Portrait Painting In Oils – A complete guide

Portrait Painting In Oils - A complete guide

The galleries are filled with portrait paintings in oils of famous and not-so-famous faces captured in oil and displayed for the world to see. But it’s not always a straightforward process, and there’s a lot you can do to improve your process. This guide is here to show you exactly how to replicate these prestigious works of art.


  •  A pen
  • Oil painting
  • Canvas
  • Brushes

Portrait painting in oils

1. Draw with a grid

Grid for the first step of painting a portrait in oils

I use a grid to create the drawing. I use a pencil for the grid and when the drawing is done I color in the essential lines with a Micron Pigma Pen or ink and then erase the grid. I also like to use warm colors for starters. Keep in mind that the shade of your canvas will affect your final painting (choose from the best oil paint canvas options here). Small spots shine through and add vibrancy.

2. Create an imprimatur on the canvas

A person painted in oils to demonstrate the second step of painting a portrait in oils

An imprimatur is usually one or two pigments that are thinly painted onto a tinted canvas. Here I use Raw umber and Light red. This is the stage where you need to focus on creating shadow shapes. Don’t worry about perfect edges and brush strokes. Let the color wash off a little in places. Variation is interesting and will show and add depth. 

3. Determine the color in your oil portrait

Artist painting a portrait in oils

Now we start to find out the color of the flesh. Look for mediums on the light side and avoid brights for now. As with Frankenstein’s creation, the pieces come together, but it still looks a little monstrous. Keep the “mud” out of your colors by mixing with similar temperatures. You can neutralize your colors with grays of the same value.

4. Define the shapes of the figure

The artist paints the portrait in oils and adds details

Now that the colors and values ​​are in place, we can start working on the dark-to-light transitions. Try to mix the right color rather than mixing on the canvas. This will exercise your eye and improve your ability to mix colors. At this stage, focus and try to mix the correct color with each move. Remember to keep the large shapes as you refine the molds.

5. Finish in style!

The finished result of a portrait painting in oils

 You are not a slave to your subject. In the final moments, I often add splashes of bright colors to the background and subject. This painting has a green-red palette that gives off strong energy. Analog or monochromatic palettes are useful in setting a mood.

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