Step-by-Step though a Quick Oil Portrait

Just wanted to share with you the steps I took to paint a quick self portrait.

All in all I was super-pleased by what happened when I let go and loosened up with oil.

1) My first recommendation is to mix a flesh palette with strong warm red and green undertones. I like playing with variations if this recipe from Terry Stricklan.

2) Your next step is to use a medium tone for the background of your canvas. Since this is more of a study/practice piece, I’m working on a sheet of canvas pad mounted on board. My background is a thin yellow ochre–smudged on with a rag with a good dose of turpentine.

3) Then, I used a thick bristle brush and raw umber mixed with a generous dose of turpentine to lay in an underpainting. This is big and general and because I’m using oil I can smudge it around in my next layers.

For this step, I’m just trying to identify the big shapes of the very darkest areas.Lay in

4) Next, I looked for shapes of color around my face. I painted in the lightest flesh tone with a naples yellow at the forehead. I saw a blueish highlight, just a tinge of coolness around the eyes, and painted it in knowing I can lighten it up later.

Shapes of color

It was at this point that my painting class saw the piece and got excited–this was so fresh and loose that my usual time-consuming meticulousness.

Once they said they liked it, I didn’t want to change it and mess it up! Still:

5) I knew I needed to have a full range of values, so I added the whites of the eyes and a hint of teeth. I blended the white, more naples yellow, and blended to make a more realistic flesh tone in the face and neck.


6) The final version blended the green and red undertones around eyes and mouth. A loose, suggestive white brushstroke, painted on thickly with just a touch of Liquin** medium for fluidity, helped better illustrate the double light source, coming in from behind and the right.

7) I also finally adjusted the nostrils into their proper places (was that bettering you too?), and brightened and simplified the teeth. The fewer lines you paint when you paint teeth, the better.

All in all the painting took 2 about  hours, with just a little less than an hour of prep: the palette, toning the background, and taking a reference photo to paint of myself. I took it using my laptop in the bright afternoon light on the patio.

Comment below if you’re curious about any of the steps I took painting this quick loose painting, or what your own method is for alla-prima portraiture.

**I am a Liquin junkie.

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