Introduction to acrylic portrait painting
Acrylic portrait painting is quite a bit different than painting in oils, pastels or watercolor. If you are trying to make it look like oils with buttery consistency and flawless blending, then you’ll need to use a few additives to the paint and keep the paints themselves wet on the palette, or use a multi-layer approach with greatly thinned down paint. This demonstration will be using thin layers to achieve a smooth finish in my acrylic portrait painting.
The Reference Photo
One of the biggest surprises that I learned from professional portrait artists is how vitally important lighting is if you are going to use a live model. Ya just gotta be able to see the differences in the value planes on the face and lighting is key.
If painting from photos is your first choice (and portrait artists may typically take 100 – 500 photos of their subject for home reference) then lighting is still of paramount importance. If the lighting is flat in the photo, then your finished portrait could look dull and uninspiring.
If you would like a great reference for painting people from photos, check out this site: www.thispersondoesnotexist.com
It is a unique computer-generated image site where a computer program slices features from a library of existing model faces and splices them into a new face. Say whaaat?? Yes, it uses GAN (generative adversarial network) programming. The finished photo is a picture of a human who actually DOES NOT EXIST!
It’s brilliant for artists and illustrators because if you are using a photo of someone you MUST get a model release form signed by that person for legal reasons. It is illegal to create a new piece of artwork from a photo someone else has taken unless you get permission, because that photo is an intellectual property belonging to that creator. Not to mention people have rights to their own image and you don’t want to be sued by someone if you create a great piece of artwork and it goes viral online.
The beauty of the site is that the person does not actually exist and you can safely create from that photo without infringing on anyone’s rights. BRILLIANT!
HINT: When surfing the program, each time you hit “ANOTHER” on the bottom information box, that image will be forever gone. Remember, this is a computer image generating program. So hit SAVE and file away the image even if you only sort of like it, because once it’s gone, it is vaporized digitally. Hitting your back button on your browser will have no effect, sadly.
So, I have a small library of faces that I have collected from this site for the purposes of teaching art and for portrait studies. Here is the image I saved that was generated from that site that I’ll use to create this demo:
How cool is this?? It has fairly good lighting where I can see value shifts fairly easily.
But in case I need assistance, I always print off the reference photo in black and white so that I can see the values without the distraction of color even better.
If you have a photo editing program, you can go even further and posterize the image to divide the areas into black and white groupings for you.
In a photo editing program, play with the intensity (the chroma) of the colors to pump up a few of the colors you would like to emphasize. Here I’ve increased the saturation of the reds and the yellows because that is what drew me to this reference photo to begin with. I can imagine having great fun with some vibrant golden tones in her hair, but I’ll have to be really choosey where I use it. Beginning painters often don’t know from experience where or when to amp things up. Either the portrait is dull or TOO amped up and becomes a bit garish. I will need to use color, but in this particular portrait, I will not emphasize much color, except in the hair.
Can you see how red the color is around her eyelids? I’ll want this to be much more subtle. And the lips look like she is wearing lipstick (which will age her a bit). So I must plan on not copying these colors literally.
I’ll save this on my device and look at it on my screen, because when we print an image the colors will dull ‘way down due to the inefficiencies of ink on paper. The only solution is to use photo paper in a really good printer. But I personally like the option to zoom in tight on a photo and keep seeing the great colors up close and vibrant.
Transferring The Photo To the Surface
One of the challenges in painting a portrait is getting it to look like the person! It’s a skill that takes years to develop. It’s NOT talent, believe me, it is literally just daily work. I don’t have the time to devote to my art on a daily basis, and I don’t paint portraits often, so I am going to rely on draftsman-like measuring and some pro hints below to get my likeness as close as possible.
I see beginners make this mistake often when painting a portrait. The first priority is to keep the main facial features parallel. Here is the reference photo with some crude lines I drew over it in a photo editing program to show how the features are parallel:
So why is there a funny pattern on the picture? Because I’m an impatient son-of-a-gun and I’m no photo editing expert! What you are seeing is the computer monitor pixel pattern as it is updated on the screen, captured by my phone camera. But, you get the idea, right?
Notice the distances between the lines on her face. These distances will vary from human to human (or non-human in this case). Get these distances wrong on your portrait and there will be problems with the likeness. You could even take it a step further and draw the parallel lines vertically from feature to feature (see my article about step by step drawing a dinosaur) (see my article about step by step drawing a dinosaur) (see my article about step by step drawing a dinosaur) (see my article about step by step drawing a dinosaur). As I’m not the best in photo manipulation, I’ll manually draw them on one of the reference photos. These will be placement guidelines for mapping out her features.
But, let’s take it a step further! Remember faces are orbs, not flat planes. If I really want her to look real, I must place things using contour lines like this:
Here is a simple grid if you are going to hand sketch the reference photo onto the canvas or surface of your painting.
I will use a more complex grid on my reference photo using a ruler and a thin black marker. I like working hands-on instead of in photoshop, (which drives me crazy at times).
Checking the likeness with tools:
Here’s another mapping diagram where I connected the center of eyes to the base of the nose to the width of the mouth. The connected lines create triangles that you can replicate on your canvas to check for accuracy.
Transfer drawing to the surface:
The kind of grid you decide to use is really up to you. I like the simplicity of boxes, like the photograph I showed earlier. This time, I’ll use a simple cross from corner to corner of a square.
There is no problem using tracing paper and transfer it directly from the photo either. Honestly, a professional artist will free hand draw it because they draw all day, every day and their observations and drafting skills are daily used. Even those artists will use tracing paper or project the image right on the canvas (or create it digitally and just import it directly into Photoshop or Illustrator) to save time.
Paint lay ins
Making a color plan before you start painting always is a good idea. You can use paints, markers or colored pencils and create a color plan. Here I already know that my two dominant colors will be ivory flesh tone with pinks and golden hair. I plan to make those colors pop by using the opposite on the color wheel of those adjacent colors, which is a blue-green. That will be my background color and I’ll bring some of it into the hair and skin for unity.
Here’s my palette of colors: White, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Phtalo Green Blue Shade, Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, Phtalo Blue Green Shade, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Rose, Sap Green, Naples Yellow and Cadmium-Free Red Light.
To begin a color lay in, I’ll limit myself to White, Naples Yellow, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Black and Cadmium-Free Red Light.
My basic palette of colors
1. Sketch solidification
After I draw in the face and placement of features, I paint over the lines with a wash of Raw Umber and wash in some shadow areas. Now is the time to measure and correct any locations of the main features that don’t bear a likeness to the model. Since this is quick-drying acrylics, I can lay a tissue paper over the dry paint and plot my measuring lines to see if they align with the above measuring sketches (the triangle method, the vertical and horizontal measuring lines).
I create a mix of Sap Green, Phtalo Green Blue Shade, Ultramarine Blue, Phtalo Blue Green Shade and a thinned wash layer over the entire background. When I’m satisfied, I paint it in with thicker paint.
Add a wash of hair color using Burnt Sienna in the shadows and Raw Sienna in the high lights.
3. Skin tones
I create flesh tones out of Permanent Rose, Naples Yellow, Burnt Sienna and White. Keeping the skin warmer and yellow on the right side, and rosier and darker on the left, I wash them in with thinned paint.
I’ve widened her cheeks and jaw because while I placed the main features correctly, I had her face too thin. Younger teens and children have rounder faces, and she was looking too old.
With this method of acrylic painting, I continue to build up layers of thinned paint for the flesh and the hair. For all you makeup artists out there, it’s very similar to creating a super nice finished glam look with foundation, contouring, setting powder, high lights, etc. The beauty of acrylics is that you really can’t go wrong. If you don’t like what you’ve done, just create another layer on top of the old one, after it is dry (it takes just a few minutes with acrylics, which is one of the main benefits of acrylic).
It’s going to look really bad at this point. Ya gotta learn to just work through the ugly stages. It happens to ALL artists. Pros learn to “trust the process,” meaning that they know by their own experience that they can probably fix things if they go wrong later, and it’s important to not give up at this ugly stage. I’ve learned to not throw in the towel. Sometimes things don’t look like you imagine them to be until the very last few strokes of highlights.
Fill in the irises with a mix of Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, White and Raw Umber. Paint in the white of the eyeballs with a mix of Ultramarine Blue, Rose, White and Raw umber. The whites of the eyes are really quite blue.
This is golden: turn your work upside down! Yes, it will turn your chatterbox critical brain off! You can get more accuracy because your brain is just identifying nonsense shapes, not features.
Resketch in the eyes following the photo for accuracy as much as possible using flesh color.
Notice the bottle of Retarder in the upper right. I never used it. I squeeze out such small amounts of paint that I never worry about them drying out, I just use a clean piece of palette paper and squeeze out a bit more paint as I need it. That way my palette stays cleaner, and I personally enjoy a less cluttered palette for acrylics.
With oil painting, the paints stay wet for the whole painting session, and you can redip your brush into mixes all day long. With acrylics, they dry within minutes, so keeping a palette with mixed paint on it becomes cluttered and useless.
Once you are satisfied with the shape of the eyelids, start shaping the orbs of the lids and the eyeballs themselves by shading the sides of the orbs with a lavender mix.
Darken the iris outer areas with a darker mix of Sap Green, Ultramarine Blue, and Black.
Irises are rarely fully round. Quite often the upper lids and the lower lids overlap into the iris areas cutting off the round shape above and below. Leaving the iris as a perfectly round circle will result in the eyes looking popped.
Paint in the pupils with black, making sure you have placed them in the exact same location on both irises. I had them wrong, and after turning the portrait upside down, I clearly saw my mistake and repainted them!
One of the secrets of painting eyes is to create a cast shadow of the upper eyelids as they drape over the eyeballs.
Using a number six flat brush, create a brownish bluish shadow color and corner load the flat brush by dipping in one corner into the mix, leaving the opposite side empty of paint.
Dip the brush into clean water a tad and stroke the brush onto the palette so that the colored end is inky in consistency. Stroke this directly under the eyelid, creating the cast shadow.
Reinforce the dark over the iris if needed so that it shows up as well.
Place the sparks of highlights in exactly the same spot on each iris. It helps to think of the iris as a clock face and place them at the same ‘hour of day’. Don’t use pure white – it looks more realistic to tint the white with yellow or orange just a tad.
I want the light areas of the lips to blend into the skin area as a lost edge, so I will paint a wash of pale flesh tone over the lips to knock the color value back to near skin tone. She’s a young model, so I don’t want to have her wearing lipstick.
Block in the color shapes of the lips by mentally clumping similar colors and values into similar masses. The upper lips are actually a slanted curved plane tilting back into the teeth area, so this will be cooler and darker in color- but not TOO dark!
The center of the lips will blend into the skin slightly as well, so I leave this alone until a final wash will be applied at the end.
The right side will be warmer, as it is closer to the light source.
The lower lip is a tube shape wrapped around the teeth area. I’ll leave the right side with a lost edge into the skin area and add a little bit of Cadmium-Free Red Light into the mix on the left side.
Add a little bit darker line in the very center opening of the lips…but watch out! A heavy drawn dark line will look cartoonish. Break the line up a bit and make it darker on the left side.
5. Skin Tones Refining
To help you see the shapes of the shadow areas and the shapes of the light areas, consider changing the contrast in a photo editing software. It will help you see the shapes of shadows. If your placement of the facial features was mapped correctly, it all comes down to tiny details and color shifts to get a good likeness. It helps to blur your eyes and look from the photo to your canvas back and forth to see if you have nailed the correct shadow shapes.
Seeing all these color planes and values exaggerated is helpful, but I still have to remember my original plan which was to have an ivory skinned subject with blonde and golden hair. So, while the darks are attractive in this photo, I’m not going to emphasize them in this portrait. But, I’ll for sure keep them in mind as I pick my color values. The right side of the face has to still be lighter than the left. The overall skin tone has to be ivory consistent with gentle lighting.
I wanted to show my mixed palette of colors because painting skin tones is a fiddly part of portrait painting in this style of application. Some portraits, especially in oil, use a more visible stroke application that is luscious and beautiful. Here, I’ve decided to go for a blended finish look, so I’ll have to create multiple layers, letting them dry in between each layer for a few minutes. I want the right side of her face (which is the warm light source side) to be yellow tone flesh and the left side to be the rosey slightly shadowed side. My shadows will range from a cool blue grey-brown to a warmer lavender.
Each layer adds refinement and smooths out the clumps and lines. I could go on and on here and get super refined, but honestly, I’m starting to lose interest at this point. I’m not after a hyper-realistic finish anyway, so I’ll stop now and move on to the hair. Knowing when to stop is a real issue with artists. Most artists are not really satisfied with their finished work, but they know it’s better to stop rather than over work it. When is it overworked?? Well, that’s a matter left to personal opinion. I know many artists who would consider this here to be terribly over-worked and many artists who would say I didn’t take it far enough. Me? I’m calling it.
The trick to hair is to not paint very many (if at all) individual hairs. Unless, of course, that was your intention and inspiration from the get-go. Painting individual hairs would drive me bonkers, so it’s a good thing I’m not going after that hyper-realism here.
So, I will block in color and value masses, just like I did with the skin tones. Warmer on the right side, greener and cooler browns on the left side. I DO intend to paint a few strands that sparkle in the sunlight though and to show those off, I need a darker base than you might think under it.
Now I can place a few intended strands as they catch the sunlight, keeping the roots of the strands darker in color than the portions in sunlight.
I’ll darken the sweater, just to make the hair colors pop a bit more and call this demo done.
Of course, it looks really huge here because I’ve zoomed in quite close, but in reality, the artwork is 8 inches by 10 inches. Once I varnish it, the colors will really pop, but unfortunately, that will make it super difficult to photograph because of the mirror-like glare on the surface, so for our purposes here, it is done.
There you have it, just one method of acrylic portrait painting. I hope you were able to pick up some useful tips and pointers and feel inspired to go give it a try!