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.


    67 Responses to Techniques

    1. junior says:

      I am so inspired by this article…I will now do my portraits without anything bothering me cuz I have learned a lot from this article

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    4. Melanie McKenzie says:

      Ben, the Youtube video is blocked for me in Australia. This is most frustrating after you’ve made the big effort to prepare it. Let me know if you get it online, maybe music free?

    5. Dear Sir do u have videos that I could buy that would be step by step for portrait making :-) u are very very kindhearted to tell all your secrets to the entire world. I am very grateful to God that I found u and your portrait tips. THANK U SO MUCH FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART AND GOD BLESS U AND YOUR FAMILY !

    6. Laura Anne says:

      What a gorgeous, vibrant composition. Thanks for inspiring me.

    7. Does your friend Mario sell a recording of this piece of music? Do you know which Mozart piece it is?

    8. samuel says:

      I have an acrylic portrait assignment for my college due for Monday. I’m glad i found this website your tips where so useful. TY

    9. Beste Ben,

      Ik heb een jongetje van bijna 2 gefotografeerd en twijfel of ik 1 hand zal mee schilderen.
      Ik had een tijdje geleden Joodse mensen, die een portret hebben laten schilderen. (en die meer kunst thuis hebben hangen) Ze vertelden me dat je of 2 handen of geen handen moet zien.
      Weet jij of dit iets van een traditie is in de portretschilderkunst of dat dit een persoonlijke voorkeur zou kunnen betreffen?
      Vriendelijke groeten, Patricia Volkova

      • ben says:

        Beste Patricia.
        Ik heb het nog nooit bij de hand gehad. Er zijn talloze theorieën of wat wel of niet kan, en hoe het model zou moeten worden afgebeeld. Ikzelf laat mij leiden door de compositie. Maar als de opdrachtgever duidelijke wensen heeft dan zou ik die respecteren.

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