However, a canvas primed with acrylic gesso is suitable, too.
Filbert and round brushes are the most versatile and work well for painting skin, clothing, and more minor details such as jewelry. However, a fan brush can be great for hair or subtle blending.
Graphite Pencil and Kneaded Eraser
Graphite pencils are erased easily, so keep one or two on hand to get down your preliminary sketch. Kneaded erasers are more flexible than rubber erasers, allowing you to reduce mess by ‘lifting’ off a drawing.
How to Paint a Portrait With Oil Paints
This tutorial will establish the fundamentals of building an oil portrait to get you started quickly.
Step #1: Choose Your Reference
References are crucial for creating portraits – they help you capture someone’s likeness more accurately than by memory alone. You can use a photograph, your own reflection, or a model.
Using a photograph is a quick and free way to practice oil portrait painting. If you can get multiple angles of the model, even better. Just make sure to find a high-resolution photo to capture more subtle detail.
Your own reflection is also a great option if you have a mirror and good lighting handy. However, you must be comfortable repeatedly making the same pose and expression.
Lastly, a model provides one of the best ways to grow your portrait painting skills naturally. Depending on the model you contact, this resource may be free. You can also ask a friend or family member to pose for you if they have time (and buy them a coffee later).
Step #2: Do a Warm-Up Sketch or Painting
No matter where you are on the intermediate artist spectrum, I highly recommend doing a few practice sketches or a warm-up painting. Figuring out difficult areas in a low-stakes environment is helpful before committing a drawing to the final canvas.
For example, let’s say you struggle with the nuances of painting eyelids. You can do a few practice sketches that focus on the eyelid folds and help you figure out your shortcomings. Once you have the hang of it, your final sketch will look that much better. I personally get ‘first sketch stiffness’ where I need to warm up before my drawings look good.
You can also do painting warm-ups for skin tone or figuring out basic shapes. These paintings can take just a few minutes and be a useful reference for your final work.
Step #3: Draw the Final Sketch Onto Your Surface
Make sure to use a light touch for the final sketch so you can erase easily. Darker marks are harder to remove and can also dent the canvas.
If you do draw too dark, use your kneaded eraser to lift the graphite off little by little. One method is ‘scrubbing’ over the drawing to gradually fade the sketch. You can also use the ‘stick and lift’ method to pull the graphite off specific areas.
Try this technique if you don’t have graphite or carbon paper handy.
If you don’t feel comfortable drawing directly onto your surface, consider using transfer paper instead. This will allow you to make all the mistakes you need before committing to a finished portrait sketch.
Your sketch shouldn’t be too detailed since you’ll be painting directly over it. You want to save your energy for the more involved work of your oil portrait painting.
Step #4: Choose Your Color Palette and Mix
Choosing the right colors is a significant part of a gorgeous oil portrait. Practice laying down colors on a spare piece of paper to ensure they look good before committing.
Burnt umber, titanium white, vermillion, and yellow ochre are staples of skin tones. You have an excellent range for making subtle olive, rich brown, or pale beige results. You can use a reference photo to help you capture skin tones more accurately, though I recommend also studying the real deal. Cameras sometimes fade or exaggerate, which isn’t always helpful.
If you’re not sure how good your mixed paint looks, use just a corner of your sketchbook for a few practice strokes. Skin remains one of the biggest challenges when you paint portraits, so you can take online classes to improve, too.
Step #5: Start Your Underpainting By Blocking in Shadows
Your tonal underpainting is the foundation of your oil portrait. This helpful construction allows you to capture form and shadow with simple colors such as dark and light brown.
Burnt umber with the occasional dollop of titanium white is all you need for an underpainting. Here, you’ll start painting shadows under a person’s eyes, nose, and lips to carve out their face. Even experienced artists prefer to paint faces this way because it’s an effective way to organize the entire face.
Try not to touch your walnut or linseed oil yet – focus on capturing the portrait’s likeness first.
You can finish this step and call it good since many portraits end up as tonal studies. However, if you want to add color, this underpainting will let you build up midtones and highlights.
Step #6: Never Neglect Midtones for an Oil Portrait Painting
Midtones are an essential ingredient to a happy painting. They’re not as dark as shadows nor as bright as highlights.
Thanks to midtones, you’ll create a more natural-looking portrait that feels alive. Burnt umber, vermillion, titanium white, and yellow ochre are fantastic for creating subtle midtones. You can also use dark mauve colors for under the eyes or along the lips. Midtones and shadows also blend nicely since they’re meant to transition into each other.
Step #7: Add in Highlights Last When Painting Portraits
Highlights come last since they’re simpler and require less paint. However, you’ll want to be mindful of how you translate natural light to your portrait and go for a less is more approach.
Too many highlights can make someone look slimy or plastic. On the other hand, not enough highlights can make your finished painting look dull and flat. Highlights most often hit higher planes of the face, such as the tip of the nose, eyelids, forehead, and upper cheekbones. Moist areas such as eyes and lips also have a few more highlights.
While highlights tend to be varying degrees of white, you can also use soft yellow light or blue light. When you study colors in everyday life, you’ll be amazed by how colorful everything actually is.
Step #8: Add in Smaller Details or More Definition
It’s best to save fine details for the later stages since you’ve blocked in all the important elements. Be sure to analyze your reference photo or model closely for this stage because there’s a lot to get down.
Common details that will take a little time to render include:
- Stray strands of hair, such as flyaways or stubble
- Freckles, moles, or birthmarks
- Scars or pockmarks
Other types of detail that may require you to layer paint more than usual are:
- Piercings and jewelry
- A high collar or fur coat
Step #9: Soften Edges With a Blending Tool
Since oil painting takes time to dry, try a blending tool for the softer areas of the portrait. Linseed oil is excellent for blending, but you may need extra help manipulating your oil paint.
First things first – don’t use your finger to smudge or blend. Some oil paints may contain lead, and those that don’t can still be washed down the drain later to clog your pipes.
Safe ways to soften things up include using a brush, particularly a fan brush. You can lightly ‘wisp’ the feathered edges over your painting to soften edges for a sfumato-esque appearance.
You can even use a palette knife to soften your edges, though this is a little more difficult than a fan brush. You can use a little extra linseed oil or walnut oil to get the oil as buttery smooth as possible. From there, you can push and carve the paint until it looks softer. Palette knives are wonderful if you want dramatic shadows found in classical chiaroscuro paintings.
Step #10: Double-Check any Unfinished Areas or Missing Details
Painting portraits is an involved process and you can sometimes overlook details. It’s helpful to take a break from a painting and return to it with fresh eyes.
Commonly overlooked areas include (but aren’t limited to):
- Eyebrow detail
- Fine stubble
- Flyaway hairs
- Subtle details in clothes or jewelry
It’s important to remember that no two portrait paintings are the same. If you find you’d rather spend more time painting a person’s tattoos than their hairline, go for it. It’s up to you which details are most important for the final work.
Common Mistakes to Avoid in Oil Portraits
Oil portraits can be intimidating due to all their different working parts. I’ll make things easier by helping you avoid common pitfalls that can make your work appear flat or lifeless.
Jumping Straight Into Detail
Subtle strands of hair or lovingly rendered lashes are beautiful, but patience is vital. Jumping into detail too early makes a portrait more challenging to render.
An overly detailed face clashes with a less detailed hairline or neck. As a result, you may get overwhelmed trying to get the rest of the portrait to ‘catch up’.
Stick to each step and see it through to completion across the whole painting before moving on. Your painting will look much more harmonious.
Blending Too Much
Oil is a brilliant medium for creating subtle transitions in color. However, blending too much will make a portrait look plastic and ‘off’.
The human face may be smooth in some areas but has wrinkles, stubble, pockmarks, and scars elsewhere. Practice a little restraint as you lay down your paint and only blend usually smooth areas, like noses or chins. You’ll be amazed by how much more natural everything looks.
Relying on Too Many Saturated Colors
While vivid colors are beautiful, they need to be balanced out. Too much saturation makes a portrait appear artificial and overexposed, like a selfie in bad lighting.
As you paint, you’ll become comfortable figuring out which colors accurately represent your subject. To help you out, here’s a guide on the differences between saturated and desaturated colors.
Mixing Colors While Painting
While more experienced artists can mix colors on the fly, I don’t recommend this for beginner and intermediate artists. Mixing while you paint is difficult if you have less experience mixing specific colors consistently.
It’s easier to pre-mix a hearty helping of colors beforehand so you can focus on the portrait. As you get more experienced, you’ll get comfortable mixing new colors as you go.
Neglecting Hard and Soft Edges
Your edgework will mean the difference between a portrait that’s natural or stiff. Like desaturated and saturated colors, hard and soft edges exist in relation to each other.
Soft edges are more common in ambiguous areas like the eye line, hairline, or the edges of someone’s jaw. Harder edges are more common on spots of light or the tips of teeth. Study your reference image closely and take a few moments to analyze it. Which areas become soft and blurry, and which ones become sharper?
Not Taking Breaks to Refresh Your Mind
It’s easy to get tunnel vision after several hours of painting. Coming back to your work with fresh eyes will help you spot mistakes more easily.
Even fast-drying oils give you some wiggle room for breaks, so step away once in a while. You’ll also go easier on your wrist and back, which can ache after working on art for too long.
If you’re worried about your painting drying out, use slow-drying mediums such as walnut and poppyseed oil. You can switch to linseed oil if you need your painting to dry faster.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still have a few questions about putting together a portrait in oil paint? I’ll answer a few below.
How long does it take to paint a portrait in oils?
Some painters may take an hour, and other painters may take several to paint a portrait in oils. Every artist is different. What matters is committing to practice and not giving up – you’ll get faster over time.
How do you make a portrait painting look realistic?
A major aspect of making a portrait painting look realistic is mixing accurate highlights, midtones, and shadows. You can improve this skill by using a reference photo or ‘eyeballing’ hues in landscape painting practice.
Are oil paints good for portraits?
Yes! Oil color is good for portraits. It is famously rich and subtle, making it well-suited to portrait painting. It’s also easy to get very smooth blending with oils, which helps with recreating soft skin or shiny hair.
Is painting with oil harder than acrylic?
Oil paintings have a slightly steeper learning curve than acrylic due to their slower drying time. You also need proper ventilation since many oil paints come with fumes that can lead to headaches.
What is fat over lean?
Fat over lean is an oil painting technique where you gradually add more oil to each new layer of paint once the previous layer dries. ‘Fat’ oil paints have more oil, while ‘lean’ oil paints have less.
This technique helps the paint’s longevity by reducing cracking. It’s important to get comfortable with this painting process so it becomes second nature.
Painting Oil Portraits Will Help You Master the Fundamentals
Whether you want to go to art school or learn how to paint flowers, oil portraits are a great way to master the fundamentals. They capture many essential skills all artists need, such as blocking in shapes and blending smooth areas.
Alongside technical skills, oil portraits also increase your confidence in capturing the world around you. The human face remains one of the most famous subjects to paint for its plethora of emotions and personality. Oil portraits ensure you’re capturing the full range of what makes a painting engaging.
No matter how much you practice, revisiting the basics is useful for refreshing your knowledge. If you have a little extra time, there are wonderful portrait painting classes to help you level up.