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Commission Portrait Oil Painting – Creating A Likeness

As I continued to adjust the paint in her face, I am starting to see the correct likeness of Adriana looking back at me. Relief!  I lay some more umber and brown in the shadows of her hair to get the darker values on the bottom that I need. Lighter subsequent hair layers over the dark foundation will yield a natural look.  Oil paint is usually best applied dark to light. I know I will come back later and apply lighter values in her hair on top of the darker values I have now laid down. I always try and think ahead and do processes in order, and that often means laying in a foundation of paint a little darker than it will eventually be. There are no absolutes in oil painting. We always try different methods to find what works best for us.

The likeness is now close enough that I know I can do it. Relief!! Of course, there is a lot of refining to do in many subsequent layers, but if the foundation that I have laid at this point is not great, there will be much heartache ahead. Minor adjustments as I build the paint in future layers are normal and necessary, but the foundation must be strong. I am very happy now knowing that the foundation has been laid very well.


I check the paint application and smooth down any texture. I dont want much paint texture this early in the work. I want the paint thin and smooth. I use a dry brush, my fingers and a soft paper towel to accomplish this.

The painting now needs a good drying for several days before I continue. For me, I prefer to do only so much wet into wet painting. It can get too messy and I might lose control over the paint. I prefer to let it dry well now, and when I come back to it, I may lightly sand any areas that I want smoother, and I will lightly apply a little walnut oil to the dry paint surface before I paint my next layers.

Notice how I am keeping the painting loose and fresh. This is a very accurate but loose under painting without the use of a sketch or grisaile on canvas. Sweet!


Above is a close up of the face at this stage. Now that  I have the painting laid in,  I can begin building the next layers of paint.


I began this session by lightly wet sanding the painting to remove any texture that I don’t want at this stage in the painting. I like to add my paint texture at later stages. I am still building up thin smooth layers now, especially in the skin.

I was encouraged to begin my next paint layers quickly, and you can see above where the paint began lifting off the canvas and creating more work for me to do. I will continue with this session anyway, however in the future, I will not rush into my next layers until the paint is completely dry. It could have used one more day to dry.

Above, I began building the hair with yellow ochre, raw umber, black, white and transparent oxide brown.  At this stage you can see the sharp edges and contrasting colors that will be my guide for subsequent layers that will eventually yield smooth natural looking hair.


Now she’s starting to come alive. It is very important to begin the commission portrait work with an excellent likeness of the subject, and maintain it throughout the painting. If I can not do that, there is no point in continuing the painting. I would not like to spend a month on a painting only to discover at the end that I can not attain a likeness of the subject.

I added another layer on the face, neck, chest and arm above, softened the hair edges, and warmed the background.

The previous skin layer had more pink/red in it. Adriana has a beautiful olive skin complexion, so Im  adding a skin layer with more  grayed yellow and green in it. You can see where the new skin layer stops just below her bicep on her arm on the right side. The light is very subtle. It is not dramatic or very three dimensional, but drama and three dimension is not my goal in this work. Often flattering light on a pretty lady’s face is rather flat. Dramatic lighting can accentuate wrinkles and other things, and while it may be interesting…it’s often not flattering. My goal in this work is to create a painting that accentuates the beauty of this lovely lady, so my lighting is very subtle. This can be a great challenge to do as well, and I don’t recommend it for beginner painters. The value changes and color temperature changes, as well as the edges,  are very close and can be difficult to see and paint. It’s alot easier to paint a high contrast, drama lit, wrinkly, old man’s face than it is to paint the face of a beautiful young lady. You can see the light coming in from the window on the left and casting a slight shadow on the side of her nose and right cheek.


Above is a close up (of the previous pic) that we can compare to the close up at the beginning of the session (a few pics above).  It is a huge improvement and I am very happy with how it’s coming along. Now I want to let the panting dry for two FULL days before I touch it again. So I cant touch it before Sunday. Next time I start on it, I want to make sure none of these layers get lifted off by mistake. It’s very late. Good night!