Getting Started with Portrait Painting

Artists have been captivated by portraiture painting for centuries. Historically this type of painting has been strongly associated with oil artists. The introduction of new materials and techniques has seen the genre re-emerge with a more expressive approach. We supply a wide range of materials to get you well stocked up to complete your first portrait. We also have some interviews with great advice straight from the studios of experienced portrait artists!

Getting Started with Portrait Painting

The art of the portrait is a very old painting tradition that has roots dating back to at least the times of Ancient Egypt, if not earlier. Historically this genre of painting has been used as much more than a way to record appearance – portraits of affluent sitters were often created as a symbol of power, importance, wealth, beauty or taste. Even with the advent of photography, portraiture painting has remained a strong contender in the art scene, with artists like David Hockney and Lucian Freud ushering in a re-emergence of the genre in the last century.

We stock a range of paints, tools and accessories that will help you create stunning portraiture whether you use oils, acrylics, watercolours, pastel, pen or pencil! You can find out more about the materials that we recommend for portraiture below. We also have some great tutorials and artist interviews that will give a deeper look into the working life of a portraiture artist and should give you some great hints and tips if you’re feeling stuck! You can find a link to these articles at the bottom of this entry.

Portrait Painting in Oils

Portrait Painting in Oils

Oil Paints have a long and prestigious history and were the medium of choice for the Old Masters. They are slow drying both on the canvas and on your palette – this open time gives plenty of opportunity to subtly modify your mixes which can be a great help when capturing the slight variations in skin tone. As your paints remain workable for so long, you will find that you are able to build up your portrait in incredible detail. With oils you won’t experience any colour shift between the paint fresh from the tube and the paint as it dries on your painting support. Many different painting methods can be used to create your oil portrait, you can find a list of oil painting techniques on our website.

We would recommend the colours below, or their nearest substitutes, if you are looking to expand your palette with colours suitable for portrait painting.

  • Lemon Yellow Hue
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Flesh Tint
  • Cadmium Scarlet
  • Vermilion Hue
  • Rose Dore
  • Rose Madder Genuine
  • Rose Madder Deep
  • Cobalt Violet
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Jaune Brilliant
  • Naples Yellow
  • Naples Yellow Light
  • Indian Red
  • Mars Violet Deep
  • Davy’s Grey
  • Charcoal Grey
  • Ivory Black
  • Lamp Black
  • Flake White Hue

View our full range of Oil Paints

Portrait Painting in Acrylic

Portrait Painting in Acrylics

Acrylic Paints are a fairly new development in the history of art materials, and they are a popular medium of choice for beginners. Unlike oils, they do not require the use of solvents and can be easily thinned and cleaned up with water. They are also very quick drying in comparison – thin films can be touch dry in a matter of minutes. This can make it more difficult to create your mixes as they begin drying the second they hit your palette – although this their open time can be extended by using acrylic slow drying mediums or Liquitex Palette Wetting Spray. On the other hand, their speedy drying does mean that you can complete your portrait in one sitting! One thing to bear in mind when creating your mixes is that acrylics darken in tone as they dry. Although this phenomenon isn’t as pronounced in modern, professional quality paints it is worth bearing in mind that it makes it more difficult to match colour tone from palette to canvas!

We would recommend the colours below, or their nearest substitutes, if you are looking to expand your palette with colours suitable for portrait painting.

  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Diarylide Yellow
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Cadmium Red
  • Napthol Red Light
  • Pyrrole Red
  • Cadmium Red Medium
  • Quinacridone Magenta
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Cobalt Turquoise
  • Buff Titanium
  • Naples Yellow
  • Naples Yellow Deep
  • Mars Colours
  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Davy’s Grey
  • Ivory Black
  • Mixing White

View our full range of Acrylic Paints

Portrait Painting in Watercolour

Portrait Painting in Watercolour

Watercolour Paints are a transparent painting medium and have a great ability to capture subtle tonal variations – this makes them a great medium for painting skin tones. Painting in watercolour is much different to using an opaque paint – you will work from light to dark and you will use the white of the paper in place of white paint. Because of this, it is important to plan your portrait painting beforehand to preserve the white highlights on your paper. Some artists use masking fluid to protect their paper from washes, which is later removed to reveal white paper underneath. Other watercolourists add their highlights back in by using white Gouache paint or an opaque white ink.

We would recommend the colours below, or their nearest substitutes, if you are looking to expand your palette with colours suitable for portrait painting.

  • Lemon Yellow
  • Nickel Titanium Yellow
  • Permanent Carmine
  • Rose Madder Genuine
  • Cadmium Yellow Pale
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Cadmium Scarlet
  • Cadmium Red Deep
  • Rose Dore
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Purple Madder
  • Permanent Magenta
  • Cobalt Violet
  • Permanent Mauve
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Cobalt Turquoise
  • Naples Yellow
  • Naples Yellow Deep
  • Raw Sienna
  • Light Red
  • Venetian Red
  • Indian Red
  • Caput Mortuum Violet
  • Burnt Umber
  • Davy’s Grey
  • Ivory Black
  • Titanium White

View our full range of Watercolour Paints

Portrait Painting in Pastel

Self-portrait at age sixteen by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Self-portrait at age sixteen by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Pastels & Crayons are a great medium to use for portraiture as they have the immediacy and precision of a stick but still maintain a painterly feel. By removing the brush from your painting process you also eliminate the distance between you and your painting support, allowing you to get more ‘hands on’ with your artwork. They are also diverse in their mark making capabilities; use the sides of the pastel to block out rough shapes and ideas or use the edges to add in small details. They are typically available as soft or oil pastels, both commonly sold in stick form. However, soft pastel pencils are also available that combine the beauty of pastel with the precision of a pencil.

We would recommend the colours below, or their nearest substitutes, if you are looking to expand your palette with colours suitable for portrait painting. These colours are taken from the Rembrandt Basic Portrait Set, but similar colours should be available from other brands. If you are working with single pastels you may notice that each colour is available in various tints. Adding layer upon layer of pastels means that the colour may gradually fail to adhere to the surface – to combat this most pastel manufacturers offer tints mixed with black and white so you do not need to mix intermediate shades onto your paper or card.

  • Titanium White
  • Light Yellow
  • Deep Yellow
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Gold Ochre
  • Light Orange
  • Light Oxide Red
  • Caput Mortem Red
  • Indian Red
  • Permanent Red
  • Raw Umber
  • Burnt Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine Deep
  • Turquoise Blue
  • Red Violet
  • Blue Violet
  • Permanent Green Deep
  • Olive Green
  • Permanent Yellow Green
  • Green Grey
  • Black

Drawing & Sketching Portraits

Drawing and Sketching Portraits

Pencils & Charcoal are great if you’re capturing quick portraits in a life drawing class or on the go, but are equally useful if you are working on an incredibly detailed portrait in a studio setting. The immediacy of pencil or pen is fantastic for capturing quick, gestural marks and their fine tips can be used to render great detail. Graphite sketching pencils and charcoal are always a favourite for life drawing and can also be easily transported, so no matter where your drawing takes you, you can always have your materials at hand!

We stock a range of drawing and sketching materials, with some sets aimed specifically at portraiture. You can find these in the list below.

Portraiture Books & DVDs

Portrait Painting Books & DVDs

All good portraits will rely on competent drawing skills and careful, considered colour choices. Although historically portraits have been geared towards an accurate representation of the sitter, there is a growing movement for more ‘expressive’ portraits that rely on capturing the emotion and mood of the subject, rather than recreating their image in hyper-realistic detail. Whichever route you choose, you will certainly need to successfully capture the essence of your subject.

You generally begin your painting by drawing or roughly blocking out either the values or lines that will define your portrait. If you are working with paint you can choose a large, flat brush to quickly build up these shapes. With pastels you can get quick coverage by using the side of the pastel, or with markers you can opt to use a chisel tip. Once you have completed your underpainting or drawing it is simply a case of working in layers to build up those details that will really make your portrait come to life. With watercolours you will need to carefully plan where your highlights and shadows will be, as you will rely on the white of your paper to create the lightest areas of your painting. You can of course use masking fluid to mask out these areas, or add small highlights back in by using an opaque white in gouache, acrylic ink or gel pen.

We have a great selection of books and DVDs that will guide you step-by-step through the creation of a portrait painting.

Portrait Painting Books

Portrait Painting DVDs

Portraiture Articles on our Blog

If you need a little bit of inspiration then why not look at our artists interviews and tutorials? These articles come straight from the studio of the artists and are sure to get your creative juices flowing! We also have some great articles that look more generally at contemporary portraiture.

7 Step Acrylic Self Portrait Tutorial by Aine Divine

7 Step Acrylic Self Portrait Tutorial by Aine Divine

Remember to breathe, and keep the chest open, softness in the muscles of the face, that jaw, belly, knees and maintain a lightness that has you fencing with the easel.

Aine Divine

Aine Divine is a portrait artist and teacher originally from County Cork. She graduated from Crawford College of Art in 1991. She has won and been shortlisted for many art prizes, was a finalist in Sky Arts Portrait Artists of the Year and has exhibited as part of the Royal Watercolour Society’s annual contemporary art show.

7 Step Acrylic Self Portrait Tutorial by Aine Divine

Alla Prima Portrait Painting with Oils Tutorial by Liam Dickinson

Alla Prima Portrait Painting with Oils Tutorial by Liam Dickinson

“When you’re ‘finished’, it’s sometimes worth stepping away for an hour, then coming back with a fresh pair of eyes to pick out anything that might be a little off. Correct accordingly until you’re happy.”

Liam Dickinson

Liam Dickinson is a professional artist based in Chorley, Lancashire. He reached the final of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in 2017, painting numerous famous faces along the way.

Alla Prima Portrait Painting with Oils Tutorial by Liam Dickinson

My Master Class in Portraiture with Sam Dalby by Christine Southworth

My Master Class in Portraiture with Sam Dalby by Christine Southworth

“Conserve your energies – stop, take a break, walk away – and then return with a fresh eye and renewed energy.”

Christine Southworth

Christine recently attended a masterclass with Sam Dalby, and has shared some of the insights, tips and tricks she learned in this insightful blog entry. With simple, easy to follow instructions it is well worth giving this technique a try!

My Master Class in Portraiture with Sam Dalby

Artist Interview with Richard Kitson

Artist Interview with Richard Kitson

“Don’t try to master portrait painting. Stay curious and allow yourself to learn from your sitter. As much as possible work from life, this will teach you more than a photograph ever could.”

Richard Kitson

Based in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Kitson paints, draws and etches his subjects and predominantly focuses on the human face and form. Get an insight into his working life and practice in our interview!

Q&A with Artist Richard Kitson

Artist Interview with Raoof Haghighi

Artist Interview with Raoof Haghighi

“Just be yourself. Art is unlimited for me. I can always improve and better myself.”

Raoof Haghighi

Any aspiring portrait artists will gain some great insight from this interview with Raoof Haghighi! Haghighi is a self- taught versatile artist who has participated in over 45 group and 40 solo shows in the United States, France, Iran & United Kingdom.

Q&A with Artist Raoof Haghighi

More Portraiture Articles

3 Artists Giving a Different Perspective on Celebrity Portraits

3 Artists Giving a Different Perspective on Celebrity Portraits

Who said portraits have to be created with art materials like acrylic paint, charcoal or watercolours? Yung Jake, Tony Rodriguez and Failunfailunmefailun are 3 artists who are doing something different when it comes to celebrity portraits. We showcased their unusual takes on the portrait in this article.

3 Artists Giving a Different Perspective on Celebrity Portraits

Barack and Michelle Obama, the Official Portraits

Barack and Michelle Obama, the Official Portraits

Although no longer the President and First Lady of the US, Barack and Michelle Obama still remain political icons. So much so that two artists were commissioned to create portraits when they were added to the presidential Hall of Fame. Barack was painted by Kehinde Wiley, while Michelle was painted by Amy Sherald.

Barack and Michelle Obama, the Official Portraits

4 Responses

  1. Could you tell me the name of the artist of the wonderful portrait used to illustrate pastels and crayons? It is really irritating to be shown various portraits and not be given the names of the artists behind them.

    Many thanks

    • Hi Rodney, the artist is Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and the piece is called ‘Self-portrait at age sixteen’ (circa 1771), I’ve amended the post to include this information.

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