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Portraits - A Beginners Guide To Painting With Acrylics

Updated on May 3, 2011

How To Make Or Break A Portrait

Depending on your personal style, painting a portrait can be one of the most difficult challenges you will encounter with a paintbrush in hand. You will require a keen eye and attention to detail -failure to capture these features accurately will dramatically change the face, ever render it unrecognisable. There's certianly many make or break features on the face. This hub has been designed to help to highlight potential trouble spots and help you to avoid them.

Your First Assisgnment

I can think hof no greater way to impress upon you the importance of accurately placed facial features than to give you first hand experience.

The vast majority of acrylic artists begin a portrait with an accurate sketch. You can make this with a graphite stick, pencil or your bush and some watery paint. I would never dream of touching my paintbrush until I am completely satisfied that I have an accurate drawing first. Without an accurate sketch those of us who aren't artistic geniuses cannot hope to paint an accurate portrait.

This assignment, I hope, will help you to understand how the slightest change in the size or shape of features like the jaw line, nose, lips, and most importantly the eyes will change a face dramatically.

Your assignment is to build an avatar using one of the free services below. - look for the option to cartoon me or you may like to type "make free cartoon me" into your search engine and choose your own avatar builder. - look for the option to cartoon me.

You may need to download a toolbar (myWEBsearch) to access it - you can always delete it afterwards. myWEBface is my first choice for you because not only is there a huge variety of facial features to choose from but you can also manipulate them more than other sites.

  • Sit down with a photo or mirror and create the exact likeness of yourself.
  • Observe what happens when you shrink your eyes, enlarge your nose or move your eye brows.
  • Observe how such a simple change can alter your face so drastically.

I cannot stress it enough - DO NOT begin your painting until you are satisfied with your sketch.

Begin with the tube colour closest to your skin tone then adjust the colour accordingly -  lighten, darken, add  small amounts of pink, yellow, Burnt Sienna or a warm brown.
Begin with the tube colour closest to your skin tone then adjust the colour accordingly - lighten, darken, add small amounts of pink, yellow, Burnt Sienna or a warm brown.

Your Second Assignment - Get Your Hands Dirty

Identifying the correct skin tone for your subject can be a challenge unto itself. It is one of the first questions on every artists lips when they decide to try their hand at portraiture. Where am I going to get that colour from? It is also one of the hardest questions to answer - like every other artistic choice you make, it is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong answer here because no two complexions are the same..

Your assignment is to mix the same colour as the back of your hand.

Don't panic if you can't get a close match...I'll give you my favourite recipe's too.

My colour mixing rules are as follows:

Always begin with the tube colour that is closest to your desired colour. In this case, you may like to start with Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre (caucasian, olive & Asian complexions) or Burnt Sienna even Burnt Umber for dark complexions.

In this exersise, dab a little of your first tube colour onto the back of your hand and assess your next step. Is it too light or dark? Do you need to add a little red (never use tube - mix it with white first)? A little Burnt Sienna to make it darker?

TIP: You will get the desired result faster by using duller, natural tube colours; ie Naples Yellow instead of Cadmium Yellow or Gold Oxide instead of a bright orange.

You may like to keep a record of which colours you used for future reference. The fastest way to do this is with index cards - paint a puddle of each colour on the card then label the name and quantity clearly - 1 part this, 2 parts that, a touch of this etc. By "touch" I mean dipping the very tip of the back of the brush in the paint and using the small amount that is picked up. Index cards are a great way beginners to become familiar with colours

No two complexions are the same.
No two complexions are the same.
One of my first portraits. Portraits can be especially challenging but are well worth the effort. Note that arrea's on the nose, ears and cheeks are pinker that other area's.
One of my first portraits. Portraits can be especially challenging but are well worth the effort. Note that arrea's on the nose, ears and cheeks are pinker that other area's. | Source

Colour Recipes

Every artist has their own unique way of doing things, their own formula for assessing colours, for mixing them, for wouldn't be art otherwise.

My own recipes involve creating a master colour and manipulating it to create a variety of tones for different parts of the face. You can get by with having two highlights, three midtones and two lowlights. These tones are laid side by side on my palette and kept moist for as long as possible.

They should look like a grey scale, from the lightest highlight to the darkest shadow. I generally blend them together on the canvas after blocking in the main colours. Never use tube red in your recipes, tone and dull to a natural pink.


Alternatively, Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide will work too

You can see an example of this recipe in the profile of my older son.

You will also need:

  • lots of Titanium White
  • a warm red -Cadmium
  • a cool red - Alizarin
  • a dulling colour (for shadows) - Cerulen or Cobalt blue or a green
  • Burnt Sienna (optional)

Light Tones/Highlightsare made from the master recipe + white + touches of Cadmium, touches of Alizarin to create pink fleshy tones. You may also like a superlight = master recipe + white (1:3)

Mid Tones are made from the master recipe and slightly larger amounts the reds and Raw Sienna. The darkest midtone should also have a little of the dulling colour. Pink fleshy tones should be turning into a warm brownish pink. Be sure to mix extra mid-tones fo mixing your lowlights.

Lowlights are made from the mid-tones and adding more Raw Sienna (from the tube and not the master colour), Alizarin and blue/green to dull. Or make warm tones with Burnt Sienna. Lowlights should be obviously "browner" than the mid-tones. These tones seem quite out of place next to the others but they blend together on the canvas to become your darkest shadows - under the jaw, around the ear and for the nostrils.

If you are feeling brave you can also:

  • lighten any one of these tones with your superlight,
  • flush any tone with more red - for rosey cheeks and noses
  • create a warm shadows with Burnt Sienna


Alternatively - replace Yellow Ochre for Raw Sienna, replace Cadmium Red for Alizarin...experiment with your own tube colours.

You will also need:

  • Titanium White
  • Naples Yellow
  • a cool red - Alizarin, Venetian etc
  • a dulling colour - Cerulean or your favourite blue
  • Burnt Umber
  • Burnt Sienna

Light Tones/Highlights are made from lots of white, Naples Yellow and touches of the master recipe. Be sure to mix large quantities for you will use them to create both mid-tones and the lowlights.

Mid-tones are made from the light tones - gradually darken them with more red and/or touches of the master colour. Also add touches of Burnt Sienna to the darkest mid-tone - make plenty of it because you will use it to make the lowlights.

Lowlights are made from the darkest mid-tones with more of the master colour and/or the cool red (like Alizarin), touches of your dulling hue (blue) and touches of burnt umber. Once more. These tones must be quite dark as they serve as the shadows around the jaw, ears and nostrils.

If you are feeling brave you may also like to:

  • lighten any tone with white and Naples Yellow
  • flush any tone with touches red - for pink cheeks, noses and ears
  • dull any tone with touches of Burnt Umber
  • mix warm shadows with touches of Burnt Sienna

There are endless variations of these colours amd I'm sure you will play around with your tube colours until you find your own favourites. I also have a simplified shortcut that I sometimes use when I have many commisioned panels on the go at the same time. If what you have just read seems all to confusing this "cheat" is a great place to start...

Tube colours that sell themselves as "skin tones" can be used as a master colour to create  genuine skin tones.
Tube colours that sell themselves as "skin tones" can be used as a master colour to create genuine skin tones. | Source

Effective Shortcuts

My regular brand of paint sells a tube colour called Skin Tone Base. I suppose you could use it on it's own...if you were painting a cartoon!

These tube colours are often far from genuine skin tones but can be used as a master colour to create more realistic colours. In the photo to your right you can see that I have mixed the Raw Sienna and Pink Plum together to form the topmost hue. Adding the new hue to Skin Tone Base is various amounts creates the subtle differences you can see at the bottom.

LEFT = Raw Sienna + Skin Tone,

MIDDLE = Raw Sienna + Pink Plum (1:1) + Skin Tone.

RIGHT = Pink Plum + Skin Tone.

MYO Pink Plum = Burgundy + White + a warm brown (1:2:touch) 

Tools of Portraiture

If you don't already own the following tools, you may like to make further inquiries into them as I have found them extremely useful. I love to pinch pennies so have faith that I will never suggest something that you don't need.

  1. Stay-Wet-Palette: I have included instructions in another hub called Teaching Yourself To Paint at Home. I spend days if not weeks working on portraits and it is very difficult to consistantly remix the precise tones repeatedly. A stay-wet-palette will enable you to keep the same paint wet for days at a time providing that you keep adding water to the bottom layers.
  2. Retarder: A retarder will significantly slow the drying time of acrylics allowing you to work wet-on-wet. This technique of applying one wet colour to another on the canvas is vital to blending the different tones together flawlessly.
  3. Flow Medium: Similar to retarder, Flow thins the paint without damaging the structures between the molecules which bind the paint together. It slightly extends drying time but it's main use is to thin the paint. I use Flow to thin the paint to a watery consistency which I can then use to slowly build up layers of shadows or flushes of pink for the cheeks and nose.
  4. Soft, High Quality Brushes: for flawless blending.
  5. A Sense of Humour: No, it probably doesn't look like you envisioned it... but look how much you have learned from the experience. Painting is a skill like any needs to be learned. How many dinners did you burn before mastering your signature dish? KEEP PRACTICING!

Armed and Dangerous

Now that your are armed with this information you are ready to confront the biggest challenge you may face as an artist - your first portrait. You've been given a lot of information to digest so be sure to bookmark this hub and also browse many of the other very informative hubs you'll find here at HubPages.

Just to recap:

  • Assignment 1: Create an avatar of yourself and observe the result of misplaced or mis-sized facial features.
  • Assignment 2: Use your current supply of tube colours to match the colour of your hand.
  • Decide if you are happy to begin with the tools you have on hand or want to learn more about a stay-wet-palette, retarder and Flow mediums.
  • Assignment 3:Test some colour recipes (remember to have your skin tones laid out from lightest to darkest)
  • Assignment 4: Send me a photo of your efforts and remember me when you're rich and famous! Seriously, I would love hear your feedback.

Don't be discouraged if your first portrait looks more like Picasso's work than Da Vinci's, it takes time to develop these skills. Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes, continue to persevere, continue to ask questions and I promise you this:

There is no greater feeling in the world than the sense of pride and satisfaction of finishing a great painting and the larger the obstacles you have overcome to complete it, the better to joy.


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    • Leigha Havard profile image

      Leigha Havard 

      14 months ago from TN

      I am an artist but I never felt that I could master the art of the portrait, This article gave me the confidence to give it a try or two! You are very talented!

    • Amanda6868 profile image

      Amanda M 

      4 years ago from Unknown

      There is no doubt in my mind that you know what you're doing. Thank you for teaching how to create a decent portrait.


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