How to Paint People With Acrylic

red acrylic image by Andrew Brown from

Since their introduction in the mid-1950s, acrylic paints rapidly became a widely used medium for figure, portrait, still-life and landscape painting. A chief advantage to painting with acrylics is their quick drying time. A figurative acrylic painting is completed in a day, even when working with thick impasto brush strokes loaded with color. The versatile medium can be used opaquely, like oil paint, or it can be thinned out and applied in washes like traditional watercolor.

Acrylic paints are used to paint pictures of the human figure.
red acrylic image by Andrew Brown from

Things You'll Need

  • Painting Medium
  • Model
  • Acrylic Paints
  • Paint Brushes
  • Sandpaper
  • Gesso
  • Paper
  • Canvas
  • Drawing Materials

Make preparatory sketches and studies of your subject. Capture a likeness in drawing before attempting to paint a portrait. Practice drawing full length people to get the proportions right. Work out the problems of verisimilitude and correct anatomy with pencil on paper. Set up the overall design of your picture with thumbnail sketches. Draw your final composition on the same scale as your painting, so you can trace it or transfer it by grid onto the painting surface.

Prepare the surface of your canvas to prime it for painting. Coat it with multiple layers of gesso, thinning each successive coat by adding water. Sand the canvas smooth between coats. Finish up the details of your compositional drawing on the canvas. Lay in the initial imprimatura layer, toning the entire canvas in a unified tint. Use thinned out orange for your landscape or interior background in your figure painting.

Block in the light and dark areas of your picture with thin coats of paint. Establish your value structure using muted earth colors or grays and blues. Do a grisaille type underpainting of your people to define the light and shadow relationships. Use a green-gray color as a foundation under your drawn figures. Glaze washes of semi-transparent reds, yellows and oranges over the green underpainted colors until you arrive at a convincing skin tone.

Set up your light source and keep it consistent throughout the picture. Place all your shadows according to the light's direction. Use warm skin tone colors contrasted with cooler blues and greens in the negative space surrounding your figures. Keep in mind the relationships between all the colors you paint onto the canvas and how they contribute to an overall harmony.

Define the contours of the figures and faces in your picture with the edge of the brush. Make the strokes conform to the shape of the arm, leg or face you're painting. Use your brush to draw with the paint. Push the paint around the canvas to model the tones and color of your forms. Paint in the final details with your smallest brushes. Add the accented details such as sparkles in the eyes and highlights in your model's hair.


  • Wash your brushes out frequently to avoid muddy colors.


  • Never let acrylic paint dry in your brushes, as it won't wash out. Don't use flesh tone paint straight out of the tube; it never looks right.