Portrait Painting using photography.

There are many ways to paint a portrait. Everyone has their own method, and all are valid. There has always been discussion about whether a portrait has to be made from real life or from photography. I will not come to a decision on that one; if a painting is good then that question does not arise. I encourage observational study as much as possible. In my opinion, good drawing skills and knowledge of anatomy, are of the utmost importance.

Here I will explain how I work when I work from photos.



Painting a portrait of from photography has advantages and disadvantages. One of the major pitfalls is the danger of paying to much attention to the details. Likeness does not depend on the details but on large volumes. Remember that old school photo. You know perfectly well who is who, although the faces are no bigger than a quarter of an inch. Often too much detail has a devastating effect on a portrait. Keep it simple and be bold with what you say. An advantage of working with photos, is that you just choose the shot you like most out of a series. Before you start, it is important to pay great attention to the photography session, and also to the printing.

The first image shows several copies of  the face around my canvas on my easel. The two large photos are the same size as the portrait on the canvas. The left slightly unfocused to avoid distraction by details. Doing so I see the simple shapes more clearly.  I have printed the smaller pictures in a lighter and a darker version.


On the easel is the stretched canvas. I’ve transferred the image by using a grid distribution on the photo as well as on the canvas. I use red crayon. The black graphite of a normal pencil will always shows through all layers of oil paint. Here I fixed the drawing with  a very thin layer of shellac. Sometimes I apply a thin coating of an alkyd medium. On top in acrylic I paint an underpainting in raw sienna. If I get lost I always can remove the layer of oil to see the basic drawing and underpainting.



The actual painting of the portrait is about to begin. I start the day early by setting up my palette. Which I do with great care. I mix the skin colors and always use a test strip to check the mixture. Before I start painting, I rub the canvas with a neutral oil medium. Then the linen is  semi- saturated  and the canvas “receives” the paint from my brush more easily.

First the hair.

I paint the hair in simple, large planes using different hues. I don´t use middle ochre mixed with brown for the darker areas, and white for the lighter ones. In the darkest tones there is crimson, veridian, sienna and cadmium orange. In the lighter parts of the hair I´ve used cadium red light, permanent green light, viridian, yellow ochre and white. The lightest color in the hair is a mixture of ultramarine, crimson and white that I’ve prepared previously. This mauvish tint is great to make light areas in blond hair without the risk of progressing to red, yellow or blue.


From dark to light.

Before I start with the face I paint the background also in large simple planes. Here I dilute the paint with a few drops of citrus turpentine. Ordinary white spirit also works well. I pay particular attention to the hairline. I don´t want to be sudden.

First I give the eyes a special treatment. I paint a transparent layer of sienna and burnt umber. I rub the paint with my finger. I still see the underpainting and I prepare a perfect base to continue later.

Then I paint the mouth in simple schematic planes. Cadmium red, venetian red, white and ultramarine blue are used here. I show the teeth as a continuous curved surface. I use my pre-mixed neutral gray light with some ultramarine blue and crimson.





I always start with the shadows, then the halftones, then the lights. For the flesh color is cadmium red light,  white and ochre. Ceruleum blue or permanent yellow-green tones for cooler or warmer tones. I still do not pay attention to the details!

Keep a distance.

The portrait is in the first phase and I have to go away. I walk off and have a cup of coffee or something. It is important to leave the easel. The longer I look at my canvas the less I can judge what I have painted. Having a coffee is one trick, but there are more. In my studio I have a mirror  in which I can see both the painting and the photograph at the same time. I wear glasses. I take them off and see everything blurred. This is particulary good to get a perfect overall look at  the balance of colour and emphasis.

Now I just take my time to assess everything. I retrace the portrait again from dark to light and put in details. Then I finish the eyes and paint that small highlight in the pupil. Where necessary I blend surfaces together sometimes with a separate keytone in an intermediate color. Looking at the cheeks, where the transition is the most progressive, I make sure that the curves are in the right place.

There is a certain risk of overblending the portrait in this phase. I paint the separation between the upper teeth and lower lip. I do not make individual teeth, but make sure the curve provides sufficient suggestion of teeth.

Finally, on the wet background I paint some brush strokes for locks of hair on the wet background.

I have published this demonstration also on Youtube with the beautiful music of my friend Mario Monreal playing Mozart. Until it was blocked because Youtube said that the music was played by Daniel Barenboim. I have chanced the title and published it for the second time with the same music and now they say that Marco Alberizio is playing! This is an unfair indiscriminate accusation! I don’t know what to do when Youtube blocks again this video for more than 200 countries.


    84 Responses to Techniques

    1. Pat Britten says:

      Thank you for this post.

      Please tell us:
      1. What kind of “neutral oil medium” do you rub into the canvas?
      2. Do you use a red conte crayon to make the grid and drawing?

      All the best,


    2. delvin jamil says:

      Watching your page and you vidios helpd me a lot i was confused on how to start an oil portrait but now evrything is clear..thank you soo much
      Wish you all the luck.

    3. Nazreen Khan says:

      Very informative. Thanks

    4. niloofar says:

      that’s great

    5. Evando says:

      I found your videos on YouTube when I was looking for tutorials on painting portraits with acrylics. Great job! I am attempting to paint my first portrait and I have to say I am completely lost. Your videos have given me an idea on how to start but to be honest I am little afraid. Even though I like to use acrylics and I also like to paint abstract, I have realized that I don’t think I am ready to use acrylics for portraits because of its quick drying. I was thinking of using water soluble oils. Any recommendation or thoughts? I would really appreciate it. Thanks a lot!

      • ben says:

        Hi Evando.
        Acrylics for portraiture is not easy. But have a try. Water based oil is a good option. I don´t use it but I some of my students do. You must try it all and in the beginning forget a good result.
        Every beginning artist must make at least hundred bad paintings, so you´d better start as quick as possible.

    6. Thank you so much for publishing this. I have been struggling witha very small portrait within a larger painting, and your suggestions have really helped. I still cant get the mouth right, as it is very thin, but I shall keep trying. Thanks

    7. Alejandra says:

      I am so glad that I found you in you tube, I am new in painting but the most I want to paint are faces so you been very helpfull, I recently bougth your portrait of a little girl and I hace seen it a lot, but I am stil confuse in making the colors, the girl in the video is a little bit darker in the skin , can you help me in choosing the colors for the dark, medium and ligth zones please?
      Is correct at the begining use these 3 tones? BCause in the video I can see you mix all the time and there is where I get lost, and I love your work and I want to learn
      Thank you so much and is a real pleasure to found you in you tube, I hope I can live close to you so you can teach me, but I am so far I live in México
      Thanks again

    8. Maggie Franklin says:

      Do you have a suggested brand for oil paints? I am interested in investing in some, but am not sure what type.

      Thanks! Great tutorial.

      • ben says:

        It depends on what brands are available in your region. I use Rembrandt of the Dutch brand Talens. I like the oily composition and the strong pigments.

    9. Mou Parsa says:

      Realy good guidance, thanks so much.

    10. Joy says:

      I’m so glad I have found you and your lovely paintings. I’ve come late in life to portrait painting and I’m now having a go in oils since discovering you. Thank you so much for your generous help. Your inspirational!

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