How to Paint Better Portraits: 3 Quick Tips

Young woman oil wash drawing painted in an impressionist style

Truth be told, there's no more challenging subject to paint than the human head. If you're wanting to try painting a portrait for the first time or advance your skills to the next level, these quick 3 tips will help you get there.

1. Study the Structure

Using tools like a skull model or a planes of the head model will help you get a better grasp on how the structure underneath the skin informs the top layers. Think of the top layers (muscle and skin) as fabric stretched over the underlying form. There will be areas of more “cushion” (like in the cheeks), but the more structure you can convey the stronger and more solid your portrait will feel. Here's a pic of the skull model I use in my studio:

Skull model for artistic anatomy

2. Develop your Drawing Skill

Drawing well is all about shapes—how big those shapes are, what outline they have, and how those shapes relate to the other shapes around them. For painters, we’re trying to interpret a 3D subject onto a 2D canvas. Being able to see shapes and put them in the correct spot, make them the right size, etc will have a WAY bigger impact on your portraits than choosing the perfect color or using fancy brushwork. (Though I love color and brushwork as much as anyone!) A poorly drawn portrait with awesome color and brushwork is still a tragedy. A well-drawn portrait with lackluster color or brushwork is still a pretty good painting.

Young girl with pink winter hat in tree, tree climbing

3. Learn, then PRACTICE

Learn a new concept, like the theory of correct proportions, or how to mix flesh tones, or whatever topic you’re learning, then go practice the thing you’ve just learned. All the theory in the world won’t help you if you don’t apply it in real life at your easel. Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes progress. Celebrate your progress along the way, and watch your portraits grow in beauty, solidity, and creativity.

Young woman African American portrait using an oil wash technique

Knowledge + Application = REAL PROGRESS in Your Paintings

I’m going to be teaching these principles and many others that will take your portraits to the next level in a new online course on portraits—and that course is coming soon! Whether you’ve never tried a portrait or you’re already an experienced portrait artist, there’ll be something for all levels to increase your confidence with drawing and painting people. Make sure you're signed up for my email list, so you can stay up to date with all new educational offerings from the studio. Here's the link for the email list!

Thanks and happy painting,


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