Tips needed for portraits

I am new to painting portraits . Although I entered into this knowing I really don’t have much knowledge of figurative work I want to learn and the only thing I have to lose is time. I would love any tips and helpful words. A Witness to Light 30 X 18 oil on canvas. Thanks!


My only comment would be to not be afraid to go darker eg in the shadow areas (below jaw/neck, hand under bird) gives more form. Otherwise it can appear a little flat.
However this is only an observation based on what I try to go for. You may be going for a stylised look, there are many similar examples of portraits in history executed in a similar way as you have done. Nothing wrong at all in that. Just depends on what your goal was style wise.


Thanks John. I think it should be a little darker too now that I look at it with more distance. I think darkening shadows could help some of my other work too that are not figurative now that I think about it. I appreciate the tip.


Don’t get me wrong though. As it is, it is uniform across the image so no imbalances. And think it works as is. Just if heading toward realism the tonal values certainly are the things that give form.

I’m sure many others will have great views\advice so I’d hold on and get a balanced view before any alterations to any pieces.

I look forward to seeing your pieces

1 Like

Thanks John. I want to do more figurative work and will probably move on to incorporate the darker shadows in my next piece. You know when you look at something so long you can never see the painting with fresh eyes again. Others opinions are so helpful.

1 Like

Absolutely. Not related to this post, I have times I think everything has gone wrong and mine look terrible but then while I leave it to dry and work on another then come back to it I think actually it doesn’t look so bad. Is funny what our brains do to us. Wonder if there have been phycologist studies of this phenomenon.

1 Like

First off Diane—What a beautiful work. I love how you composed this image and the sky is just perfect.

The best tip I can offer cold is in regards to color use and value range. You certainly do not have a technical deficit here as the sky as well as that insane dress are handled with much more robust color and value range. Now understand that it is VERY common for people to “understand” skin as “one color”—but it is actually a wide spectrum of hues and chromas. While I do not mean to address your particular aesthetic here—look at what happens if I add a wider range of color and value to this portrait:

Now I do not mean to communicate that this is is what the face SHOULD look like as only you can determine that. I show this only to demonstrate what potential impact a greater color and value range can hold.

There are a number of heuristics to police color use in portraits (obviously, as heuristics they are not always true). One common one that you might want to play around with is the color zone (temperature heuristic.) This can be most prominently seen in the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. James Gurney has a nice blog post about this.

Again, I do not promote heuristics as “rules” but they may be useful to get the ball rolling from time to time. So takeaways here: Don’t be afraid to invest the same range of color and value into painting the face and or any other part of the figure. We are not covered in any one homogeneous color (although certain lighting conditions may have us seem to lean in that direction)—but rather, we carry a wide spectrum. :slight_smile:

Hope this helps!



This is not a suggestion for this particular work, but something I personally like and perhaps you might want to consider in the future-
Observe how old masters handled the definitions of the borders of the lips and how much softer the lines are when compared to the lines around the eyes, same with contrast.
This type of softening brings the attention to the sharper lines and creates a focus on the eyes while creating the feeling the lips are almost moving.

(paintings below by A.R. Mengs , Hayez, Sargent and Van dyck)


Thank you very much for this help. What a change for the better with the addition of a more robust palette this shows. Also thank you for this website. There is a wealth of knowledge out there that I feel I can tap into. Now I need to either muster the courage to make the changes (the parents of the model have already seen the portrait and like it) or start a new portrait with this added knowledge. Either way I feel like have advanced on the learning curve with this information. And after reading the blog post I will look at faces with a more analytical eye.


Thanks for the observations. I had just read an article on this and can see the benefit this approach would be to any further portrait work I do. I can’t tell you how great it is to have another set of eyes to offer help and valuable insights. Thanks!


I did a rework and appreciate the advice. I darkened the shadows and gave the lips more blur. Thank you all so much. I may do more work and increase the contrast even a bit more but already it is much better.


My next life painting is gonna have an extremely blue chin :thinking:

1 Like

LOL! Can’t wait to see it Vic.

Ooh the danger of the blue chin. The fine line of avoiding it looking like stubble :slight_smile: