How to Paint a Portrait – step by step

I thought I’d share some process shots from a portrait I painted recently, and describe my painting process.

You can see a video transition of these steps on my Instagram.

This portrait was painted on a 9×12″ Ampersand artist’s panel.

I started by slapping on a bit of basic flesh tone, just to ‘kill the white’, then I got started on my sketch.


The sketch was done entirely with Rembrandt Transparent Oxide Red, straight from the tube, no medium added.

I used a small (no. 2) long flat ‘Master’s Choice’ brush from Rosemary & Co. I love the feel of these brushes. They are the perfect balance of firm and flexible for me, and I love the appearance of the brushstrokes I can get with them.

Once I had sketched in all the major shapes, and was happy with their placement, I moved on to blocking in the darks.


This dark colour is mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Oxide Red, plus a touch of Alizarin Crimson.

The darkest darks were in the eyes, the shadow side of the hat, and around the shirt collar.

Blocking in those darks already gives the painting some depth, contrasted with the middle values of the sketch and the light of the unpainted areas.

I always try to ‘overpaint’ when blocking in – painting over the lines of the sketch, so I can paint back into those edges later. If you paint up to the lines and no further, it can be hard to achieve convincing edges in your painting.


Next I started blocking in the skin tones on the shadow side of the face.

It’s surprising how much grey there is in a face when you really analyse the colours. It can look wrong at first, but it’s only because the rest of the colour hasn’t been put in yet to balance it out.

The skin tones in the shadow are again a mixture of Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Oxide Red, plus Titanium White, which gives a fairly neutral grey. You can then add more of the Red or more of the blue to make it warmer or cooler.


Here I’m adding more shadow values, as well as blocking in the colour of the cardigan and a bit of the shirt collar.

I’ve also added some reflected light on the right side of the face. It’s easy to make the reflected light lighter in value than it should be, so pay close attention to that. Squint at the subject and compare the value of the reflected light to the value of the surrounding areas.


Next I blocked in the background, which I mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Titanium White, with a touch of Transparent Oxide red and a little rectified turpentine to keep it thin. I also wiped it loosely with a paper towel afterwards to give it some interesting texture.


Here I’ve started to refine the shapes around the eyes, continuing to adjust values and trying to define the various planes of the face. The shadow side of the face is pretty much blocked in at this stage.


Next I started to block in the lights. It’s important not to go too light here or it doesn’t look convincing.

Again, squint at the subject and compare the values, then try to match the relationship of those values in your painting.


Here I decided that the body was looking messy, and since it isn’t the focus of the painting, I decided to erase some of it (using a paper towel with some turpentine) and just leave a suggestion of the shoulders and chest.

I also added some darker accents in the nose and under the right eye, as that side of the face didn’t have enough contrast with the lighter side.


At this stage I’m basically refining values and making sure all the shapes read well.

I picked out the lines in the shadow side cheek, being careful not to make them to dark, and the edges too sharp.

I started to refine some of the transitions between the darks and lights, making sure the edges are harder or softer, as appropriate.


Here I start to add some final details, like the wrinkles in the brow, and around the eyes. It’s important to keep these subtle, so they really look like skin folds, rather than drawn lines.


Finally I added some finishing touches, such as the highlights around the brow and nose, and I added some final detail to the eyes by placing in the whites.

It’s really important to never use pure white for the whites of the eyes, in fact they are usually around the same value as the surrounding flesh tone.

That’s all folks

There you have it, that’s all there is to painting a portrait!

I’d love to know if you have any questions about the process, just leave a comment below.

Oh, and if you like this painting, it’s still available for sale here.







  1. Barbara O'Toole Avatar
    Barbara O’Toole

    I saw your post of this wonderful painting on PMP Dan and wanted to again tell you how terrific I think your painting is. Thank you for sharing your technique with us!

    1. Dan Johnson Avatar

      Thank you, Barbara! 🙂

  2. Rhonda Whittington Avatar
    Rhonda Whittington

    Wow! Thank you Dan. Do you ever use soft pastels? I’d love to see how you would mix your colours with pastels

    1. Dan Johnson Avatar

      I haven’t used pastels since high school, just oil paints these days. Maybe I’ll try them again one day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *