How to Make Acrylic Portraits Look Real

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Acrylic is a versatile, water-soluble paint that layers quickly and opaquely. A skilful artist can use acrylics to paint precise, photo-realistic images, including portraits. Because acrylics are often used to layer paints instead of blend them, you have to rely more on precise use of color and shading to make your images look realistic. Using a grid and carefully stenciling your image before painting will also greatly enhance the realism in your painting.

Things You'll Need

  • Ruler
  • Pencil

Keep your model photo nearby. Cut the photo so its size is proportionate to your canvas. Trace an even grid across the source photo. Draw a resized version of the grid on your canvas with a pencil and a ruler. You should now have the same grid on the model photo as the canvas. For example, if you have a 10 by five grid on the photo, a 10 by five grid should be on the canvas.

Create a pencil sketch of your painting on the canvas. This allows you to create an outline you can easily adjust before committing paint to the portrait. Work from box to box, copying the lines in the boxes on the source photo into the corresponding boxes on the canvas. Adjust your sketch as needed. Add light shading to your sketch as a guide if you like.

Paint the same way you created the sketch. Be sure to paint over the gridlines as you go. This will enable you to work on each box as a mini-painting instead of trying to make one big painting. The grid will also keep the proportions in your painting realistic to the source photo.

Paint with a base color first, then layer on light and shadow colors once the base has dried. Because acrylics are opaque, a new layer will replace the layer beneath, not blend with it, so you have to mix exact colors first and add shading like you would add any other color.


  • If you make a mistake, wait for the acrylic to dry and paint over it. Acrylics are excellent for fixing mistakes, as the colors won’t blend to enhance the error.


  • Acrylics dry very quickly compared to oils and water colors. Don’t put more paint on your pallet than you can use quickly. Keep a bottle of water nearby so you can mist the paints if they start to dry.