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Portrait Underpainting Tutorial


  1. A primed surface of your choice. Canvas, birch panel, aluminum.

Surface must be primed well to allow the oil paint to glide across the surface rather than it sinking in too much.

  1. A good quality reference photo to work from.

  2. A selection of brushes

  3. Oil paint – Something brown like a burnt umber would be fine (anything brown)

  4. Turps, low odour

  5. Kitchen towel

  6. Pallet

  7. Gloves if you have sensitive skin

The process:

Tone your canvas with diluted turps and brown oil paint.

We will not be drawing out anything before we begin to paint, but we will be looking at shapes and tonal values.

Squint your eyes and work out the darkest areas of your photo, then look at the lightest areas, you should also see that between the two areas will be your middle tone.

We are not worried about the eyes or the nose or the mouth to begin with, we are looking only of the light and dark tonal shapes.

When painting a portrait, we become tangled up in the features that we lose the overall shape and form of the head, if we get the structure of the head right first, we can then move onto looking at the features.

Imagine you are a sculptor carving away at a lump of stone, you wouldn’t jump straight into the detail of the features first, you would make sure that the shape of the head was correct first and this is how we will approach this portrait.


It’s helpful if your image is the same size as your canvas.

Using turps as an eraser begin with the darkest shapes first, squinting to enable your eye to see shapes, not detail. The paint is quick to dry because you are using turps. Once all the large shapes are blocked in begin to look at the mid tones. Our highlight will be the white of the canvas.


A good tip, if you feel like you are struggling, turn both the canvas and the image upside down you will instantly see your mistakes.

Keep adding paint and erasing until your image shapes match then you can go in and add the detailed parts like the eye, although I never go into too much detail as this is the under painting.


Although this finished image looks detailed it isn’t, its your brain filling in all the parts that are missing.

Good luck, have fun!

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