Portrait Painting Techniques – Painting Portraits From Photos


Learning portrait painting techniques and how to paint portraits from photos is as easy as 1, 2, 3. I know this sounds cliche, but if you think of the progress of the painting as steps and build upon each step, it really is easy to paint portraits from photos. Use these steps, techniques, and tools with any painting medium whether it be oil, acrylic or watercolor paint.

Step One

Step one of the is very important! Choose the subject that you want to paint and get a good sketch on the canvas or paper. The photo that you choose absolutely needs to be clear and easy to make out all the details necessary for the painting. There are several ways to get a good sketch on the canvas even if you have never drew or painted before.

A few methods that artists use are the grid method where a grid of equal squares is placed over the reference photo and another grid of equal squares is lightly drawn on the canvas. You then replicate each square individually with pencil lines. If you want the painting to be larger than the photo, you simply use larger squares.

An easier method of getting an accurate sketch is to use a large photo copy print of the photo. The copy should be at least an 8×10, if not larger. Place this print on a window. On the back or “wrong” side of the copy trace all the lines of the facial features, hair, clothes, etc. Now place the paper traced side down on the canvas and repeat the process on the “right” side of the photo. You should be able to replicate the exact likeness of the photo! There are of course other methods, but these are the most common.

Step Two

The next portrait painting from photo technique for the acrylic or watercolor portrait is to begin adding color to the canvas. Use a watery wash or thinned down version of the skin color and block in the entire skin area including the entire head where the hair will be. Step two in the process will take several layers of color to achieve realistic results.

As you work, be careful not to cover up your sketch lines until you are sure that you don’t need them anymore. Continue to mimic the photo, adding darker pigment where the shadows are, and lighter colors where highlights are. Remember in watercolors, it is very hard, if not impossible to lighten areas that are too dark, so be careful not to darken the areas that you want kept highlighted.

Here is another trick that I use to know exactly where to apply various shades of color. I look at yet another photo in which I have manipulated the colors on the computer. I enhance the colors so that they are exaggerated. This way there is no guess as to where the shades change in the portrait.

If you are using oil paint, you will pre-mix the skin tone colors. Find three main colors of the skin. An average color, highlight and shadow colors. You can enlarge sections of a digital photo on the computer, so that you can clearly see the colors. If you want to, you can even mix colors that are in between these three main colors.


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