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Painting a Portrait in Acrylic, Learning How to

Updated on April 18, 2016
CherylsArt profile image

Cheryl Paton is an artist who believes in creating positive designs. She also likes sharing artistic tips and techniques.

Early portrait of my daughter.


Tips to Paint a Portrait in Acrylic

Hello. My name is Cheryl Paton and this is about my experience of painting portraits using acrylic paint. I've painted some portraits before and they did turn out pretty good. Then I decided to go even further; to paint portraits that were even better and also came about more naturally.

My first portraits were a lot of try this and try that, and paint over that. Well that is what was. Then I purchased a book, Paint People in Acrylic with Lee Hammond, and learned some new techniques.

Below are some highlights of my experiences. My intention is that if you're here to learn something about portrait painting yourself, that you find something helpful and useful in your own painting process, either through something I've said or from the books that have helped me; or if you're here looking for a portrait painter, that you will like what you see, and know that someday soon I too will be painting beautiful portraits for people, and perhaps for you too.


Image credit for the early portrait, is to Cheryl Paton, the author of this page.

Painting People in Acrylic - Covers a Lot of Portrait Painting Techniques

This is the book I used when I got started with perfecting my portrait painting. When I was browsing through a catalog, I saw this book advertised and recognized some of the techniques that I already knew and liked. That was a big Yes for me in deciding to get this one.

Paint People in Acrylic with Lee Hammond
Paint People in Acrylic with Lee Hammond

I made improvements by practicing some of the techniques in this book.

Painting spheres is one of the practices described in this book, which I show and talk about below.

This book can be purchased for Kindle too.


Getting started. January 20, 2007

The portrait book has arrived. I'm up to the part of doing my first exercise, which I'll probably start in two days. I am looking forward to this with welcome anticipation.

Painting spheres, picking the right colors. Feb. 2, 2007

I've been doing the painting exercises. On the first exercise, I went with my interpretation of the colors according to what I saw in the book. They didn't come out quite right. So I then searched through my paints by color name. That came out a lot better.

The first exercises consisted of painting spheres, following a certain method for shading and highlighting, which was a different method than one I had learned from another book.

Painting Spheres, the early ones. Feb. 6, 2007

I've painted three different spheres now, a gray one, a beige one, and a red one. The first two were pretty straight forward, as the base colors came straight from the bottle and the colors were opague. On the third sphere, I mixed my own green, and the red was a bit translucent, so the paint behaved differently. It wasn't a major deal, just a bit of adjusting and knowing that colors can behave differently.

The highlights here are from the painting techniques, and not from a camera flash.

Painting of spheres in red and white.


Painting more spheres, Feb. 8, 2007

I have also painted a yellow sphere, a blue sphere and a green sphere. Today I also painted a peach sphere. The peach sphere was the most exciting so far, as it is more like skin color. A little red, a little yellow, some white, and burnt umber. Voila, skin color.

Yes, it looks pretty good. I've painted skin before, but that was with skin tones that came straight from the bottles/tubes. Doing these processes of mixing my own is making it easier now to understand the colors. I'm looking forward to more.

Painting of blue and white spheres.


Grid Method Drawing, Feb. 15, 2007

I've finished the spheres and have gone on to grid method drawing, where you draw a grid, and then draw in each square what is in the corresponding square from the reference photo.

I've done this method before and wasn't all that keen about it. Since then I did exercises from Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain. Doing that helped to free up some inhibitions I had. So this time I decided to go for the grid method again.

I did the first drawing and it was kind of cumbersome. I let it sit for a few days and went back and did the drawing again (which was the assignment). The second time went much easier and faster. Wow, it was actually pretty enjoyable.

I drew my next grid and did the next drawing. Oh yeah, it's getting easier. I guess I'm more in the time and place now for grid method drawing being more of a match for me. Yes!

The portrait usually begins with a drawing. - Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain

is the book I used that helped me to free up some drawing inhibitions. I highly recommend it.

Grid Method Drawings Completed, Feb 20, 2007

I have completed six different grid method drawings, seven counting the first one done twice. They have ranged from baby to elderly, side view from the back to 3/4's view from the front and full front view. So there has been quite a bit of variety. I just say I'm looking forward to painting. In due time, as the next exercises are getting familiar with painting different facial features individually. The first one is the nose.

Painting the First Nose, Feb. 21, 2007

This nose was monochromatic in gray tones. I did the grid drawing of it and then followed along with the base coating, and then the adding of lights and darks, which is done before blending. There's more adding of lights and darks once blending is started. I did start to get frustrated and then I affirmed to myself that I can do this. And sure enough I did. The thing about working on a nose though, is that once I got to blending, it is definitely working in parts; the left nostril, the right, the bridge, the underneath, so it is definitely something to keep at while the paint is still fresh.

I also found it easier, once I started blending, to use the reference photo of the real nose instead of the artist's painting of the nose. Then I was using my own interpretations, and that was easier for me.

Painting of a nose.


I Start by Making a Portrait Drawing - to Paint a Portrait from a Photograph.

I desired an easier way to do the drawings. I wasn't thrilled with drawing the graph lines each time on the canvas. Lo and behold, I came up with an easier way. First I draw the grid on graph paper; so much easier. Everything is already there, and the corners are already square. I just use a straight edge to darken the needed lines. I then make my drawing on the graph paper with pencil, and then I darken them with a marker if needed. Next step - light tracer.

Overall, I found that drawing on graph paper helped with getting proportions better, in general.

I transfer the Portrait Drawing to the Painting Surface - using a Light Tracer - Light Box

Once I've darkened the drawing on the graph paper, I place it on the Light Tracer, and the canvas on top of that. Voila, I can easily transfer my drawing to the canvas, and my canvas stays nice and clean! No more eraser marks on my final surface.

Portrait Painting on YouTube

The person below makes the steps look really simple.

He diluted the paint with both water and a medium to make it more translucent and also to give it a longer working time.

Check out another method for painting skin tones.

Painting the Second Nose - March, 2007

I easily drew the second nose. Practice is really helping the process. However, I painted this particular nose three times, trying to get the colors just right. Acrylic paint usually dries a bit darker than when wet. And since there is no magic formula, i.e. 2 parts this to one part that, it is all up to interpretation. So this is it. The second nose, and I'm moving on to something else.

Oh, and just a brief tip; if you have a clear plastic sheet or something equivalent, you can paint a dab of your color on it, let it dry, and then compare, as mentioned by Lee Hammond in her book, Painting People in Acrylic. And then make up enough of that paint to last through the re-coats and blendings too.

Painting of nose in flesh tones.


Painting of a Boy, April 26, 2007

From Photos to Paintings

After the process of the second nose, I did some other things for awhile. Then I decided to paint a whole face, my way. Using the painting on the front of the book, Paint People in Acrylic, as a guide, I did a free hand drawing. The proportions weren't exact, but my intent was just to play with my plan of color. So I laid the base coat down on the whole face, which for this painting I chose the lightest color. I dried that, and then I added the various colors to part of the base mix. I painted in a new area, repainted the base coat next to the new color, and then dry blended the two areas together. I kept doing this for the whole face, and this is what I achieved.

Painting of a boy.


Painting from Different Views, June 14, 2007

Turn Picture in Different Directions when Painting From Photo

This painting I'm making for someone, so I did the grid method to ensure proper proportion. Again I laid a base coat down, and then I added a second coat designating my different light and dark areas. That's the stage it is at here. I'll be adding other layers and doing the blendings next.

Also, I found it easier to turn my reference picture and the painting upside down and sideways to see the view from different perspectives. It really did help to see things I hadn't noticed before when I viewed them from different angles. Placing the images in different directions, removes some of the preconceived ideas of where things should be.

Upside down.

Changing the direction of what you are working on can help to free up the mind to notice what is actually there, instead of what you think should be there.
Changing the direction of what you are working on can help to free up the mind to notice what is actually there, instead of what you think should be there. | Source

The Baby is Done, July 21, 2007

I finished the portrait of the baby and gave it to the parents; it was a birthday present. They both loved it and the one year old enjoyed looking at it too. One thing to keep in mind is to work from good photos. The lighting in the photos did make the hair appear darker in places than it actually was, but being a surprise gift, it did turn out rather well.

Painting Ellen, August 9, 2007

Many people have painted portraits of Ellen DeGeneres and I decided to paint one too. On my base coats, I painted in different shades. So the base coat painting turned out pretty well, but it didn't offer me as much freedom in the second coat blending. So although it is looking nice, I like the flexibility of a solid neutral base coat to begin with.

Painting Ellen, the Next Part, January 29, 2008

I have fine tuned the painting of Ellen, it's almost done. But in the mean time I took it to our local Michael's, where I'm an instructor, and received the go ahead to teach a photo portrait class. Woo hoo! And when I get Ellen's painting finished, I plan to send it to her. Who knows, maybe you'll see it on the Ellen show.

Painting Jessica, April 18, 2008

I had scheduled to teach a portrait painting class at a local arts and craft store and chose my daughter, Jessica, as the subject. I approached this painting using my favorite blending technique of base coating the skin with the lightest shade, letting that dry, and then adding successive blending coats. The reference photograph I used is to the right.

Doing the painting as a demo for a portrait class, the whole painting, drawing, base coating, and blending, were all done in about a three hour time span. Below is the finished result after the three hours.

Photo of my daughter.


Painting of Jessica


Painting beautiful Skin Tones

I always liked having the right number of tans, roses, etc. in paint colors, but as I read more on painting skin tones, I found out I could also use blues, greens, and more.

I found different techniques for making skin tones in this book.

Portrait Sketches

I participated in the Arts and Crafts weekend (October 31 - November 2, 2008) at our local mall and did live portrait sketches, using colored pencils. The sketches took just over 10 minutes to do and the people loved them. It was actually fun working with live models and the colored pencils.

Like what you see, found something helpful; your comments, rating, and purchases are all appreciated.

There are also more portrait books at

Have you painted a portrait before? - Are you ready to paint a portrait?

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    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      4 years ago from West Virginia

      @malena10: Thanks you. Glad you found it so helpful. : )

    • malena10 profile image


      4 years ago

      No, never. But with this creative lens I think everybody could try ;)

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      4 years ago from West Virginia

      @tcaldy: You're welcome. Lee Hammond has some awesome books. : )

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your very encouraging lens. I'm starting to learn. Love the Lee Hammond books.

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      4 years ago from West Virginia

      @ecogranny: You are very welcome. As with anything new, it can take some practice to learn techniques. You are so welcome. Thank you. : )

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      4 years ago from San Francisco

      I have not, and have always been afraid of trying to draw people, especially faces. Thank you so much for sharing the techniques you have learned and the resources that helped you. I especially love the painting in your introduction. It is breathtaking in its beauty and simplicity.

    • rasnasah profile image


      5 years ago

      Great creative lens.Thanks.

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      6 years ago from West Virginia

      @anonymous: It all begins with a wish.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this one. I wish I could do this. :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great Lens, Congrats. Westland Place Studios

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I could tell your personality was beaming bright from this article you published, well done ... *blessed*

    • JanieceTobey profile image


      6 years ago

      I'm hoping to get started with acrylics soon. So far, I've been mostly focusing on watercolors and pencil drawings.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Always loved acrylics. Very nice lens!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      very useful infor

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      I've never painted portraits, but would imagine it is more difficult than scenery.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      So interesting to see your artistic journey here, Cheryl. I bet Jessica was thrilled at her lovely portrait.

    • Bercton1 profile image


      7 years ago

      Great artistic collection and information. I really enjoy paintings and art. Well done!

    • cadpad profile image


      7 years ago

      So great that you shared your development as an artist with the world. Thank you. I really like your portraits.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I like Acrylic photos. Wonderful lens!

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      7 years ago from West Virginia

      @oilpainting3: Hi Oil Painting. I usually use Strathmore canvas pads for acrylic. I think they are more textured to help grab and hold the paint. I have also used Yes all media canvas. It has a finer texture. It also behaves a bit like watercolor paper, in that it is best to tape the edges down while painting, to help prevent it from curling.

    • oilpainting3 profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for your lovely lens. I am curious as to what canvases you use. I used to use proper acrylic paper but didn't like the texture of it. Then someone suggested heavy weight watercolor paper. Which is ok but not ideal

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      8 years ago from West Virginia

      @puzzlerpaige: Thank you puzzlemaker. I see you are very interested in art, and I enjoyed reading your lens about artist, John Sloane.

    • puzzlerpaige profile image


      8 years ago

      I'm very glad to find this lens. Painting people has been something I avoid. Not only portraits, but even anywhere in a picture. Sometimes I see artists compose a scene with the people looking away (so the viewer sees the back of the person) and I always wondered if they did this on purpose to avoid painting the face :-). I see here that it DOES take a lot of work and effort. I love your spheres and the discussion of all of the experimenting. Excellent. I read every word.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a fun and informative lens. Thank you so much for sharing this.

      I've never painted a portrait, but I would love try it.

    • ZenandChic profile image


      9 years ago

      Wow! you are good! I can't paint..

    • CherylsArt profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl Paton 

      9 years ago from West Virginia

      [in reply to JaguarJulie] It's something I've thought about. Perhaps someday. : )

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Have you done any videos yet to illustrate your painting?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Enjoyed your remarks about the use of a grid. Will have to try that. Also admire your tenaciosness. Enjoyed your site your site very much.


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great lens!

    • littleliz lm profile image

      littleliz lm 

      11 years ago

      Very enjoyable lens. Keep up the great lens's and the great artwork ^__^

    • lovemybob profile image


      11 years ago

      Hi neat stuff about the spheres!

      I'm the new groupmaster for The Painting Group, where we've got some great new features and discussions.

      You should post your ideas on our group site as well.



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