Portrait painting step by step

Portrait painting step by step is a product of my personal experiences through painting for years. I have stepped and stumpled and have landed on this exact process that works for me. That being said this process may not work for others. It its an intuitive process that can be seperated over several sessions.

First of all! If you want an in depth understanding of drawing and portrait painting. I have written a descriptive and thorough book thats available on:

Kindle HERE and Paperback HERE

Reference / model

Reference / model for your portrait

First step is to find your model or reference. This process is always very personal and depends on what type or look you prefer your model to have. Most classical portrait painters would say that painting from a photo is a no go. I say there’s not that much difference other than you can paint over more sessions, which I found important during my own learning process. It’s very important to lay down your brushes and have breaks. A photo allows you that. That being said there is no doubt that painting a live model is more fun. But for one to achieve a good matter of development and obtain a good painting I say that you need to have a certain level before starting on live models. Therefore I prefer good quality photos shot in a good light and from angles that create interesting cast shadows.


Reference being set, it’s time to think about what story you want to tell with the portrait. Good subjects for storytelling, drama and atmosphere is the shadows that appear on your reference.

The understand of your models persona can also influence your portrait. If you have deep and honest conversations this might shine trough on your portrait. It might be the thing that gives your portrait that little extra cherry. For instance I painted my daughter when she was 1,5 years old and that is by far one of my top 3 best portrait paintings – maybe because I know her so very well


You need to have things prepared before you start painting. Your pencils need to be sharp, your brushes clean, turpintine jar full, canvas primed etc. This is again a personal preference, but when I have all my things ready I know that my mind only has to concentrate on the painting process and all the analysing that it requires. If I all of the sudden have to clean a brush I want to use this will take me out of my state of mind and concentration. When I set up a day or evening for painting I know that everything is ready. I might even have my palette ready som hours before, so the only I need is to mix the paint and put it on the canvas.


Measuring your model is very important in portrait painting. You need to be good at measuring or drawing. It is the measuring of vital flag points in the face that makes it look like the exact person you are painting. You can measure with your brush, pencil or even a ruler if you want. But the most vital area for measuring is the triangle area aound eyes, nose and mouth. The distances between these flag points need to be as exact as possible. If I paint a commision I usualy set little dots of my canvas to know where the pupils of the eyes are, the nostrils and the middle where the lips of the mouth meets. By having these stated I can begin my sketch.


Example of sketch

From the previous flag points stated with little dots I can now begin my sketching. I personally draw the eyes first, then the nose and then the mouth. Triangle area set I draw the forehead, jaw line, hair etc. It’s up to oneself when to stop the sketching. With the triangle area set, plus jaw line and hair area you are set for the painting. Sometimes I take the sketch a little further and draw shapes of the cheeks etc.

Mixing the palette

Example of color mixing on palette

The palette is a personal thing. But I mix my darkest dark, average of shadows, half tones, average of the skin tone, and a neutral pile to start with. These pools i alter in value and temperature according to my reference or model. I suggest that you take a look at my blog post portraitpaintingblog.com/color-palette-portrait-painting/ for an in depth understanding og my palette and how I mix the colors the exact same way everytime I paint a portrait.


During painting sessions I have come to realise that it is fairly important to put in your background at an early stage of your painting. The contrast of the background to your skin tones and shadows is very important. It helps me determine value and temperature easier when I can compare those to the background color. Before I painted the background as the last thing but lately I started to paint the background earlier during the process.

Shadow areas

First thing I paint on the portrait is the shadow areas. From darkest to light. I usualy ligthen my shadows with yellow ochre. Shadows being defined – just like the background – makes it easier to define your half tones and your skin tones. The colours for shadows I use makes my shadows transparent. I like that look on my shadows. I keep my shadows thin. By thin I mean that I put a tiny drop of solvent in the mix.

Half tones

When the shadows have been put down I start to mix my half tones. It’s important that these are not to far away in value to my shadows. That’s one of the most important things in portrait painting. In order for form and oval shapes to show properly the values need to be somewhat close but still lightening as it appears furhters towards the light source. The half tones are the very essence of making the illusion of oval shapes.

Skin tones

Skin tones in the darkest spectre are defined close to the halftones. Again the values has to go up a step, to become lighter. But not to far from the value of your half tone. If you succeed with this value stepping it will show form in a very beautiful way. Skin tones has to be altered accordingly to the reference and how much light the specific areas are exposed to. The skin tones become more light as the oval shapes of the face turns more towards the light source. To make the skin tones lighter I use titanium white.
I suggest that you take a look at my blog post portraitpaintingblog.com/color-palette-portrait-painting/ for an in depth understanding og my palette and how I mix the colors the exact same way everytime I paint a portrait


The last part of the portrait are the highlights. These are the cherries. But i’m still fairly careful with them. A to powerfull white highlight can ruin the portrait. I dont take to far away regarding value to my lightest skin tone area. And I always mix another color in my highlights. Like yellow ochre, scarlet lake or purple.


I treat my hair like shadows, middle values and highlights. Exactly like the skin. I build it up from dark to light. Pay attention to the hair line, where it translations with the skin. This transition needs to be very soft to illustrate the softness of hair.


The day after a long session of painting I do a restating. A restating is an analyze of the process so far. I’m usualy 80-90 percent done with the portrait at this time. And the last 10-20 percent are corrections. Like softening edges, correction of shadows etc. I may also put in the last highlights at this session. For me this process is very important. The importance lies in the pause or break I have during a night sleep. I simply need a break of this lenght to see my errors, colors, edges, temperatures proper again.

Links to previous content

For more info about exact color mixing follow this link https://portraitpaintingblog.com/color-palette-portrait-painting/

Links to the materials and brands I use

Paint from Winsor & Newton artist color: http://www.winsornewton.com/row/

Bristle brushes from Rosemary and Co: https://www.rosemaryandco.com/

Ampersand boards from: https://www.ampersandart.com/

Nylon brushes from Trekell: https://www.trekell.com/

My Easel is from Edge Pro Gear: https://www.edgeprogear.com/

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