Painting Portraits

Capture Your Human and Animal Subjects in Oils - Step-by-Step


Capturing a likeness in human subjects can be one of the most challenging aspects of painting. The human brain is fine-tuned in the art of facial recognition, and people will notice if your subject's features are even a little off. Painting animals can seem daunting too, what with fur ranging wildly in colour, length, and texture--often on the same animal.

Note the wide range of fur types on this wolf: Short and soft around the eyes, coarse and long behind the head, and wispy inside the ears. Plus the dark undercoat peeks through where the fur parts.

Fortunately, there are ways to ensure you've captured a decent likeness in the early stages (because no one wants to hear: "My nose is too big!" after you've presented your subject with their finished portrait), and shortcuts for painting realistic fur.

Selecting a photograph

With a few tweaks, you can turn that meh candid shot into a decent subject for a painting. Here's the original photo I chose. The composition isn't bad, and both subjects are unblinking and focused on the viewer.

Original photo

A few adjustments using a free app can make a big difference in your photos. After cropping, try playing with light and colour (or other filters) to optimize contrast and intesify (or desaturate) colour. Here I've intensified light levels and colours to more closely match real life. I've also blurred the busy background, but this isn't necessary; you can simply paint whatever sort of background you like.

Enhanced and cropped photo

Reference Grid

Using a reference grid is a time-honoured tradition and a great way to help you transfer your drawing or photograph accurately to the canvas. You can either set up a grid on a digital photo using a graphics program, or draw gridlines on a print.

Drawing lines through key areas like the pupils, sides of the nose, bottom of chin, etc., can help with the placement of the features.

I'm using a T-square, but I've measured increments on all sides of the canvas to ensure my grid is square (the stapled, bumpy edge of the canvas can throw the T-square off and skew your gridlines--and subsequently, your drawing).

Make sure you use the same grid ratio on your canvas, and once the drawing is complete, erase your gridlines so they don't bleed through the lighter areas of your painting.

A simple line drawing is all you need to guide you in your painting

Blocking In

The prep work is done, so now it's time to get painting. I start by applying an average tone/colour to each element to make subsequent layers easier to paint. This way I'll be able to concentrate on details instead of trying to cover up all that white.

Blocking in

I use acrylics rather than oils to block in. It dries much more quickly (hours as opposed to days), it's less expensive, and I can clean my brushes with water rather than solvent. When mixing large quantities of acrylic paint, you can use something like a tin can or yogourt containter. This will prevent acrylic "mountains" from hardending on your palette. If you have arylic gesso, go ahead and use that instead of white paint to lighten tones; gesso is less expensive and thins the paint to make it flow a little better (although adding a little water also does the trick).

Mixing acrylic paint

You might be wondering why I neglected to block in the skin tones tones. That's because I'll be using an underpainting technique (more on this later) for the face and arm.

Blocked in--except for skin tones

Now that I've blocked in with acrylics, I can go ahead and paint the background with oils, mixing in a little linseed oil to increase flow. I mix the colours on my palette and blend them onto the canvas:

Or I'll just dab the colours directly on my canvas and blend:

The grass is painted with a small brush while the canvas is still wet. Don't be afraid to experiment with different mediums, brushes, and techniques to find something that really works for you.

Underpainting

Underpainting is a technique perfected by the Old Masters. Instead of painting your subject's lighter skin tones, you allow the white canvas to shine through. It's similar to drawing on paper: you simply shade, but with paint instead of a pencil. The advantage is you don't have to worry about multiple colours at this stage. I need only one colour on my palette, burnt sienna, which has reddish tones and works well for pinker-skinned subjects (burnt umber can be substituted for subjects with darker and/or cooler skin tones).

If you make an area too dark, you simply either wipe the paint away, or "erase" using an underpainting white (some of the whites are rather impermeable and may cause your subsequent layers to bead up, so I recommend underpainting white for this method).

The key to this technique is to remember that less is more. You're not so much painting as shading, so you're going be using a "dry brush" technique and tiny amounts of paint.

This is what my brushes look like after painting the face. Note they're barely tinted with colour. In fact, after touching my brush to the paint on my palette, I rub the excess off on a rag before I touch it to the canvas.

The first pass of the face is complete.

After the first pass, you need a way to determine if you've captured a likeness. You want your underpainting to be as accurate as possible, because it's easiest to correct at this stage. It's not enough to simply look back and forth between the reference image and the painting; your brain will lie to you and tell you you've captured the likeness just fine. You need fresh eyes here (writers will know what I'm talking about).

If your subject is handy and you don't mind them seeing their portrait-in-progress, bring them in at this point. Encourage them to be ruthless and point out every flaw (this should be easy if your subject is a teenager). If your subject isn't available, any pair of fresh eyes will be helpful, but there is a trick to forcing you, the painter, to see the flaws in the likeness: take a photo of your painting, and place it side-by-side with your reference photo. You can continuously take photos as you alter the painting to compare to the reference image until you're satisfied with the likeness.

A resemblance check reveals the chin is too long and narrow, the hairline needs rounding, and the eyebrows need thickening (the subject is intentionally left wide-eyed at this point to facilitate the painting of eyelashes at a later stage, and to counteract the slight squint due to the outdoor nature of the photo).

Eyes

The eyes are the focal point of the painting, and you want to make them pop (not literally). There are a few tricks to acheive this. Make your edges around the iris hard; this will give the illusion of sharp focus.

A note about edges: Every artist handles edges differently. Some prefer razor-sharp edges, while others favour super soft. For this portrait, I transitioned my edges: in the image above, the edges are soft and out-of-focus for farther objects (the arm), sharper for mid-range objects (T-shirt), and sharper yet for closer objects (fingers). I'll use the sharpest focus for things I want to stand out, like the subject's irises.

Since I've already blocked in the irises, I can shade them with a dry brush using paint straight from the tube (a mix of titanium white, mars black, and ultramarine blue):

Make the limbal rings (the dark ring around the iris) a little darker and wider than in real life (this trick also makes your subjects appear younger, since limbal rings tend to lighten and narrow with age. Although this subject doesn't need any help in that area, more noticeable limbal rings tend to make a subject's eyes more appealing). And enlarging the pupils will counteract their tendency to contract outdoors.

The highlight is added with a dab of titanium white:

Clothing

Some colours are more transparent than others, so the blue T-shirt requires another block-in coat. Just as we wanted an even, white foundation on which to paint our face and skin tones, we want a solid single-toned colour on which to paint the details of the T-shirt. I also decided to lighten the tone to more closely match the photograph, so I applied a second coat of acrylic (remember, acrylic can go over acrylic, oil can go over acrylic, but acrylic must never go over oil).

The T-shirt and shorts are shaded using the same dry-brush technique used on the face. I use a single colour (titanium white) straight from the tube to add the light tones of the shirt:

Then I paint the darker tones using a mixture of cerulean and ultramarine blue.

Since these blues are fairly transparent, I make a second pass at a later stage (after the first layer has dried), to deepen the dark tones. I paint the shorts in the same way, but using greyer tones.

Hair

When I initially blocked in the hair, I painted a darker-than-average tone (left side), so it will show through from underneath (right side), as it does in life.

Burnt umber and sienna make up the dark tones. I added a little cadmium yellow and titanium white to the mix for the medium tones. A little more white and a touch more yellow make up the highlights.

I use separate angled brushes for light, medium, and dark tones, then blend to create a range of tones.

I begin each section by painting the general flow of the hair with medium tones.

After the first pass of hair was complete, I knew the background had to be changed. It clashes with the hair, and the medium tones don't contrast well with the medium tones of the the subjects.

One thing the original photo lacks is dramatic contrast in the way of lighting and shadows, so I decided to go with a black background to contrast with the lighter subjects.

Glazing

Glazing is an Old Masters' technique used to colourize a monochrome underpainting (in this case, the flesh tones). I simply mix stand oil (a condensed, thickened linseed oil) with a touch of alizarin crimson. I start out by brushing it across the darker areas, then spread a thin, transparent layer over the lighter areas. Since the lips are a more intense colour, I use more paint and less stand oil.

Use soft brushes to apply a glaze.

Once I've finished glazing, I go ahead and refine the face and arms by using a little titanium white straight out of the tube to contour the lighter areas of the face. The white mixes in with the crimson glaze to to give it a little opacity. The underpainting still shows through, though, and will do so after several glazing passes.

First glazing pass. Glazing flesh tones usually takes three or more passes, allowing a few days of drying between applications.

After several glazing passes, the subject's face has taken on more natural flesh tones.

Painting Fur

As you can see here, I've blocked in some dark tones on the dog in preparation for the next step, painting the fur.

As opposed to the dry-brush method, here I'm going to use lots of paint and gel painting medium (about a 1:4 ratio of paint to gel).

The gel serves a dual purpose. It makes your opaque colours transparent, so some of the blocked in colour will shine through and mimic the undercoat (that's why I used a darker-than-average colour to block in the dog's ginger colour--the undercoat is usually darker). The gel also holds your brush strokes, and by using bristle brushes, you can easily render what look like individual strands of fur.

I start out by applying a thin coat of gel to the areas I'm going to paint. This will allow the paint to flow over the gel easily and create smooth brush strokes that taper off into delicate hair-like ends.

I mainly use two medium-sized bristle brushes: one for white, and one for the ginger fur colour. Then I work my way over the dog, loading the brush with the gel-paint mixture frequently, often every stroke. For each brush stroke, I press the brush to the canvas, then flick the brush over the canvas. The length of your brush strokes denotes the length of the fur. For really short fur, like on the dog's muzzle, I repeatedly tap the brush rather than use brushstrokes. I'll add darker undertones as needed with another brush, and use a tiny brush to add smaller details.

For the nose, I simply use a small filbert brush and dry brush over the blocked in nose with tiny amounts of titanium white. I'm more shading than painting here. I use this same method for the yarn bracelets.

The dog's ear might seem complex and difficult to paint, but it's really just a matter of layering your paint and using varying brush strokes to reflect the different lengths of hair and fur. I completed the ear in only one pass, laying in the fur over the blocked-in area. You can see the dark under layer through the top fur layer.

The first pass of the dog is complete.

I could have finished in one pass, but I was a bit careless with blocking in. The dark areas on the chest show through my transparent paint just a little too much, and some of the orange blocked-in areas have too stark a transition with the white, which also showed through the transparent paint.

I'll have to go over it again once the paint dries, which will take a few days.

Hair - Second Pass

The hair is a bit dull, so a second pass is in order. To give it some life, I use a technique similar to painting fur. I apply a thin coat of gel to the canvas, making sure to extend out from the edge of the hair so when I start painting, I can flick my brush out and simulate the look of individual strands on the ends of the hair.

Apply the gel past the hair ends.

As with the first pass, I mix dark, medium, and light tones, but this time I'm going to mix the paint in with the gel (again using a 1:4 ratio), to hold my brush strokes and make my paints transparent.

I work mainly with a fan brush, one half dipped in the highlight colour, one half with medium tones, and use other bristle brushes to apply undertones and smaller details as needed.

You want to blend your tones enough so there are no sharp demarcations, but not so much that you lose the effect of individual hair strands.

The hair is now complete. You might have noticed I'm not staying true to the reference photo; the subject's hair is fuller with more shine in the painting than the photo. That's the advantage of being familiar with your subjects, whether through additional reference photos, videos, or real-life observation. When this subject's hair is freshly washed, brushed, and in brighter light, it looks like the hair I've painted.

I'm also altering her features to make up for the photo's shortcomings. Her face appears too elongated in the photo, possibly due to shadows on the side of her face, or distortion in the photo. I've also eliminated the slight squint due to the picture being taken outdoors. That's one advantage of portraiture, you can render your subjects more true-to-life than a camera, capture the expressions that make their personalities shine through, and portray them at their best.

Eyes - Final Pass

Since the eyes are the focal point, I'm giving them more detail than any other part of the painting. Here I've added striations to the iris, including a greenish brown ring around the pupil. I've also lightened the bottom-right portion of the iris, and added catch lights to the corner of the eyes, above the lower eyelid, and to certain areas of the sclera. These are highlights that catch and reflect the light and make your subject's eyes sparkle.

Dog - Final Pass

The dog's ginger colour overall is a bit too light, so I deepen the colour by doing a glazing pass with a touch of alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow mixed with stand oil. I've also painted the dog's whiskers.

Background

For this portrait, I wanted to add a little something to the black background. I like to bring some of my subjects' personality or interests into the portrait, so after a discussion with the subject, who is into science fiction, we decided to go ahead with a space background, including stars, a nebulous cloud of dust and gas, and a UFO, which she designed and modelled in clay for me to use as a reference.

For the nebulous cloud, I apply a very thin layer of linseed oil to the black background, and then mix in a very thin layer of ultramarine blue. I use a round one-inch brush and a tiny amount of titanium white to tap out and smudge in the gaseous cloud.

For the stars, I thin titanium white with linseed oil until it has the consistency of house paint, then dip the edge of a fan brush in this mixture. By running my thumb quickly along the base of the brush, I can make the white paint splatter onto the canvas and create a star effect.

Test this on a spare canvas before you try it out on your painting! You'll find it goes everywhere at first, but with a few minutes of practice, you'll have some idea of where the splatter will end up, and have more control over the density and size of your stars. After the first pass of stars, I blot most of them with a rag to make them appear fainter and farther away. Then I make a second pass and leave the splatter as is to create brighter stars.

Paint this type of background before you paint anything else (which is what I would have done had I not decided to change the background), otherwise you'll end up wiping splatter off everything you've already painted (as I did).

The UFO is brushed on over a super-thin layer of linseed oil, using a mix of titanium white and ultramarine blue.

I kept the background elements subtle to avoid detracting focus from the main subjects.

The completed painting

Oiling Out

As your painting dries, you might notice "dead" spots. These are areas where the oil has sunken into the preceding layer(s) and created matte spots. You can usually avoid these by following the "fat over lean" rule of oil painting: making sure each subsequent layer of paint has a greater percentage of oil than the preceding one.

But sometimes you'll get dead spots anyway, so to recitify this, you simply "oil out" the matte spots. Wait until the painting has dried, then rub in very thin layers of stand oil (stand oil tends to yellow less than linseed oil and is less prone to cracking) until the painting has a uniform sheen. But any oil will yellow, or even turn brown (yikes!) if the painting is left in a darkened room, or even turned against a wall. Oil paintings need light while curing, but too much light will cause some of your fugitive colours, like red, to fade, so balance is required: don't leave them in direct sunlight, but don't let them languish in the dark.