How to Paint an Acrylic Portrait





Introduction: How to Paint an Acrylic Portrait

In this tutorial I will show you how to paint using my 7-step method that I sometimes call Rainbow style. You can follow along and learn how to paint without the nuisance of having to mix any colors or shades. We are going to be using acrylics, and only 7 colors symbolized by the acronym YVRGBOW: Yellow, Violet, Red, Green, Blue, Orange, & White. For this exercise I painted a portrait of my favorite artist, the infamous photographer Diane Arbus. This painting turned out to be very special to me in a way words can not describe, but I can only say that it is my favorite portrait out of all my paintings. Above is the source photo, a film test shot by her husband Allan Arbus in 1949.

Step 1: Yellow & Violet - Outline and Intitial Shading

I took the first photo at step 2 actually, as step 1 is just a vague yellow outline. Yellow is the ideal starter color because it's the lightest one, easy to cover up. I prefer to start with a vague outline in order to set up the purple step 2 that solidifies it. It gives you a chance to perfect any initial mistakes. You can be very sloppy with the yellow layer. Here I actually slopped on more yellow after getting the outlines solid.

Before proceeding I want to explain my selection of this model. From the first time I saw the above photograph of Diane Arbus, I knew that I had to paint her. She simply has the most compelling face I've ever seen. I am also a huge fan of her photography career and everything she stood for. What Diane Arbus was was a bonafide occultist, exposing things that society would never have seen or known if it wasn't for her. Her presence in this world has enriched us all and will continue to effect society in ways that we can not even comprehend. This is a pivotal person in history who I believe can not be appreciated enough.

Step 2: Red - Get the Blood Flowing

For this step I like to go with red because it brings the figure to life. Doing red this early, sometimes I will add more later if too much gets covered up in the coming shading steps. But at this step, the red basically just creates a strong blush. It seems to get the blood flowing as you begin to bring the figure to life. As I add colors, I don't worry about traditional notions like "coloring inside the lines." Instead I add the colors in an action of long and deliberate strokes, layering them on top of each other as I go.

Step 3: Green - Shadows

With the addition of green, the second shading color after violet, the image deepens. I choose green at this stage because it's the ideal contrast to the initial violet shading earlier on. When you are shading green, consider the fact that it overlaps the violet and the way it darkens the shadow. Overlap the colors in a way to cover the entire shadow, even though the next step is more shading. Don't add so much color that it becomes too dark though.

The next color darkens the shadow while adding subtlety. Notice on Mrs. Arbus how the violet shade fades into the green. This is the effect you should be going for. You may also notice that I said not to shade too dark, but that the shadows are already way too dark on my painting. The reason for this is that I like to exaggerate colors and light. You may not want to go this dark yet, it's simply a matter of personal taste. In fact you don't even need the rest of the colors, should you prefer a more rugged look. You could actually take the warp zone to the final step at this level, straight to the highlights. It's up to you if you want to skip colors and which colors you want to skip.

Step 4: Blue - Subtle Tones Finalize the Underpainting

Filling in the blue really deepens the image. Blue is the ultimate color to mitigate the 2 prior shading colors, as it falls between them naturally. The addition of blue not only darkens the image considerably, but also seems to act as a sort of binding color, adding an overall sense of unity which gives shape to the illusion of reality that we are creating.

You may also notice that I have been doing minor touch ups between steps. For this I use white, but not as a highlighter so much as an eraser. When you go too dark and can't wipe it off before it dries, it's alright to use white to fix your mistakes. Think of it as white-out. I have made changes in her eyes as the picture has evolved. At this step I also widened her nose, a small correction.

Step 5: Orange - Burnt

I like to be kind of extreme when it comes to shading in order to give the image a hard light in the underpainting. The woman in the photo is very hard edged and I wanted to capture that quality but at the same time I see her soft side just as plainly.

At this step one must make a decision whether the painting really needs orange. Normally I would use orange sparingly, but in this painting I made an exception. I loved the way she looked with the variety of colors on her face, but it would be too loud. That wasn't what I saw when I visualized her. In order to drone out the color in her flesh, I flooded her face with orange. I wish I could have split the image in two from the last step so I could have developed it in both directions, but sometimes you just have to make a choice and stick with it. Even if it looks like I just ruined the portrait. At this stage you may want to go back over with another layer of red to reestablish the blush, though I opted not to here.

Step 6: White - Highlights

In the last step you'll notice that I flooded the flesh but left the colors in her hair and eyes. This is symbolic.

In this step I must flood the image with white in order to further drone out the excess color. I had planned to whitewash the background in this image rather than putting in any highlights because I want the focus to be on Mrs. Arbus. I use a generous amount of white on this portrait in order to give her the softness that I feel. You can see how the orange served to drone out the flesh and pre-soften the flesh for the final highlights. In many paintings I would go for sharper highlights, which is actually a lot more sparing. In this painting I opted for soft touches over the hard shaded underpainting.

The depth of the underpainting is still evident, but the excess of orange and white has made the underpainting's colors to sink in deeper making them far more subtle. The final portrait should not be like a copy of the source photo, but should be an expression of emotion, the way you want the portrait to feel. I think I got her actual dimensions pretty close, yet the painting appears quite different than the source photo. The play on color and light allowed me to accentuate the lusciousness of her rich facial features. I always paint free style, without anything like grids to attempt to copy the dimensions. This is just my personal preference.

Step 7: That's All

That's all there is to it using this method of acrylic painting. I have found that painting with the colors in this particular order works very well, so that I never have to mix colors on the palette.

This portrait study holds a special meaning for me. I began painting her in mid July. I intended to get the portrait done within a few days or so, but after I progressed into the later steps things kept interfering for a couple of weeks. Finally I stayed up overnight finishing the highlights. As the sun came up I finished the final touches and snapped a photo of the completed portrait.

I went to post the image on Facebook, and the story at the top of my new feed is about this day, July 26 being the 41st anniversary of her death. An eerie feeling suddenly came over me, like a spiritual experience. Ultimately I surmised that I must have read about her death at some point in the past, forgotten about it, and unconsciously synchronized the events. But that does nothing to diminish the experience, or the awe that Diane Arbus inspires in me whenever I think of her.


I went on to paint her again from the same source photo after I developed my technique and signature style. I even decided to go ahead and do another portrait painting tutorial, which can be seen on my website.



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14 Discussions

Thank you SO much! You helped me more than I can express. I was attempting my own, similar technique but was getting hung up at certain points. Your tutorial helped me see that I was using color appropriately, but not in the best order. I was hell bent on blue first, and it wasn't working well for me.

1 reply

You're very welcome. Yeah, I've found blue to work best as the final shade color. It can really deepen the contrast when applied on top of other dark colors. I'm happy you found the technique so useful.

I tried this technique and it was looking good till the white stage, then it all got covered over. does anybody have any ideas for the white stage and what i did wrong?

4 replies

I suspect you overdid it on the highlights step, which is not hard to do. The good thing though is that if you start over color by color, it will come out smoother the second time around. Even if you didn't overdo it, it's good to go through the steps a second time if you're really going for that polished look.

If you took photos of your steps, I'd be happy to give you advice. Also, I've written a couple other tutorials on my website which go through the same basic steps, but produce a much more stylized portrait. Reading through those should help you get a better understanding of this tutorial.

Even if you didn't take photos of the steps, I'd like to at least see the final stage and give you some pointers. There's a contact form on my website, or you can message me from here. :)


I didn't take any pictures unfortunately. Didn't occur to me that I wasn't going to be putting the painting on the wall. And I threw out the botched portrait. I'm new to the world of acrylic paint. (I mostly sketch with pencils.) How do I create a lighter coat of white paint?

I'm sorry, it's been 5 months and I just noticed you replied. It's too bad you threw out the painting because it definitely could have been salvaged. To lighten your white layer, you could mix an acrylic medium to make it more translucent or just thin the paint slightly with water. It's good to thin your overlay color (in this case, orange) too, so it doesn't drown out the multi-colored effect too much.

Forgot to thank you for responding to me. I was really excited that you did

I tried this technique and it was looking good till the white stage, then it all got covered over. does anybody have any ideas for the white stage and what i did wrong?

This is one of the best and easiest ways I have seen to paint a portrait.

1 reply

Thank you for saying so. If you're interested in learning about more stylized portraiture, there's a couple other tutorials on my website.

I love it!  Thank you SO much for posting this tutorial! I can't wait to give it a go using your technique!

1 reply

Thanks. I'd like to see what you come up with, if you wouldn't mind posting the result.

Nice instruction :-) thank you for sharing. Now could you pass on a little of your hard earned talent as well :-D

1 reply

Since you asked so nicely, here's a little talent for you then. Now you just have to paint a portrait to realize how good you are.