A Beginner’s Guide to Oil Paint Portraits: 8 Essential Tips

The mere act of creating an artwork takes a lot of commitment and perseverance. This is perhaps why most people are intimidated by producing works of art, especially when beginning with a rather formidable form of material and technique—oil painting. However, with the right help and tools, it shouldn’t have to be all that complicated to take on. 

Sometimes, oil painting for beginners can be simplified with a few tips and tricks.  To begin, choose a subject, pick up a paintbrush, set up the rest of your tools, and enjoy the process through and through. Here are a beginner’s essential tips to oil painting portraits:

Tip #1: Focus on Your Subject

As you begin, it’s essential to glance back at your subject frequently. Study your subject and focus on them without rushing into anything. Be generous with time and concentration, as all the best things follow slow and steady progress.

Tip #2: Use a Quality Photograph for Reference

A quality photograph provides an excellent reference and the levels of contrast you need for the painting process. Start with the eyes as a center point. Your subject’s nose, lips, or hair, can be easily located around it.

Tip #3: Blend Well with Oil Paint

Oil paint is an excellent choice for portraits because they blend seamlessly, unlike acrylic paint, which takes longer to dry. With oil paint, you will have more time to experiment and fine-tune your color transitions.

Tip #4: Choose Your Hues Carefully

As recommended by experts, using the primary colors is a fantastic place to start when you're working on your first few artworks. The most popular skin tones are frequently created using a mix of Ultramarine, Titanium White, Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber.

Tip #5: Begin with a Sketch or a Drawing

Before painting, lightly sketch your subject onto your canvas or use a projector to trace the picture. It’s also essential to seal your drawing with a transparent coat of acrylic paint mixed with a clear coat and let it dry before painting.

Tip #6: Go from Dark to Light

When you're using oil paints, move up from lighter shades to more nuanced ones. Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Titanium White, and a dab of Ultramarine provide darker skin tones when coloring the shadow areas of the face. 

After, mid-tone colors can be used to capture the light that comes from one side of your subject. You'll use only Ultramarine and minor splashes of Titanium White for mid-tones.

Highlighting will accentuate the facial features. You can do this by adding tiny quantities of light peach color to the areas that “hit the light,” such as the nose or parts of the forehead.

Tip #7: Pay Attention to Details

Once you have completed your foundation layers, begin adding details. Scrutinize your subject to determine what elements you'll be concerned with, such as the facial features surrounding the eyes and around the lips, as well as the cheekbones and the chin.

Tip #8: Liven up the Hair

Begin with darker hues to shape the hair, and then gradually build to lighter ones. For a more natural look, go for flowy strokes by using a flat brush pressed lightly on its side. When you've done your part in laying the groundwork, use a more delicate brush to bring everything together.


As cliche as it sounds, we agree that practice makes perfect, and as you gain more experience in oil painting for portraits, you will become better. With these oil painting tips, allow yourself to explore, sharpen your skills, and expand your creativity. At your own pace, you will add more intricate styles when it comes to your artworks.

Do you want to sign up for online oil painting classes? The late Master of Oil Painting, E. John Robinson has oil painting teaching courses that might just be perfect for you. We offer his instructional courses worldwide and are available whenever you need them from books, digital downloads, e-books, DVDs, and compact discs! Shop now and become a true artist today.

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