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. I originally posted this tutorial on instructibles a few years back.

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.

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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.

Picture of 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:

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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:

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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, burnt umber, raw sepia, Prussian blue and cadmium yellow.

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 minimizing the brush marks.

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


Step 6:

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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.

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Step 7:

PhotoWhen 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 and add cast shadows. Touch up the high lights and voila your own masterpiece!

Oil on masonite panel- Proffessor Max Branscomb


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.

Talk to me, dammit!

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