How To Paint Oil Portraits

Artist palette

If you’ve ever admired the work of the masters, like Leonardo daVinci, you probably have an understanding and appreciation of oil portraits. Like other mediums and subjects, oils have their own characteristics. This mostly comes with the textures that the medium enables the artist to explore in. Oil portraits are also able to convey a certain look from their subjects.

You can dabble in your own portrait painting. You might not be able to produce a Mona Lisa, but with practice, tools, and the right attitude, you will be able to produce your own oil portraits masterpiece.

What you need:

  • Canvas (affixed to a frame)
  • Easel
  • Paintbrushes
  • Oil paints
  • Palette
  • Acrylic base
  • Model or source image

Timing. The best time of the day to produce an oil portrait is either in the early morning or late afternoon. Even when you are indoors, harsh light from the sun outside, or artificial lighting, often results in drab portraits, with squinting models and small pupils. Have your model sit by a large window, where the light can hit her from one side. Or if you are painting from a picture, attach the picture on the wall. Photographers call the concept of using natural lighting from windows the “north light” effect.

Organize your palette
. Squeeze out adequate amounts of paint along the edges of your palette. For a portrait, you would usually need black, white, blue, yellow, crimson, raw sienna and green. You will need to make a few mixtures, so you can arrive at colors that approximate the subject’s skin tone.

Draw or underpaint. Before applying oil paints, draw an initial rough sketch of your blocking first, in which you can use black ink. If you prefer, you can also use acrylic paints to underpaint. Some artists intend the underpainting to be blended in with the oil paint. For most purposes, underpainting will help define the oil paint’s shades and undertones.

If you prefer to draw, you can already sketch the subject’s features at this point. You can draw an elliptical shape for the head, with cross lines at the midpoint, where the eyes (horizontal) and nose (vertical) should go. The subject’s pupils should be at the midpoint of the head, between top and bottom. The tip of the nose should be between the pupils and chin. The midpoint of the lips should be at 1/3 below the tip of the nose, while the chin crease should be 2/3 below the tip of the nose.

The top of the ears should be in line with the eyebrows, while the bottom should be in line with the tip of the nose.

Notice the use of the rule of thirds here, which is often a guideline used in the visual arts for measuring proportion.

Apply the oil paint. Start with the big blocks or shapes of color. Apply the darker colors first, then proceed to the lighter ones. With oil painting, you usually progress one layer at a time. therefore, you need to let each layer dry before continuing with the rest.

Paint the hair in big strokes of dark and light. You don’t need to paint each strand, but what’s important in oil portraits is the texture that you produce when applying the oil paints. Then paint the finer details using a small tipped paintbrush.

The trick to achieving a beautifully-done oil portrait is through the use of different strokes and different layering techniques. Oil paints can sometimes take hours or even days to finish because of layering. Different types of oils have different drying times, and these layers give an oil portrait a certain character that only oil paintings can have.


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