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  • Writer's pictureDawn Blatherwick

How to paint a portrait in oils, step 1

Hello, I have had a lot of interest in my portrait painting and people ask me all the time about my process. My portrait Art process is an ongoing learning curve for me and it will change as the months go on, with that in mind, I realised that I have never sat down and gone through my full process, how I start from a blank canvas and what is happening in my head as I work through a piece.

I figured this could make a really good blog post from week to week, so here goes stage 1

So, let’s start at the beginning…


If you want a good portrait, you need the correct subject matter, by that I don’t mean the sitter, I mean the way the sitter is positioned (what angle are they seated at) and lit. When I am looking for practice images, I search the internet looking for this elusive being.

Looking back on the old Masters and in particular, Rembrandt who was the master of the half shadow effect, along with the sitter positioned in a three-quarter pose, you can appreciated why he worked this way

you will agree that they are far more interesting to look at than a full-on frontal view. You do not need to see what is in the shadows, your brain fills that part in.

It also gives you an incredible rounded 3D appearance giving the illusion of an actual figure. It also creates a bit of drama a story a narrative. Having one extreme of dark with an intense light allows the artist to sculpt the features and face more.

Although this is my preferred way of lighting, natural light outside can be equally interesting. Having a model back lit can also produce drama, and if its back lit by the sun, there is a hazy softness that you cannot get with indoor lighting.

You never normally paint a sitter that is smiling, artist I think find teeth and a smile distorts the shape of the face. It’s the quietness and the gaze that holds an audience, smiles are left for posts on Facebook.

So, with this information, go and take a photograph of your sitter and I will be back to tell my next step…

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