Portretschilder technieken Tips and suggestions on portrait painting


How do you become a good portrait painter? By really wanting to!

The way to make a good portrait is long and quite often not too easy. At first you seem to make great progress but as you get on, every step you make will take you more and more time and energy. And the secret is that you learn more from your failures than from your success. Self-criticism is an important virtue though it may constrain advance as well. My advice is: keep on enjoying painting and study thoroughly the masterpieces of the great painters.
Below, youīll find a few tips for the ones who may be interested and further on a short description about my way of working.


Making a portrait is not just painting a face. Itīs much more than that.
You must get to know the person. Whatīs he like? Try to find out about his character: if heīs introvert or open, whether heīs cheerful or timid. What facet of his personality do you want to show?
Before drawing one line: study the model carefully, noting any lack of symmetry in the face. If the difference between the left and right side is great, which is quite common, then you must decide which side you want to emphasize.

Pay great attention to the composition. This aspect is frequently neglected and can contribute greatly to a better painting.

Keep the model in good spirits during the posing sessions, and be encouraging. This makes the subject feel more relaxed.

Place the sitter at a higher level than yourself. I use a 40cm. high platform on wheels.

By placing a mirror behind you, when you turn, you can see both sitter and the portrait at the same time. This often helps to recognize any faults.

Proceed by painting the portrait in three flesh tones: light, halftone and shadows.

Apply small amounts of paint, then progress by applying paint more heavily to light areas than to the shades, which should retain an element of transparency.

Donīt exaggerate the light or shade to begin with. Itīs always easier to make light areas lighter and shadows darker than the other way around.

If, in doubt, start again. I sometimes cover areas with base colour, to start them again the next day.

Keep your palette clean and organized. Begin by mixing several basis flesh colours. I sometimes pre-mix three shades of neutral grey to lower the intensity of a colour.

I clean my palette every night, keeping any left over paint on a tile in an airtight container in the fridge.

The mouth should be painted with soft edges. The teeth are not painted separately but as one unit.

The eyebrows are not just dark lines. Make them transparent. Think that there is skin underneath them.

The pupils in the eye should be transparent, never opaque.

Finally a portrait painter is neither a psycologist nor a plastic surgeon. You donīt have to make the subject better or worse looking he or she is. It is more important to give the portrait charisma and presence.

Painting from life or using photographs

You often hear the rather pompous opinion that all painting, especially portraits, should be done from life. I work from photos as much as I do from life (I always take the photos myself, sometimes over a hundred).

Both methods have pros and cons:

Direct from life

The great advantage of painting from life is the dynamic colour register, which can give the work a more life-like result. Life sketches are always more penetrating than a photograph. Good drawing skill of course is required. The biggest inconvenience is the dependence on the model, who can only pose for a maximum of an hour, and then work must stop. Another problem occurs when the model īsinksī whilst posing, and the features loose their sharpness.

Using photographs

Work can continue in the models absence. Using many different photos, it is much easier, to find the best image. I have found that I may use two or three films, but only one or two shots will be what I want. Photographic skill and good equipment are essential.

Even if you are only using photos to work with, try to study the model in life occasionally. If you are working from life, take some photos to use when the model is not posing.

I am not terribly interested in the difference of opinion over the two methods of painting. We should be concerning on producing a good portrait, not on the method used. The result is far more important.

Meeting the model

It all starts with a commission for a portrait.
I nearly always visit the client at their house. We make an agreement for a first introductory visit and at the same time for a second one, if possible, on the following day so as to make the photographs and the sketch.
Itīs important for me to get to know the model and the other way round. After all making a portrait is something you have to do together.
During our first meeting we agree on how big the portrait will be and in what way they want to be portrayed etc., and I check the places in the house which I consider the best to take the photos. Then I can imagine what my visit on the next day is going to be like.

An important issue is to find the house of my client. If I canīt find the way or get lost and arrive a quarter of an hour late at my clientīs, I may feel stressed or still furious about the problems I had in getting there. I might transmit my bad temper on the model. So, I often arrive 15 minutes before the time due and wait in a street nearby till itīs time. It may seem ridiculous but itīs part of the process for me.

The photo session

I check carefully if Iīve got everything before leaving my house. I have forgotten my camera more than once but nowadays I put all that I need in one suitcase in order to prevent this from happening.

Then we start off. The hours spent on taking photographs are extremely important.
Itīs at that time when it must happen. A good photograph is the basis for a good portrait.

I prefer taking photographs by daylight. I only use artificial light, which I always carry with me, if the circumstances are not good enough.
Often the model feels uncomfortable, since posing is not something they are used to doing.
I canīt ask if they feel uneasy or something like this because it would make the situation worse. Therefore I tell him just the opposite. "Youīre doing fine" or "wonderful".
Itīs a white lie but in most cases it helps to make the person feel better and more relaxed.

With children itīs a different question. I depend totally on the situation and the time I have to take photos is limited as they lose interest easily and get tired of posing rather quickly. These sessions are often hard.

I try to obtain plenty of pictures, not only of the whole figure but also some close-ups of the face and hands.
After the session, I make some sketches,usually in pencil, and write down the colour of the eyes, hair and other details that draw my attention. The drawing is not meant to be used at once. I use it as extra information when Iīm painting.

Before leaving my client I have a glance at the photographs in my digital camera and check if they are useful enough.

The sketch

Once at home I look at the photos in the computer, then I make a selection with great care.
I choose the photographs on which the general pose is good and another one on which I specially like the face. I usually have to join lots of photographs to compose the final picture Iīm going to work from.
I know how big the painting is going to be and that determines the cut of the photo.
I ensure I am perfectly satisfied with the composition. Then I print it out.
Starting from that image I make a pencil-sketch and check the result thoroughly.
This sketch is also shown and sent to the client by e-mail so that they can agree or give their opinion about it.

If the client likes it I make the definite prints.
I pay special attention to printing my photographs by looking after the balance of colours and contrast.
I make several prints: One of the whole pose. On this one, I draw a subdivision in squares in very thin lines which must coincide with the same square division Iīve drawn on the canvas.
Another one of only the head with exactly the same size it will be on the canvas.
A last one, a close-up of the hands.

The canvas

I use a thick canvas of good quality that I stretch on the framework myself.
First I apply three layers of priming of light-grey gesso, then I make the drawing in carbon as exact as possible and finally I fix the charcoal drawing on the canvas with a thin coat of shellac. Then I am ready to start the real painting.

The palette

I spend quite a lot of time on preparing my palette. (my palette is a large sheet of glass inclined on a painting trolley.)
The colours I use go from the left to the right on my palette:

ivory black
ultramarine blue light or dark *
cerulean blue
permanent yellowish green, light
chromium oxide green
alizarin crimson
burnt umber
burnt sienna
cadmium orange
venetian red or indian red *
cadmium red light
cadmium red dark
yellow ochre
natural sienna
cadmium yellow light
titanium white

*my choiche depends on the circumstances

Beforehand I mix several colours. Three basic flesh colours for the lights. Two for the halftones and another two for the darks.

Light flesh tones

1. Very light skin: white+yellow ochre+cadmium red light. When the colour of the skin is colder I use dark red instead or even Venitian red.
2. Medium light skin: the same as above but darker and adding cerulean blue as well.
3. Darkest light skin: the same as above but even a bit darker and more cerulean blue.

Half tones

1. white +yellow ochre+cadmium red+viridian.
2. white +yellow ochre+cadmium red+chromium oxide green.

Dark tones

1. burnt sienna+viridian+cadmium orange+a bit of white.
2. burnt sienna+viridian +cadmium orange.

I also prepare 3 different grey tones: with yellow ochre+black+white. These are used to reduce the intense colours. I also use them for the background quite often.

Medium and paintbrushes

In the first phase I use citrus turpentine. If this is not at hand I simply use pure turpentine. Later on I use a standard neutro drying medium for paint, adding some standoil in the end. I observe the rule of painting fat over lean, working thinly at first, then gradually introducing more oil into my paint mixtures. However, I try to use as little medium as I can and none at all for the face, prefering to maintain the inherent qualities. Modern paint has a sufficient enough constency to work with that it is often unneccessery to add further medium.
To finish off: I rinse my brushes in an empty vegetable tin with turpentine and a strainer. (my advice is; make it yourself, you canīt get a better one).

I use lots of different brushes, though I always start with a filbert brush as wide as possible for the large areas. I keep on painting with this kind of hard, wide brush as long as the painting allows me.
Then, once Iīve put most of the paint on the canvas, I use some softer brushes, for instance of mongoose but rarely sable. The medium I use then is mostly a mixture of linseed oil and stand oil.

Properly organized

I like working in an organized way, therefore I always start with a clean palette every day. I also try to keep the mixed colours separated. At the end of the day I put the leftover paint that is still useful on a tile and keep it in an airtight box in the fridge. There it remains in perfect condition until the next morning.

The painting

I can only start with the face early in the morning knowing that I have the whole day before me. Then I feel fresh and readily prepared for the task ahead.
I begin with the darker shades of the face, then the half tones and finally the lightest tones. Then the portrait only has a schematic character.

Then I have a short break, preferably out of my studio. When I return to my atelier after about 15 minutes I see what Iīve done up to that moment with different eyes.
I look in the mirror behind me, which reflects both the model and the painting and I check if the big colour squares and the contrast are good.
Then I take off my glasses and see the picture in a blurred way. I can now appreciate the tone as a whole much better.
Only when Iīm satisfied with the bigger areas I revise the edges and the transition of the tones with care, though I try not to neglect the general lay-out. Then I can go on to the details. Meanwhile Iīve made the union with the colours of the background.

The first phase takes longer than half a day and is in fact the most essential part of portrait-painting. I use the rest of the day to paint other parts of the picture which donīt require so much concentration. Itīs important to measure out your energy. Itīs impossible to keep concentrated for hours.

Not until the next day can I form an opinion about what I painted the previous day.
Once Iīve checked the details of the face, I continue with the background. I usually paint the big dark areas with a first coat of paint diluted with turpentine. The first thin coat of paint has the technical advantage of being easy to work upon, but also gives a an initial impression of the entire thing.


My favourite painters: of course Rembrandt, but he doesnīt reveal any secrets as Velazquez seems to. He paints in a way you think you can see how he does it.
Singer Sargeant is of course my great example and the Valencian painter Sorolla as well.
Other painters: Vermeer, Van Dijk, Rubens Ilja Repin, Anders Zorn and many others.
Iīve learnt a lot from the lessons of John Howard Sanden.

Books that I sometimes dip into:

Bridgemanīs Complete Guide to Drawing from Life by George B. Bridgeman. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York 2001. Work for every painter and draughtsman.

Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis. I am lucky I got my hand on a copy in spanish. I do not think there will ever be a reprint. Very useful for composition study.

Portrait Painting in Watercolor by Charles Reid. Watson Guptill Pulications/ New York 1976. Catching and instructive.

The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting by Max Doerner. Indispensable.

‹ Demonstration of the portrait of Tj.van Löben Sels