How to paint a portrait in acrylic paint

So I have been doing the portrait project for a while now. I find that each portrait helps me remember the past, work through the past, and connect with my true self. I do a lot of Googling to help me figure out techniques and such, and I have never found a tutorial on painting a portrait that I find totally satisfactory. There are always details left out. I’m far from an expert, but I thought maybe someone out there would benefit if I did a portrait and documented step by step, showed you my brushes, explained how I mixed the paints, and maybe you could go along with me, start your own portrait project, and reap some of the benefits that I have experienced through art.

Step 1: Select your subject. 

For this tutorial, I am working from a photograph. If you work from a photograph, and this is your first time, try to make sure it’s a well-lit photograph with not too many dark shadows across the face, and large enough that you can see detail. One trick that I like is if it’s a digital photo or if you can scan it, you can use your computer to zoom in and out of features. This comes in especially handy when you’re trying to decipher shading and color hue, value, and intensity. Here’s my selection:


Step 2: Select Your Paper or Canvas and Sketch the Subject to It.

For this tutorial, I am working on acrylic paper. Acrylic paper is good if you are practicing. Both Canson and Strathmore make it, and you can get a pad of it for around $15. This will give you the ability to practice on many portraits without the cost of a canvas. Either way, if you choose to use a canvas or acrylic paper for this project, you will need to sketch the subject (the photo) on it. This will serve as a guide as you begin to paint.

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Step 3: Supplies

Here’s what you need in terms of paint supplies.

Colors: I prefer Liquitex Basics right now, they’re inexpensive and come in a large bottle. You will need 9 colors — Cadmium Yellow Light Hue, Cadmium Orange Hue, Cadmium Red Medium Hue, Naphthol Crimson, Prism Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Light Green Permanent, Black, and White. These nine colors can be mixed to make all of our colors and shades of everything in the painting. (Note, occasionally I do cheat by using silver or gold off the shelf because I want the built in metallic quality.)

Let’s talk about color theory a little bit. You probably know the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. The secondary colors are mixes of the primaries: orange, violet, green. Tertiaries are a mix of a primary and a secondary: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green. Below is a color wheel. We use opposing colors on the color wheel to dull a color from it’s most potent to make different shades. I know that’s a complex and vague concept, but you will see it in action as we mix colors.


You will need a palette. It’s totally your choice but this is the palette that I choose. You will also need a palette knife for mixing the colors. You will arrange your colors from left to right in the order listed above. On this palette I don’t have room for the white, but I use so much of the white I end up pouring it from the bottle anyways.


Brushes–You will need a few different brushes, and here is a photo of the brushes I will use. I like the Simply Simmons brand because they are fairly good quality and inexpensive. If you are learning or just painting for fun, they will serve you well. Because I’m painting on an 11×14 acrylic paper and will need significant detail, my brushes are pretty small. The size of your brushes will depend upon how big you are working.

20150802_22334320150802_223408Step 4: Painting the Face

Painting the face is truly the hardest part. The tone of the skin can switch so rapidly, the skin reflects the colors of things around it, like hair and clothes, lighting affects the skin tone, and also the planes of the face. The first thing I’m going to do is figure out what I will call the “base” color of the face. By this I mean the most common color that is reflected by the skin. The face in my portrait is based on a red-orange. The value  (meaning how dark it is) is low, and the intensity (how bright it is) is medium to medium high. I’m going to use a screen shot of using a computer paint program to show an example of helping determine the color. I took the color sample from the bridge of the nose.

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In the below photo, you see that I painted the base color, white with a bit of red and orange. The shadow color and the highlight colors are also white with red and orange just darker shades, meaning less white in ratio to the red and orange. In the video below, I illustrate how to lay down the paint and shade the face. 20150731_210320

Below, you see that I’ve painted the teeth, which were actually reflecting the pink around them so they aren’t pure white, and I painted the lips. For the lips, I mixed white with crimson and violet. I still need to do some highlighting on the bottom lip where the light is reflected in the photo.

In this step, I added a spot of white to each eye to show the reflection of light, this is what brings the eyes to life. I smoothed out some of the shading by using the lighter color and highlight color over the dark shade, and I used the hair to smooth out the edges of the face.

You’ll see here that I have added some pink for the gums and shadowing to the teeth. To get the color of the gums, I mixed white with a dab of cadmium red medium and light green permanent to slightly dull it.

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I don’t go into huge detail with the teeth, just attempt to get the effect of the spacing — especially since this is a picture of a child whose teeth are growing in.


Step 5: Painting the Hair

Moving on from the video part of the tutorial, to add detail to the hair, I pick a mid-tone and a highlight, and mix those. For my mid-tone I mix cadmium red and add dabs of light green permanent until I get the right hue and intensity for the midtone. My highlight tone is basically the same except that I also mixed with white to lighten the color.


Then I take my 1/4 Simply Simmons angle brush and create some blocks of hair locks with the mid-tone.

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I use my spackle brush to create the look of strands with the highlight color. I go back and forth creating blocks and using the spackle brush until I get the effect I want. Additionally, since the hair in my portrait is so dark, I used a little bit of black on the spackle brush to create the effect of hair strands on the darkest parts of the hair.

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Step 6: Painting the Clothes

Using the same mixing techniques, I mixed white with blue and some orange to come up with color of the vest. 20150731_213245

Step 7: Background

Below I’ve added some shading to the vest and colored in the bow. I also put a base layer down for the furry pillow the girl is leaning on and added the background. Note on this background. It may look brown, but it’s really a red-violet that’s been dulled with green and yellow and darkened with some black.  I finish up the pillow by using the spackle brush to create fur on the pillow alternating some darker versions of the dulled red-violet.


I used the same mixing technique for the face to color the hands, and used some black and white (making a grey) to create folds in the white shirt.

I think this one turned out pretty well. I know I didn’t go in complete chronological order while painting mine, but I tried to illustrate the tutorial with each step complete unto itself. Put questions in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

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