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Painting A Portrait in Acrylics

Updated on March 10, 2013

Painting of Ed Byrd by John N. Stewart

This lens shows how I painted a portrait of Ed Byrd in acrylics. I chose to use a loose, watercolor type of approach and there are photos and descriptions as I go from start to finish. I had used this approach when I painted a portrait of Ed's deceased wife of 68 years, and we wanted his portrait to match hers. When I finished his wife's portrait, he came into the gallery several times to visit the painting which was waiting for it's frame.

Getting Started......3 ways to a successful likeness.....

[1] It's really important to have good photo reference. Make sure that you have a large (minimum 4 inch head shot) 8 x 10 clear, well lit photo to work from. I painted portraits for the film studios for years and we always used an opaque projector to trace the image to the canvas. This insures that you will get a good likeness. Even when projecting, you will need your drawing skills to interpret the projection.

[2] Another method is to grid your photo into 1 inch squares. Then divide your canvas into the same amount of squares (larger) - and copy what is inside of each square.

[3] The third method is to print out your photo the same size as the finished size and rub a soft pencil over the back of it ( or use carbon/graphite paper ) and tape the photo in place on the canvas or board. (I'm using clay board on this portrait - it's a smooth masonite with reinforced sides that is coated with a wonderfully smooth ground. Then, using a ball point pen, I trace the photo onto the surface.

The Background Lay-in

My acrylic colors are in a miniature muffin pan that fits into a zip lock bag (to keep them moist). I use white, yellow, orange, red, alizerin crimson, thalo blue, thalo green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna and black. The colors in the photo are good so I'm going to stay pretty close to them. Using a 1 inch flat brush I mix the colors on my palette, which happens to be a large oval white china plate. You'll need rags or paper towels, and a large water jug for cleaning brushes. Always lay your brushes flat after cleaning in the water jug - never leave them standing in water.

More Background Lay-in......

The shapes that I'm laying into the background are pretty abstract and I make them instinctively in response to the previous brush stroke, keeping it very loose. This looseness is a nice contrast to the more precise technique used on the actual face.

And More.......

Laying In The Flesh Tones.......

I started by mixing a light flesh color with white, burnt sienna, a touch of yellow and red medium. I painted this layin all over the face and neck. When it dries I came back with a little darker shade by adding a little burnt umber and indicated the dark areas along side the cheek and under the neck.

Indicating the Eyes.............

I started to anchor the eyes carefully, since they are the most important feature on the face. I usually paint the pupil first, then the iris.

Starting the Lips......

I've started to mark the shadow of the upper lip and lightly indicating the shadow below the lower lip.

Round Robin.......

I tend to bounce around at this point and work all over the head, referring back to the photo frequently.

The Eyes Have It.............

Back to the eyes and the all important eye glasses. Ed always wears them and they are important to his look. I've also started indicating his mustache which is an off-white and grey color.

More Details.....

It's a good idea to indicate the larger areas first and work your way into the details of the face. His glasses are more believable now, just using simple darks and lights.

More Contrast, Please..........

Adding some subtle contrasts - I like to sneak up on it.

The Suit, Shirt and Tie.......

It's time to detail the clothing a little. I need to add some texture to the coat, and a darker line delineating the shirt collar. After that I added some white and off-white paint to the blank areas of the background to give it some build-up and texture. After it dried, I gave it a coat of clear acrylic matte varnish.

The Finished Portrait

Here is the finished portrait. Ed came by and was delighted. You'll notice a lighter area around the mouth - this was caused by camera flashback. (Sorry about that).

Ed Byrd's Portrait Guestbook

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    • jnstewart profile imageAUTHOR

      John Norman Stewart 

      5 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      @RhondaAlbom: Hi and thanks for blessing and liking the lens. I really appreciate it. :)

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      Wonderful. The step by step is clear and the artwork incredible. Wow. Blessed.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love the step by step painting. It felt like I was painting the portrait with you. Thank you for sharing.

    • jnstewart profile imageAUTHOR

      John Norman Stewart 

      7 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      @dahlia369: Thanks for the blessing and comments etc. I greatly appreciate it.

    • jnstewart profile imageAUTHOR

      John Norman Stewart 

      7 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      @Richard-H: Thanks WL for the blessing and comments. Have a wonderful weekend! :) John

    • Richard-H profile image


      7 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      Wonderful to see the step by step creation of this portrait. Blessed!

    • dahlia369 profile image


      7 years ago

      Nicely done & great resource. ***Angel blessed*** as part of the April Fools' Quest & featured on "My Life with Angel Wings" lens ... :)


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