Traditional Portrait Painting Step by Step





Introduction: Traditional Portrait Painting Step by Step

Ever wonder how the masters achieved those rich colors and life like images? Well read on.

In this tutorial you can follow along as I create a  beautiful portrait of a child done in oils using traditional painting techniques.

Step 1:

The early painters used wood panels as supports for their paintings. Canvas came along later. I like painting on Masonite panels treated on both sides with gesso.  You can also use primed canvas if that is your preference.

Gesso is a quick drying acrylic paint that is used to prime what ever surface you choose to paint on. As it drys it shrinks, so by priming both sides of a rigid surface like Masonite it prevents warping. I apply a minimum of three coats alternating the direction of brush strokes by 90 degrees between each coat.

After the gesso has fully dried I sand the surface with fine sand paper to get a smooth surface. While some sanding is necessary how smooth you sand it is a matter of personal preference.

Step 2:

Having properly prepared my panel I am now ready to lay out my painting. Working from a reference photograph I sketch in the main features using charcoal. This is a good time to note initial proportions and angles between the primary elements in your painting.

Many painters like to lightly seal the under drawing with a fixative before they start painting. If I were starting immediately with color, I might be tempted to set the drawing to prevent the charcoal from muddying the pigments. Fortunately I will not be laying color in until later in the process and I prefer to have the drawing blend into the initial under painting.

Step 3:

Now the fun begins.

Early in the painting process you want to paint "lean". This means limiting the amount of oil mixed in with your pigments. You may have heard the expression "fat over lean" referring to painting with oils. The reason for this has to do with the flexibility, adhesion and shrinkage of subsequent layers of paint. "Fat" paint applied too early with leaner pigments on top can cause the painting to develop cracks over time and the paint to peel and flake.

At this stage I more interested in establishing the main areas of light and dark as well as toning the entire working surface. I loosely lay in my first layer of paint, slightly thinned with odorless mineral spirits. Do not thin the paint too much as it can compromise the strength of the paint film. This is the only time I use a solvent in my paint. The solvent not only thins the paint, but also acts as a drier, speeding up the cure rate of the oil paint. Since oil paints are not water based, technically they do not dry, rather they cure through an oxidation process.

I limit my pallet to cremnitz white, a more refined form of flake white and therefore lead based. This is a very lean paint with a stiff consistency. It gives good coverage and dries more quickly than titanium white. You can substitute the cooler titanium white if you wish but stay away from zinc based white pigments as they have a tendency to cause peeling. 

In addition to the white I also use ivory black, raw sepia and a touch of oxide-red lake from the Old Holland line. The Old Holland line is pricey. It is more traditionally formulated and it has a higher pigment content. Since this style of painting uses extremely thin layers of paint you will get a much better result with a professional grade paint. Student grades tend to contain more fillers making it difficult to achieve the pure saturated colors used later in the process.

Step 4:

After allowing the painting to cure for about a week. I create a grey scale layer using ivory black and white.  This is a technique called "grisaille" that was developed by the early Flemish painters. 

I create a fully developed tonal study of the face and clothes. I model the features in detail. This is the time to make any proportional adjustments or other changes to your final composition.

There are artists that can do this in one step. I'm not one of them. This step was completed over several days, building dimension and allowing the layers of paint time to cure between applications.

Step 5:

Once I am satisfied with the grisaille under painting and it has cured I set up my color pallet.

For this I used cremnitz white, titanium white, ivory black, oxide red-lake, madder lake dp, burnt umber, raw sepia, prussian blue and cadmium yellow dp.

I use the paint straight laying in thin translucent glazes. I repeat this several times slowly building  the depth of color while maintaining the tonal structure established in the grisaille study and dry brush blending to minumizing the brush marks.

The first few glazings should be thin enough to see the grisaille under painting.

Step 6:

I continue to build the intensity of color. I use a grey made from white and ivory black thinned with linseed oil to create shadow and structure for the flesh areas. The grey will interact with the flesh tones creating the blue cast shadows against the skin.

Continue building and reinforcing the details that become overly softened during this process.

Step 7:

When you are satisfied with the depth of color, thin your pigments with a bit of linseed oil and start defining and sharpening the fine details. Eyelashes, strands of hair, various  edges. Touch up the high lights and voila your own masterpiece!

Oil paints are translucent and become more so over time. The advantage of this process is that the under painting maintains the tonal strength of the painting over time.

After about six months you should seal the painting with varnish.



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    19 Discussions

    Really realistic and creative great job!!!!

    At first when i saw this i thought it was a photograph.......Art....Beautiful art and some real talent!

    Hi! I'm pretty new to painting, so this might be a dumb question, but why charcoal? Could you use a medium that won't smudge or affect the paint as easily (like a hard pencil) so you don't have to worry about sealing it, or are there other advantages to using charcoal? Thanks! :)

    1 reply

    Sorry for taking so long to reply...

    The main reason I use charcoal is due to its inherent softness. I don't have to worry about it damaging the ground I am painting on. You can use a fixative or go over your charcoal drawing with ink as some of the old masters did and then lift the charcoal out if you find it troublesome. Also since I am doing a greyscale underpainting, I don't really have to worry about muddying the colors. If I was using a different technique such as starting with a color pallette I would probably approach my initial set up differently.... Remember in art there are no absolutes and many different ways to approach your subject....Thanks for your interest. Happy painting!

    This is truly lovely! Have you ever had tried acrylics? If so, did you get similar results? I am new to painting, but would prefer to use acrylics, I think, because of the fumes. However, if oils are the only way to achieve these results, I may have to try them . Thanks for sharing your talents!

    4 replies

    I really haven't worked too much with acrylics. I like being able to take my time when I paint and acrylics dry quickly. I also like the richer depth of color I can achieve with oils, although you can get brighter more intense colors with acrylics.

    If exposure to fumes is the only thing giving you pause, you may want to consider water soluble oils. I haven't worked with them, but I have heard good things about them. Also oils are not too bad when it comes to fumes, it's all the solvents you can use with them.  Some are worse than others. I don't use turpentine because of its strong odor. There are also synthetic additives that work well such as OSM, Liquin and Galkyd.

    There are always trade-offs when choosing methods and materials.  One medium isn't necessarily better than another, it's probably best to consider your environment and what you're trying to achieve and choose your tools and materials accordingly.

    Thanks for the insights, all good information to know.  Are OSM, Liquin and Galkyd solvents?

    OMS (not OSM.. oops. ) Odorless Mineral Spirits is a solvent that can also be used in sparing amounts for underpainting when you need to thin the paint but want to keep your paint "lean".  Both Liquin and Galkyd are both man made alkyds that can be added to paint to create glazes and increase drying time. The Gamblin website has some good information on some of the various additives available.

    Wow, thanks for the quick responses and the continued stream of info!

    Thank you for your kind words. Why did you stop painting? You can always pick the brushes back up.

    use to do a lot acrylic painting back in school, but stop after i became a graphic designer. i still have a whole lot of acrylic paint at home, maybe i will start painting again some time!

    happy painting to you! :)

    I love this, I am new to oil painting and am just giving it a go. I love how you have broken it down and shown the different processes and given reason and meaning to each. I will definatley try the grey toning. Thank you for sharing x Billie Cripps

    1 reply

    Your very welcome Billie... This is the first tutorial I have done on Instructables. People have been so very kind that I may try to come up with some more. I am just trying to figure out what would be most useful to folks.

    Thanks, looking at the painting, I realized after I wrote the tutorial that I had left out all the cast shadows... a well back to the easel.