How to get good at portrait painting or painting a self portrait

Portrait painting belongs to the classical supreme disciplines of art. Painting in oil is not the only challenge. It is most important to portrait the subject or model in such a way that she or he is clearly recognizable. It’s a complex interaction of different details, which lead to a proper portrait painting of a human face and body. Each human being looks different and there are no real symmetries.

As the first step, it is important to differentiate:

Will the portrait painting be done, working from a live model or a photograph?

When working with a live model, while portrait painting, your eyes will be properly trained. Therefore, this is the preferable method for art students. When you learn to paint from a real model, one of the most important requirements is good placement and lighting of the person. One side of the face must be properly illuminated, while the other side is mostly left dark. The light-shadow-ratio plays an important part in portrait painting and painting in oil in general. Proper lighting will enable you to see the facial structures, lines and transitions in the right way.

When working from a photo, it is essential to choose the right image for portrait painting. Of course, the quality must be high enough. The lighting of the face must be directional rather than flat. Otherwise it will be impossible to work out the contours in your painting. If the light comes from the side of the face, you will be able to see the three-dimensionality and transfer it onto your canvas.

In the next step, you will be:

Drawing a sketch, before starting your portrait painting

Before starting to paint in oil, you will draw a sketch, using a soft pencil. This sketch will be used for orientation and will be drawn quite roughly. Your focus will be on drawing the right proportions and the center line, which separates the head into light- and shadow-sides.

For the correct rendering of proportions, the comparative method will be used. This method, used in portrait painting and drawing, is independent of the scale. The method of comparative measurement is a complex subject. Here at the Academy of Fine Art Germany, our students have several classes on this topic, before starting to use it in their drawings and painting. Perfecting this method, enables you to find the relative and individual sizes of each part of your subject. Therefore, you can work out the uniqueness of your model’s face and body structure.

After finishing the sketch, you will transfer it onto your canvas and:

Start your portrait painting

The modelling of your portrait painting involves using multiple color layers. You will start with an underpainting using an Umber color. This will highlight your sketch’s proportions and transitions between light and shadow. This first color layer will be quite thin and dry pretty quickly. In the next step, you will add more colors, painting details and special features.

We recommend high quality oil colors for portrait painting. It will be easier to correct mistakes, or to completely remove unwanted colorations. In the Academy of Fine Art Germany, we mostly use an odorless turpentine substitute, which is perfectly suitable as a medium for painting in oil.

To conquer the complexity of this subject, we advise you to ask professional artists or art teachers for help. This will reduce the chance of you losing your motivation when running into problems.

If you are interested in portrait painting or want to learn drawing and painting in a professional atmosphere, we offer several study programs  and workshops, which will fulfill all your needs. If you have any questions or need further info just write a comment on this page or send us a message.


2 thoughts on “How to get good at portrait painting or painting a self portrait”

  1. A very good explanation. If the stages of a painting process were given it would have been contributing to the understanding.

    1. Hello. Thanks for your tip. We will be producing a video tutorial series very soon, in which those stages will be explained in detail.

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