How to Paint a Portrait: Skin & Face

Portrait image by Nenad Djedovic from

Things You'll Need

  • Small paintbrush (for mixing paints)
  • Flat brush
  • Round brush
  • Canvas
  • White paint
  • Black paint
  • Earth-tone paints
  • Mixing palette

Painting a portrait is an intricate task. In order for the portrait to look real or life-like, the skin characteristics and face features have to be painted accurately. Paintings involving things such as trees and mountains do not require prior sketch work, however, when painting faces, you will need to sketch out the portrait before painting. Painting an accurate portrait, with precise face and skin characteristics, will greatly increase the portrait's quality.

Use a pencil to sketch the portrait of a face on the canvas. Sketching the face prior to painting will yield a more accurate portrait. The sketch will also help you determine where certain colors and shades belong. Sketching will also help you decide which type of paint you want to use, such as oil colors or watercolor paint.

Paint the skin on the face using different colors. Select colors including earthy colors such as Indian red, burnt sienna, or burnt umber to paint the skin. These colors are close to flesh tone and will accurately represent the skin. Depending on the person whose portrait you are painting, you will also need a variety to colors to accurately represent the person’s hair. For instance, to paint a person with blonde hair, you will need yellow ochre and for dark hair color, use burnt umber.

Use a color palette to mix and display your colors. Make sure that you use different paint brushes to mix the colors and to paint the actual portrait. Begin mixing colors to paint flesh tones and to do shading. Place a medium amount of an earthly color on the mixing palette, in ten separate sections. Being mixing by adding black to five sections; increasing the amount of black color in each section and making each color darker. Then add white to the remaining five sections; increasing the amount of white color in each section and making each color lighter. By creating such a palette you will have a mixture of lightest colors to darkest in skin tone. For oil paint, add a drop of turpentine to each shade.

Utilize a round brush to paint facial details such as mouth and eyes and utilize a flat brush to paint broad facial areas such as cheeks and the background of the face. Use the least dark or least lightest shade of paint mixture (previously prepared) to paint over the face. Do not paint over white areas such as the inside of the eyes or teeth. Use three darkest shade mixtures to paint shadows on the face on areas such as the side of the nose, bottom of the hair, and under the eyes. Paint eyes using the lightest color for the iris and use the least dark shade mixture for dark eyes. Use the three lightest mixtures to add skin tones on areas such as the top of the nose, middle of the forehead, and sides of the cheeks.