Black And White Portrait Painting Tutorial

September 14, 2018 4:06 am by columnblogger
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Black And White Portrait Painting Tutorial

Working between a number 2 and number 4 (Filbert Ivory brush) I begin to block in the background. The paint mixture is thin, yet opaque. I dip my brush into the OMS, when I say dip, I mean 2 mm. Just a really tiny amount. I then squeeze the brush tip in some kitchen roll so the brush is damp but not wet.

To learn more about brushes see a quick way to understand brushes

Pro tip: Make sure to give all sides of the MDF board a coat of size, especially the edges which can be very absorbent to moisture.

I’m using Artist quality paints which have a higher pigment quality than student grade paints, you can read about the differences (see the 8 key differences between artist & student grade paint)

Mix some pure white paint with only a small touch of gray. The resulting mixed color should be close to pure white. Observe your photo, and identify the bright highlights. Paint these onto the canvas sparingly, as it is easy to overdo this bright white color, which could wash out the tonal variations of the painting. The brightest highlights of the face usually include the teeth, the reflections in the eyes and any reflections that may be seen in the hair.

Look at your photo carefully. Try to identify the darkest and lightest parts of the photos and then look for the tones in between.

Mix a slightly lighter shade of gray. Look for the medium-toned areas of the photo and paint these onto your canvas. The medium-toned areas usually include the hair, the shadows created by the bridge of the nose, the lips and the shadows created by the cheekbones.

For this first ‘blocking in’ of the painting, we will be painting with raw umber only.

Charcoal stick Small paintbrushs Glass of water Paper towel Canvas Tube of black paint Tube of white paint Black and white photo for reference

The shadow line is where no direct light hits the subject, so the darkest darks. It should be a simple line drawing.

Acrylic or oil for the ground? I have used acrylics in this example. It is a mixture of raw umber and titanium white, notice how it has been applied quite thinly, with some of the white gesso showing through. This is for 2 reasons:

Portraits can seem like the toughest subject to crack and you can easily be disheartened by your efforts. One wrong brushstroke can cause a subject to suddenly look ‘wrong’, panic sets in – your pencils get sharpened, charcoal out and you don’t come back to painting for a while.

Have you been practising your portrait drawing for years yet making the jump to oil portrait painting always seems to end in an underwhelming finish?

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It is important to identify what falls into dark shadows and mid tones and it is not as easy as it sounds. Really study your reference image and say to yourself:

No, fat over lean is the expression painters use to make sure you prevent your oil painting from cracking.

Mix a light shade of gray. It should be darker than pure white, but lighter than the medium-tone gray you had been using. Identify the lightest areas of the photo, and paint them onto your canvas with your light gray paint. These lightest areas usually include the whites of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the cheekbones and the chin. You may want to paint your background this shade as well.

Accurately representing the human face has been an obsession with artists for years and there is still something amazingly compelling about portraiture.

Or do you walk around portrait galleries in awe with the question, ‘How do they do that?’

You might also like: 1. How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 2

I now step back from the painting and squint my eyes, I flick my eyes between the reference photo and the painting and adjust any hard edges and drawing.

‘If I could only paint in pure black and pure white, what would I choose ?’

For this first stage, we will be using OMS or Turpentine mixed with the oil paint so it has a ‘lean’ underpainting which will dry quickly.

Portrait painting presents many challenges for an artist. Some artists even consider the human form to be one of the most difficult subjects to tackle. Although it can be challenging, the practice of portrait painting can help you grow as an artist. To start out with, try painting in black and white tones. Black and white portraits are sometimes considered ideal for a beginning portrait painter, as shadows and highlights can be better identified and represented through this neutral color palette.

The image below shows the different optical effects that happen to the colours depending on the colour or tone of the palette they are placed on. If you were working on a very dark painting – a black palette would be very useful as beginners have the tendency to never go dark enough when they first start painting.

Oil paints increase in transparency with age, even thick opaque colours. To test for yourself, make a few pencil or pen marks on a piece of scrap canvas or board, paint over them opaquely and then take a photograph to see the coverage, check back the next day and then the next week to see if the opacity has changed.

For further paintings and for a darker finish, a mix between raw umber and ivory black will be used, however, a great deal can be learned by just using raw umber and white.

Portrait painting can be challenging for many artists. (Image: Portrait image by Nenad Djedovic from

I’ve drawn out the basics of the portrait painting onto the canvas with a 2B pencil and notice how I also draw in the shadow line.

A high contrast black and white photo can help you better identify highlights and shadows. (Image: portrait of a woman. b&w portrait image by Elena Platonova from

I sometimes also use a piece of kitchen roll (ideally lint free) or a cotton rag to take the edge off. And sometimes only a finger will do just to get that subtle blend (If you like the effect of using your finger for blending then make sure you apply barrier cream before you start your painting session. Be aware to wash your hands. I know I sound like your mum, but the lead used in some of the paints can be dangerous if persistently having skin contact.

For this painting tutorial, I will be using the mid tone option. A sheet of perspex (3mm thick) that I have just laid on-top of the coloured ground canvas (raw umber & white).

Draw a rough sketch of the portrait you are painting onto your canvas, using your charcoal. It is not necessary to include details in this rough sketch. Simple outlines and shapes are fine.

Oil paint – for this series of demonstrations I will be using Artist quality oil paints.

For this series, I will be concentrating more on the technical approach using Classical Painting techniques rather than using this as a series on a Portrait Drawing course.

A  5 or 6mm thick piece of MDF can be a great starting point. Prepare the surface with an acrylic gesso, sanding in-between coats, see here how to apply gesso.

And when you see the raw umber on the white palette you can soon see why, the raw umber looks black.

Now have a look at the edges between the background and the edge of the head, notice how the hair and the ear are blurred. The photograph as been taken to mimic how the human eye sees, so soften the edges.

Check the drawing on your painting and check your tones are going along the right lines. You can squint your eyes at the subject which is a very effective method of simplifying tonal values.

It is really important when painting oil portraits to give your eyes a break, go and have a cup of tea, come back and make your final tweaks and leave this stage to dry overnight.

Or establish a tone just with raw umber and turpentine (or odourless mineral spirits) or standard raw umber and quick drying white.

For oil painting, you need to use a support or surface that has been correctly sized or primed. If you are using raw canvas you will need to apply a coat of size. (this protects the canvas fibres from the corrosive nature of the oil) you can also work on board.

The first mix is raw umber diluted with the odourless mineral spirits – OMS. Pure gum turpentine is traditionally used and ‘cuts’ through the oil easier, but if you are working in a confined space with poor ventilation then odourless mineral spirits are a great option. ‘Zest it’ is also nice to use and has a citrus scent.

To blend an edge take a dry brush (or a brush with a very little OMS if the paint is beginning to dry and you still need to blend it) and gently brush over the line. I often use sables for this, as the softer hairs enable a smoother blend. The Ivory filberts are slightly softer than a pure hog brush so are still very useful when blending, you just need to use a lighter touch.

I now establish the darkest area in the painting, still just using the raw umber. As I know some of these areas are even darker than the raw umber I can feel the confidence to work with slightly thick paint. Again, not using too much of the OMS, it should feel like a dry brush effect and the more you ‘scrub’ the further the paint will go.

I gently rubbed over the initial pencil marks with a putty eraser just to leave the faintest of lines. The less graphite you have to mix into the paint the better. Some artists prefer to draw in charcoal, or if you are working on a very photorealist finish a permanent marker with a fine tip can be used. Try to find a brown pen rather than black, as it is more forgiving.

I have chosen a self-portrait, as when you’re first starting you’re more forgiving of any mistakes on yourself.

Maybe you’re frustrated by your process and don’t know how to change it.

Pro tip: When painting in the studio I have a larger sheet of glass that I can adjust the tones underneath depending in the subject matter. The tones could be a sheet of grey paper, a piece of black card or a section of canvas painted to a mid tone.

When we get the next stages of the portrait painting we will be mixing linseed oil with our oil paint and these layers will be more oil-rich, hence ‘fatter’ and will take longer to dry.

Usually, the initial issues stem from a lack of knowledge of drawing.

I apply the paint with a scrubbing motion, working between the smaller brush for the details, then swapping to the larger brush for the larger areas.

It basically means that each succeeding layer of paint should have more ‘fat – oil’ than the preceding layer.

For this example, the reference photo is the same size at the painted image.

a wide tonal range from the bright white of the t-shirt to the dark black of the hair. a single light source so you get a strong cast shadow this can help to create the illusion of depth and interest in your painting.

a dark background so the lights on the face will stand out Drawing out portraits

I am using a mixture of brands including Michael Harding, Old Holland & Winsor and Newton.

I don’t want to loose the ‘tooth’ of the canvas. The tooth is the grain, and texture of the canvas and helps to pull the paint off the brush. If you paint on a smooth prepared board you will notice the difference with the paint feeling like it is ‘sitting on top’ on the surface.

You don’t want to create a seal with thick acrylic, you still need the oil to be able to adhere to the surface underneath, so always add water to your acrylic mixture.

White pigments dry more slowly than the raw umber which is an earth colour and dries fairly quickly (which is why I recommend a quick drying white above).

Rosemary & co Ivory Filbert  – size 4, 2 & 10 (size 6 & 8 are also very handy to have) Rosemary & co Kolinsky Sable series 33 Round  – size 3 Rosemary & co Kolinsky Sable series 66 Filbert  – size 8

This approach and technique is associated with the sight-size method and can be very effective when you are first starting portraiture.

Select a black and white photo of the person whose portrait you wish to paint. It helps if the photo is as large as possible, as this will make it easier to better identify the highlights and shadows.

More detail, checking the drawing and adding dark to the eyes, lips and collar bone.

Turpentine or odourless mineral spirit (OMS) dries by evaporation. Oil dries by oxidation – it absorbs oxygen

Everything that falls into the black category is what we are concerned with at this stage.

Many portrait artists prefer to work on linen rather than cotton as you can get a finer weave but for this demonstration, I am using a pre-primed canvas. The actual canvas is a Belle Arti Cotton Canvas.

If you have an underpainting that has too much oil in it, you will be breaking the number 1 rule of oil painting – fat over lean

Mix your black and white paint together, until you are left with a medium-tone gray. Using your photo for reference, paint the darkest shadows you can see in the photo onto your canvas. The darkest areas usually include the neckline, the hairline, under the nose and under the eyes.

Oil paints are made by mixing ground pigment (the colour) with a drying oil. Most artist quality paints are mixed with cold pressed linseed oil. Whites often are mixed with a different oil, walnut or poppy oil, as they are less yellowing than the linseed oil.

Please note: Even though there is white on my palette this is just to illustrate the differences in using a tonal palette. I don’t use white at all in the first section of the painting.

I’m still keeping a flat tone and a dry brush so the effect is very soft.

So even though some areas on my cheek are dark, I don’t put those in yet because they are halftones and will come as the portrait progresses.

The tendency now will be to try and grab some white and ‘get painting’ but again this is unwise- remember- start slow, so you can finish quickly.

The choice of palette colour can be a deciding factor in your success.

If we look at Velasquez’s self-portrait notice how soft and blurred the edge of the hair next to the face is. They blend into each other so your gaze is focused on his gaze.

Pro tip: you can of course experiment with a pure white ground for creating an underlying glow to the skin. The Pre-Raphalite painters were fond of this method. Traditionally, the white ground has been used to illuminate the transparent layers of oil colour.

Areas, where the tones are very close, are kept as one single mass tone. The tendency will be to want to go in and add all the little subtleties and details you are beginning to see.

Notice how when I am applying the paint to the inner parts of the portrait I’m keeping the edges very soft. This is key when building up a portrait with this method. Hard, sharp edges are tough to cover over when you are working with thin layers of oil paint so try and keep your edges soft in these early stages.

I now put some more of the shadows into the portrait using the smaller round sable, at this stage I’m concentrating on the areas that would receive no direct light.

You want to try and keep your darkest shadows one dark tone so when you come to put in the halftones you will have more scope to model the form.

You could also use quick drying oil paints which are sometimes called Alkyds.

The initial ‘scrub in’ is quite loose, just to get a feel for the tone on the canvas. I then work over it with a larger brush to smooth out the tone. We are trying to keep the tones flat and simple so I work over any thicker areas of paint so the surface is more like a stain, rather than thick paint.

Mix more shades of gray if you desire to blend the painted tones together more. Paint these onto the canvas, blending the different grays together as much as possible. Continue adding paint until you feel that all the tonal variations are well represented.

If you have studied drawing, or are aware of the powerful tricks your brain can play with you when trying to record something accurately then you are at an advantage for the initial drawing out stage – however, if are more interested in learning the painting techniques then just take your time and sketch as accurately as you can.

You don’t have to set up a cast or model from life, just print out your reference image the same size as your canvas and practice working 1: 1. This way you can quickly and easily judge the tones and shapes in your painting, by flicking your eyes between the two images.

For a tonal study, a coloured ground is a must, it helps you to establish the extremes of the painting, the darkest darks and the lightest lights. It also makes it easier for your to judge tones and is a lot more forgiving than a white canvas.

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