How To Paint A Portrait With Acrylic Paint?

by Aug 18, 2015Art Projects, How to...

"Wise Innocence" | © 2015 MILI FAY ART

“Wise Innocence” | © 2015 MILI FAY ART

It has been a while since I have painted a portrait as a gift. I tend to never post portraits I’m creating for my clients, because I feel it is an unnecessary invasion of their privacy. However, I have no compunction in posting portraits I paint for free as gifts, especially if my process can help other artists learn some of my techniques and tricks.

The portrait I’m currently working on is that of my baby cousin, Uroš—we call him Uki (uu-kee), because he still needs to grow into his name.

The following are the steps I take when painting a portrait.

Step 1: Choosing Photographic Reference

I have so many photos of Uki, and he is such an adorable baby, that I had a difficult time deciding which one to use for painting reference.

Ideally, I would love to sit people down in my studio, model the light until they look perfect, position them, and have them sit while I paint. However, who has time to sit for a portrait these days? Therefore, I usually tend to work from photographs, and when painting children I always work from photographs. I just cannot force kids to sit still for hours to paint them (I cannot sit still for hours!), they should be out playing with friends, running around, and enjoying the freedom of childhood if they can. Having babies sit still is next to impossible. I think the only live portraits of babies I have ever created were quick sketches, and more extensive studies as they slept.

The difficulty in working from photographs is that I have to edit the distortion every camera makes. Also, if I cannot take the photograph myself, I have to sometimes adjust the position of my subject, and even change the light source. Therefore, while I’m looking for the right photograph I’m trying to find one (or more) that tells the story of my subject and has an excellent source of light.

Some photographs are beautiful and charming, but looking at them, I have to ask myself: Would this photograph result in a good portrait?

In one photo Uki’s face is covered in ice cream and he is looking at us with an evil eye as if saying: “Give me my ice cream back, now!”

In another, he is chewing on his bottom lip and looking down, looking as an aristocrat observing his worthless peasants.

In yet another, he is looking to the side, bathed in soft light, as if he as seen THE light.

All of these images are adorable, and they tell a story, but do we want them hanging on a wall forever?


Eventually, Uki’s dad finally sent us a photo that can result in a brilliant portrait:

Uki--Original Photograph

Uki–Original Photograph

The moment I saw the above photograph, I thought: “Rembrandt.”

The lighting in this image is very strong. Uki’s look appears very wise, as if he is questioning everything that we are doing with our lives. If I was going to give this photo a name I would call it Wise Innocence. Looking at this image, I know that I will not have to change too much while painting, which should speed up my process. However, though this image is nearly perfect, I feel it is missing something.

Step 02: A Study

Now that the photograph has been chosen, the next step is to prepare for painting.

Since the image is dark, I’ve edited Levels and have brought up the lights, so that I can see what is going on structurally.

Uki--Brightened With Levels

I have adjusted levels on the original photograph (see above) to reveal more structure.

Thinking of Rembrandt, I want this painting to be warm, almost monochromatic in colour with just a hint of colour where the light is hitting the image. The rest should be various shades of sepia.

Using my Cintiq Companion I’ve created a value scale in reddish-brown, then with opacity and pressure sensitivity of my brush turned on I began to sketch out my composition.

I thought about adding Uki’s hand to the image, but I felt that it would just pull the focus from the face. Rembrandt had this technique where he would paint the background lighter behind the shadow of a face, and darker around the light. I have tried to stay true to that idea. I have removed the unnecessary elements from the photo, keeping only vague shapes of pillows and comforter to lead the eye around the painting. I’ve added an imaginary toy, to give the baby a friend, but more importantly to keep the eye from leaving the composition. I have also bent Uki’s leg for the same reason. I’ve added a tiny smile to his mouth, because I felt he was looking too sad.

Once all the elements of the picture were in place, I have pushed and pulled at shadows to create a balanced painting, without allowing values to take the focus away from the face.

Uki--Tonal Study

This is my portrait’s plan. However, today, I can see that my proportions are slightly off. If you have not read my blog before, I tend to loose my ability to measure when I’m tired, so I have to make sure I’m well-rested when I begin to paint. 🙂

Looking at the result, I feel that I have a solid plan and am ready to begin painting on canvas. The past couple of paintings were very finished, but for this one, I would like to keep the sketchy quality I admire in John Singer Sargent’s work (He is my favourite portrait painter of all time.).

Step 03: Preparing the Canvas

I am not a purist. I am not an artist who likes to buy raw canvas cloth, build a frame, then stretch the canvas myself. I have done this step in high school and have hated every minute of it. It took me a week or two to prepare my canvas, and only two days to paint the abstract expressionist painting (our assignment at the time). I am terrible at building things. Though the resulting painting is one of my favourites, and though it looks great hanging on our dining room wall, glancing at it as I’m writing this post I keep shuddering at the curved angles of my poorly built frame.

Now, when I want to paint on canvas, I go to an art store and I get myself a prepared canvas ready to be painted on.

In the past, I have taken my acrylic paints and have attacked the canvas with the paint immediately. However, I have discovered that it took a lot of paint to keep the light from passing through the canvas. For this reason, with this painting, I’m going to use gesso first.

Gesso is fairly opaque compared to the acrylic paint, and if applied liberally it will block the light, preventing it from passing through the canvas. The painting I’m working on is mostly in the dark value range, therefore any backlit luminosity would just look strange.

Canvas Preparation--Applying Gesso

I have applied gesso mixed with burn sienna. I added some brush strokes to create a bit of texture, but then my painting got attacked by flying ants, so there are certain textures I did not intend. However, that is the beauty of working traditionally: I never know what’s going to happen.

I’m also not going to apply gesso directly out of the jar. Instead, I’m going to mix it with acrylic paint until I reach the mid value of my study sketch. This way, I will only need to paint the darks and lights. My plan is to paint a monochromatic painting in full value, then to add colour as a finishing touch. I have a big tube of burnt sienna available, so I’ll use that with either raw (warm) or titanium (cool) white.

Step 04: Drawing The Image Onto Canvas

As I’ve mentioned before, when I’m tired I have a really hard time visually measuring distances between elements, or my subject’s proportions. Someday, I may invest in an art projector so that I can cast the exact image of my sketch onto canvas, but for now I use the old method of dividing my image into squares (creating a grid), then transferring what’s in the squares onto the equally prepared canvas.

Note: Your grid MUST have the same number of squares on your canvas as they are on the drawing/photograph.

I do not know who was the first person to use this method, but it works wonderfully. The reason it works so well is because the artist can copy the abstract bits inside each square onto a corresponding square, without being distracted by the complexity of the subject. If one of the squares contains too much detail, simply divide it into further squares. You can also use rectangles or triangles, just make sure you transfer them accurately onto your canvas grid.

I have created matching grids to transfer the image as accurately as possible.

I have created matching grids to transfer the image as accurately as possible.

When I was working on the above image, I decided that maybe I should just copy the photograph instead of my sketch. That way I can be sure to draw the portrait as close to the subject as possible.

This has proved to be a grave mistake, and if I was not feeling as sick as I did on the day, I may have saved myself 5 hours of work.


I like to paint portraits standing. When I’m standing I have a greater range of movement, and I can also step away from the canvas to see the entire image as a whole, or step closer to work on some details. We humans have a very narrow range of focus. The closer our subject is, the less of it we can see clearly. The same is true for a canvas or a piece of paper. However, my beautiful wooden easel is too short for my height (I’m 5’ 9”.). At maximum height, the top of the canvas comes slightly below my eye level. If you are planning on purchasing an easel, I highly recommend you get one where the bottom of the canvas at maximum height reaches your eye level at least. Also, make sure that you can easily adjust the height while painting.

I may purchase an easel more suited to my height when I get a studio with a higher ceiling, for now, I make do with what I have.

Sitting down to paint, I cannot see the entire image at a glance. Therefore, while I carefully moved onto the next step in my painting process—painting in the shadows and lights—I did not notice the hideous result, until I stepped far away from the painting five hours later.

Though the pose may work great as a photograph it is not appropriate for permanent viewing. The photographic lens creates too much of a distortion.

Though the pose may work great as a photograph it is not appropriate for permanent viewing. The photographic lens creates too much of a distortion.

Even though the proportions of this image are perfectly accurate as compared to the original photograph, I realised that they would not work for a portrait. The camera angle is too distorted. Though this may look nice in a photograph, something a person may look at for a few minutes (likely less), having an image with such a distortion hanging on a wall for years… Yikes! That is one scary, interfering baby. Not the mood of “Wise Innocence” I was aiming for.

I scrapped those five hours of work, decided to work from dark to light, repainted the canvas, and redrew the image this time using my sketch as a source.

I decided to place a background light source at his head and work from there.

I decided to place a background light source at his head and work from there.

Step 05: Light and Shadow

Once the drawing is ready (I use pencil crayons for the under-drawing—Faber-Castell Artist’s Pencil Crayons—not the student option), the next step is to squint your eyes (so you would not be able to see details) and paint in the shadows and lights. If your tonal painting works, any colour you choose will likely work as well. To paint the following image I used Burnt Sienna, Unbleached Titanium White, and Ivory Black.

At this stage I'm grouping and mapping out the light and shadow areas of the painting.

At this stage I’m grouping and mapping out the light and shadow areas of the painting.

I hated what the Ivory Black was doing to my colour, so I replaced it with Prussian Blue. I though I’d try to use black for a change, but Impressionists were right—there is no black in nature. Therefore, if you want to darken or grey the colour—use its complementary colour. The painting will be more vibrant. Burnt Sienna is a Red-Orange with a bit of Blue. Therefore, the complement is Green-Blue, with a bit of Orange—Prussian Blue works. Use black for shading only if you want your colours to look flat and dead.

Compare the previous image with this one. Isn't it amazing how the Prussian Blue brings this painting back to life?

Compare the previous image with this one. Isn’t it amazing how the Prussian Blue brings this painting back to life?

Continue to paint the lights and darks, then step away from the painting again. You should step away from your work every two hours, leave the room, go for a walk and/or grab a snack. Give yourself a break that lasts at least half an hour, then come back and look at your work with fresh eyes.

Yikes! The poor baby has a dislocated shoulder!

Step 06: Modelling

At this stage I'm paying more attention to the structure and rounding our the forms.

At this stage I’m paying more attention to the structure and rounding our the form.

Once you know where your groups of lights and darks are, the next step is to think about construction and form. Pay attention to shadows within the shadows, lights within the light, “turn” the form. As a student, I found that I made lights too light and darks to dark. There is usually gentle gradation of an image, and even highlights are rarely a pure white. Do not worry about details, just paint your best to create an illusion of depth and form.

Keep in mind what you want the viewer to focus on. If you want the viewer to focus on the face, why would you paint a foot in stark detail? Keep the highest contrast where you want your focus to be, and don’t be afraid to make the rest of your painting sketchy, or allow it to blend with your background.

Note: Keep in mind the location of veins and arteries. Where veins are closer to the skin, the skin will be tinged with blue. Where arteries are closer, the skin will be more flushed. On a face tip of the nose, chin, forehead, cheeks, and ears tend to have the most red.

My subject is ready for some details.

My subject is ready for some details.

Step 07: Details

Never finish a section of the painting, but work on the whole image. You should always be pushing and pulling the elements of your composition. If you want something to stand out—sharpen it, give it contrast, add more saturation. If you want something to be pushed back do the opposite.

However, once you have your forms and structure down, it is time to add details: irises, hair, eyebrows, etc.

In this image the pacifier is competing for attention with Uki's eye. Not good.

In this image the pacifier is competing for attention with Uki’s eye. Not good.

Step back.

There is something wrong with this image. I do not want the pacifier to compete with Uki’s eye, therefore I’ve dulled the vibrancy and contrast in that area.

The pacifier has been subdued.


There is also something seriously wrong with that baby’s body.

Step 08: Redrawing

Sometimes, when I’m painting, especially if I’m too close to the canvas, strange things happen. Shapes that were perfect are mysteriously changed. Looking at the above image, I realised that the chest was too narrow, and that the back was curving inappropriately. The right cheek was also protruding.

I grabbed my pencil crayon, and redrew the messed up bits of my artwork.

If you notice something wrong with your image, do not be afraid to redraw.

If you notice something wrong with your image, do not be afraid to redraw.

Step 09: Final Touches

The next day, with fresh eyes, I came back to the painting. I continued to push and pull. I added some red to the cheeks, nose, and ear. I dulled the highlight on the cheek—the baby is not made of metal. Make sure as you paint to not create too strong highlights or shadows that are too dark.

Eventually, there came a point when I realised I was done. I felt that continuing with the painting I would only make it worse. So, I stopped and stepped back.

After the painting dried, I took my pencil crayons and added a bit of a shadow to the eye, some red to the nose and ears, reshaped the nostril… Minor fixes.

"Wise Innocence" | © 2015 MILI FAY ART

“Wise Innocence” | © 2015 MILI FAY ART

Step 10: Fix It

This time I’m not referring to fixing a mistake, but adding fixative to protect the painting from dust and the pencil crayon bits from rubbing off. For this painting I used Krylon’s Crystal Clear fixative.

"Wise Innocence" | © 2015 MILI FAY ART | After applying fixative under lamplight.

“Wise Innocence” | © 2015 MILI FAY ART | After applying fixative under lamplight.


"Wise Innocence" acrylic paint. Missing from the image: Alizarin Crimson.

I’ve painted “Wise Innocence” using a limited palette of acrylic paints shown here. The following day, I added a touch of red to the nose, cheeks and ear with Alizarin Crimson .

This painting was painted with a limited palette of Prussian Blue, Unbleached Titanium White, and Burnt Sienna. In the light, the hair has some Cadmium Yellow, and there is a bit of Alizarin Crimson applied with dry brush on the nose, cheeks, and ear.

"Wise Innocence"--Mili Fay's Tools

I keep my collection of paint handy even when I paint with a limited palette.

I find that rough brushes are not as great when you need to apply a steady stroke of colour, but they are great for creating texture. I have painted most of the finished background with the soft chisel brush (brush with the blue handle) and the soft round and U-shaped flat short-handle brushes) were used for the details (brushes with brown handles).

I also cannot work without Matte Medium and a Paint Retarder. The Matte Medium keeps the pigments of the paint together and makes the application of paint that much smoother. Brilliant thin layers could not be possible without Matte Medium. I’ve mixed water and retarder in a spray bottle, and I spray my paints on the palette to keep them from drying too quickly.

"Wise Innocence"--Palette

I was painting from my iPad, for this reason the left side of the palette is clean. You can see the scrap paper I used to test my colours, as well as the trust paper towel for cleaning my brushes.

Matte Medium, Paint Retarder, and Fixative

I tend to use the paint retarder to keep the paint out of the tube from drying. I’ve mixed the retarder with water inside a small bottle with a spray pump. I spray a thin mist of the mixture over paint as needed. You can also mix the retarder with paint to slow down its drying time, but I like the acrylic because it dries quickly, so I have not done that to this date.



While you are using the brushes keep the ones you are not using soaking in water to prevent the acrylic from drying and destroying them. As you paint, you should always have two jars of water—you would clean the brush in one jar, wipe the brush on a clean cloth or paper towel, then once it’s almost clean, clean it with the clean water before choosing another colour. The moment you notice the clean water getting dirty, dump it and fill your jars with fresh water.

At the end of the painting day, wash your brushes with warm water and soap. You can buy special brush cleaning soap in an art store, but I also like using Dove.


Acrylic Dries Darker

Acrylic once it dries always dries darker. Depending on the colour the value can move one to two tones darker on the value scale.


You can get incredibly translucent paint by mixing the colour you want with the matte medium. The more matte medium you use, the thinner the paint. Using just water for glazing is not recommended, because the water will not bind the pigment and eventually it will fall off.

Fixing Mistakes

If the paint is still wet, dab with a clean paper towel.

Once the paint is dry, you can probably just paint over your mistake. However, keep in mind that acrylic is translucent. If you are trying to paint light over a dark background, use gesso first, let it dry, then paint with acrylic over your mistake. Gesso can be combined with acrylic paint if it needs to be a particular colour.

Soft Blending

Apply paint with whatever brush you are using, then use an old/destroyed brush and rub to blend the paint. You can also try just using a dry brush technique, but I find the first method works faster. If you do use dry brush technique make sure you are using an old brush, or be ready to destroy the new.

Slow Drying Paint

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, acrylic paint is very forgiving, it also dries really fast. You can just paint over your mistakes. However, if you want to slow down the drying time to achieve some oil-painting effects, use Paint Retarder.


If you feel your painting is too matte and you would like to give it an oil-painting shine, use the appropriate fixative once the painting is finished and has dried completely. You can talk to an art store CSR (customer service representative—any person working at the store) and they will be happy to recommend a type of fixative for your needs. Fixative is toxic. When applying try to do it outside or at least within a well-ventilated room. Shake the canister. Then about 12 inches away from the canvas spray quickly so the particles of the fixative fall like a gentle mist. If you are spraying too close to the canvas you may end up with a wet sticky shape.


There you have it: How to paint a portrait with acrylic paint?

If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment, or contact me.

If you would like my two cents on another topic, contact me and I may pick your question for a future article.

All the best!