Portrait Painting is a tricky art skill.  It’s THE most requested type of painting and also the most difficult to execute.   When someone asks you to paint a portrait, what they’re really trying to determine is if you have the artistic chops as you say and believe you do.  This can be stressful as hell for an artist. Almost as stressful as painting the dreaded hand (s).

Portrait painting is my first love.   In fact for most artists, mostly everybody in fact, faces were the first thing drawn.  Round heads, triangle nose, you remember.   The funny thing? Shape play/construction is actually a real thing and crucial step when planning a portrait.  It’s the beginning process that involves sketching by and boxing in the subject. 

In this post, I promised 3 instant ways to improve your portrait painting. 

I paint primarily in the Alla Prima (Direct) mode with oils but I think these tips apply can be applied to any type of painting style.



When painting a portrait, it is pivotal to look beyond the surface of your subject.  You definitely want to paint what you see, but you should also be looking for details in your subject that are absent to the eye at 1st glance and unique to the person.  You should choose which to enhance and do it subtly.  Over working your portrait can be a stressful mess because you’re instead focusing on every detail present.   You don’t have to pull out every detail on your subject with your brush but you should find something distinct about the person you can handle painting. 

For example, in this portrait, I chose to focus on the curls in her hair. Her braids are caressed by soft like curls…to me this was a distinct feature that would make this portrait hers.

 Painting Alla Prima Style allows for your brush strokes to be present/evidence. 

Painting Alla Prima Style allows for your brush strokes to be present/evidence. 



Skin hues are complicated.  You should establish at least three values of color to paint your subject’s skin tone if you’re trying to  make it more realistic and true.  If you are an abstract portrait artist that makes it even more interesting because you’re more than likely using random color combos. A realistic look can still be achieved even in this frame. My suggestion here is to make white and black your friends and use them slightly. Black and white have a way really heighting colored objects. Too much will kill the realism you were hoping to achieve. 

Example of skin color values



Drawing is crucial to becoming a better painter.  Little story, when I won my scholarship to attend an art class at the Glassell School, I felt I should go straight to painting and forgo the drawing class that was offered solely because I felt I was an artist and have been for 15+ years. The gag?  In addition to embarrassing myself in that initial meeting with the school dean, he quickly highlighted all of the reasons why drawing was necessary and I totally get it now. Drawing is fundamental for learning how to become a better painter, it just is. 

Drawing forces you to understand proportion, aids you in discovering the light and dark areas of your subject and will help you map out paint placement.

Established artists almost always use graphite or charcoal for sketching up a portrait. 

So, that’s it. 3 ways out of at least 10 that I thought would be helpful for anyone wanting to take their skills and practice to the next level. 

 Sketch detail, phase 1 of my work  on display at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture

Sketch detail, phase 1 of my work  on display at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture


These are just a few methods you can put into practice to instantly improve your portraits. 

Don’t believe me? Watch me execute  via a live ALLA PRIMA Portrait Demo BY joining my Rebel Atelier Facebook Page HERE

Believe me a little but still not convinced?  No problem, sign up below for 7 more ways to improve your portraits…saved just for you.