How to Paint a Portrait in Oils


Painting a portrait in oils can seem daunting but if you follow a thorough method you will avoid many pitfalls. Below I set out my process of painting a portrait in oils, from meeting your model, to the first sketches and the final marks.

Positioning Your Model

First things first; you need a model and you need to position your model in a way that you both like. So I would play around a little bit and experiment with various setups. I would put my model in lots of different positions, ask him/her to smile, look serious, look away, look straight at me. Try to sketch or photograph him full figure, or just head and shoulders. Try a moody look and try and friendly expression.

I would ask her to sit next to a window, a spot light, try some shots outside, some indoors. If you don’t have a lighting setup I always find it best to work with natural light. A nice large window (no sunshine!) will provide enough light to sketch or photograph. Position your model next to it so that one half of the face catches the light and the other half is a little bit more in the shade. Light and shade will enhance the 3-dimensionality of your image. So windows are usually my first port of call. Of course also try out electric lights and see how that looks. I would constantly make photos and sketches so I can review all the ideas later on. The more you try out, the easier it will be to figure out what you like and what you don’t.

Think about whether you want your model to look thoughtful (my attempt above, ahem), or friendly, whether you want a dark atmosphere, or a cheerful and bright mood.

Choosing Backgrounds and Clothing

If you opted for a moody expression and lighting then perhaps you can find a background and clothing that complement this atmosphere. Try out your model with various backgrounds, in different rooms. Perhaps set up a background with the help of big pieces of fabric and see how it looks. Backgrounds can make a huge difference in a portrait, so try things out, make sketches, photograph and see what works and what doesn’t.

Play around with different backgrounds by moving to different rooms, walls, or locations, or try to use fabric to change colour and mood. These photos are stills taken from the online course Portrait in Oils

Clothing too can help push the atmosphere. Whether you are going for a open and cheerful portrait, or an atmospheric moody one – try out various clothing and see what works and what does’t. Ask you model to bring various pieces of clothing, or provide some yourself.

If you are painting a commissioned portrait, you will need to discuss all these options with your client. If they want a happy cheerful portrait of their child, then there’s probably no point in trying your Gothic ideas. If they want an outside scene then you will have already narrowed down lots of options. For a portrait commission I usually ask my model to wear something they would wear if they went to visit a friend. So something nice but not over the top. For more formal portraits, more formal clothing is required of course. See how easy it is to try things out with your model, but in the end you might need to work with what you are provided with.

Photographing your model

If you are going to work from photographs then make sure you are creating sharp photos. Do not play around with a shallow depth of field. This might make beautiful photos but if you are going to paint from your photos you need to make sure everything, including the background, is sharp and clear. This will give you the freedom to choose later. If you want to include the background in your painting (and you do!) and the photo shows this nice and sharp, then you still can. If you want to able to paint your model’s ears and the photo shows it all sharp and clear, you can. Shallow depth of field will create beautiful photos with lots of fuzzy areas that are impossible to paint from. Your reference photo is there to give you the information you need, so make sure all information is actually there. You can then pick and choose later where you will create ‘lost edges’ and focal points. Don’t let the camera choose, you choose.

How to Choose a Pose

If you are working from photos and you have shot lots of them, how do you choose? Make sure you choose a photo that works. Don’t think ‘I’ll leave this out, I’ll fix this in my painting’ but work from a photo that gives you what you need. Imagine how a shot would look as a painting and be aware that a good photo does not always make a good painting. That glowing smiley bride might well come across best in a photograph, while the thoughtful play of a child might be perfect for a painting. Try to choose photos that have a good range of light and shade, as this will make things easier for you when you are painting. Creating a sense of 3-dimensionality is much easier when you have lots of light and shade to play with.

Try editing your photos in a photo editing program. You can play around with the brightness, contrast and the warmth of the photo. Of course you can crop your photos. Try cropping in a landscape format, a portrait format, square or a more unusual format. Put your model in the centre, a bit to the side, get really close up, or crop with lots of background. Try things out and see what you like.

Making Sketches

The more you paint or draw your model the easier it will get. You will get your model’s face ‘in your fingers’. Practice makes perfect after all. So if you spend some time making sketches of your model you will begin your oil portrait with a head-start. The more time you spend exploring your model’s face (in pencil, charcoal or paint) the more familiar you will be with it and the easier it will be to paint. If you have already figured out how the mouth goes, where the nostrils start and what the angle of the eye lid is, you will have saved yourself a lot of frustration later on. So sketching and drawing pays off.

The more you sketch the more your model’s face will become familiar to you and the easier it will be to paint him/her.

Find Your Vision

Before you start painting your portrait I always find it helpful to have a picture of it in my mind’s eye. I’d like to visualise what the final portrait will look like. I might not always get there ( as I might have set my goals too high or things change during the painting process) but I find it useful to know where I am heading. I often browse (old master) art to get ideas for mood, atmosphere, colour combinations etc. I might find a painting by a great artist and think to myself that that is the mood I’d like to put into my portrait. I steal and borrow ideas, such as a large background area, or a certain colour combination, a type of lighting or a way to use your brush.

Choose Your Canvas

When I know where I want to go, and I have my reference photos and/or sketches ready I am ready to get started. So now is the time to get my materials together. I try to visualise my finished painting on the wall and hold up various sized canvas to see what would look good. Do I want to paint my vision in miniature or at a huge scale, or (probably) something in between? Choose the size of your artwork and work on your favourite surface.

How to Position your Reference Material

Make sure you can see your model, if you paint from life, or your reference photos, if you paint from photos, from where you are at the easel. Decide whether you are working standing or sitting as your viewing angle will differ. Make sure you can work at your easel without having to step away in order to see your model. Ideally only a flick of the eye is required to go back and forth between your painting and your model or reference photo.

Brushes and Paint

Choose your favourite brushes and colours. I usually create a value underpainting first (with Burnt Umber and white) with some sturdy bristle brushes. I do not thin my paint with solvents so sturdy bristle brushes are a must. I scrub the paint onto the canvas. Over the time more and more paint will be layered onto the canvas so the surface will get smoother. In later stages I use synthetic brushes for a softer brush mark and for finer detail. So I usually have a selection of filbert bristle and synthetic brushes ranging in size from around size 6 to a smaller 4.

Get your brushes and paint ready

Most artists will have a variety of the primary colours on their palette and so do I: a blue, red and yellow. Burnt umber and white are added and usually a warm yellow like Sienna or Ochre. If you like you can then expand this palette with a light and dark version of the primaries, or a warn and cool version. Some painters prefer to work with a ready made (white) skin tone which most brands have in their range, but of course these colours are easy to mix as well. With a palette of primaries, ochre, burnt umber and white you will get quite far. Add some personal favourites if you like. My personal palette usually has Vasari’s Bluff and Bice for example. These colours are not required and I don’t recommend them to beginners, but they happen to be my personal favourites.

Painting Thinly

My method of painting might not be the same as yours. But I work without solvents or mediums and use paint straight from the tube. I paint very thinly, which will dry quite quickly, which will allow me to layer paint over itself endlessly. The layers of very thin paint will slowly build up, creating depth and variety, covering the canvas and allowing for small detail. Painting thinly and in stages is ideal to be able to cover up mistakes, change your mind and mix colours.

You might prefer to paint alla prima, with much fatter and bolder brush marks. You might prefer to work with mediums; it is all up to you.

Painting the Skeleton

My first steps in painting a portrait (or any painting) is to try and get the subject onto the canvas. I have to make sure it fits. So I use a small sturdy brush and draw in very light and simple straight lines what goes where. I ‘draw’ the subject matter onto my canvas and make sure everything fits and is positioned well. I roughly follow the straight line method which I teach in my art school as well.

The skeleton: I make sure the head fits on the canvas, is in the right position and I start looking for the main big shapes. I then subdivide this further into smaller shapes.

I then refine this skeleton sketch and start sub dividing the big oval I put down for the head: find the main line of the painting, find the level of the eyes, hair, mouth, nose. Subdivide the main shapes further into smaller shapes until a robotic schematic type of face starts to appear, with, hopefully, some resemblance to my model. I keep on working on this schematic face until it does resemble my model.

Value Underpainting

I start blocking in the darkest darks with burnt umber and the lightest light with white paint. I don’t leave any of the canvas uncovered, even if I am painting it white. Everything will need a first layer of paint. I then start looking for the medium values. I try to keep everything very ‘blocky’ so as not to lose sight of shape and form. I try to stay away from detail.

The value underpainting: Figure out where your lights and darks are and the mid tones. Some artists work out their value underpainting into minute detail, others only stick to the main shapes.

Colour Block In

As I paint very thinly my value block in will be dry the next day. I paint a colour block in over my value underpainting. I am covering it completely. But the value underpainting has its uses because I now know how light or dark my colours need to be. I try to paint ‘average’ colours in and then step back and double check whether I like the overall colour harmony of the painting. Perhaps I tweak a colour here or there to make it ‘work’ better with the rest of the painting.

Paint in the ‘average’ colour of each shape and double check whether the colour harmonies work.

Refine Shapes into Form

After I am happy with the colour block in I can move into trying to refine all these blocks into form. So I look for the more subtle transitions within or in between shapes, I look for colour temperature, and I finally allow myself to start working on smaller detail. From the very first step I have included the background in my painting so this is now at the same stage as the subject matter.


I think back to what I initially had in mind for this painting. Am I still on the right track? Have I made changes and is that ok, or should I go back to my original idea? What can I do to push this painting closer towards my idea?


In the final stages I work on detail and texture. I layer paint with a very small brush to create variety, depth of colour and texture. I look for small changes in colour and value to enhance form. I step back and find edges that I can loose and edges that need enhancing. I try and figure out where the saturation needs to be the highest and where colour is duller and muted.

Use smaller brushes to paint fine detail.


I often leave my paintings on the easel for a quite a long time and work on it just now and then. As long as I can see mistakes I am not finished. As long as I can see areas that can be improved I am not finished. Only when I feel like I could do no more to improve it will I sign it and call it done.

Until you cannot see anything left to do!

Paint Along

This whole process is the subject of my online course Portrait in Oils, where you can see me take each step in easy to follow video lessons. I will show which colours I choose, how I go about the underpainting, and how I struggle with mistakes. You can watch me prepare and paint a portrait from start to finish, but, better still, I invite you to paint along and give you a task in each lesson. This way you can work alongside me and create you own portrait in oils. If you like the sound of it, then check out the course page here and consider joining my online art school.

A still from one of the video lessons in the online course Portrait in Oils

Published: October 26, 2020

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