Skip to main content

Creating A Commissioned Oil Painting Portrait

After several photo sessions, Mark Lovett Photography,   we arrived at an image of beautiful  Adriana  to paint in oil on canvas.  After choosing the most desirable cropping and size of the canvas, I began creating my support. I prefer designing the work so that the face is a little  under life size.  The ¾ pose of this pretty little lady is sizes nicely on a canvas about 32″ long.


Using 24″ and 32″ Fredrix stretcher bars , I created the frame, and secured corners with staples on opposite side of canvas.


I cut a 30″x38″ piece of Artfix L84C extremely fine weave quadruple oil primed linen canvas, and stretched the canvas on frame.


This canvas is Internationally recognized as the finest linen surface for precise detailing and portraiture work. Extremely smooth and uniform surface is unequalled by any other product. It has the traditional qualities of a lead priming without its toxicity. It’s unique absorbency allows oil paints to “bite” into the surface, increasing adhesion and depth of color.  When glazed, colors glow from within.


I painted a very thin loose glaze of Alizarin, Ivory Black and Titanium White and allowed it  to dry for a couple days.


I did not sketch a drawing on the canvas.  Drawings quickly get covered by paint and are rendered useless unless one only paints up to the lines . This does not work well because the edges between the lines will be very poor. A considerable amount of paint will be applied over many layers, and the edges must be soft, so I will add thin paint layers freely without a drawing underneath so my edges will be beautiful.

To get a basic idea of where to position the figure on the canvas,  I began a rough paint sketch with Raw Umber and Black outlining the hair.  For the skin I mixed  raw umber,  terra rossa and white.    In the background  I loosely applied a mix of veridian, black and white.

I was also trying to determine how dark I wanted the background to be. You can still see my loose dry underpainting from the chest down.

I decided to darken and define the edges of the arms.  Adriana was standing indoors with  cool window light coming in from the left.  I decided to cool the flesh tone by introducing more white and umber into the flesh mix.  Adding a little lemon yellow and white,  I begin  to introduce some light into the hair.

I am using Gamsol, a non-toxic turpentine substitute, to clean my Escoda Takatsu filbert soft blend filament brushes. These brushes are much softer than bristle and have a fine point and sharp edge when needed. I find them much more flexible and easier to control than bristle. I also use Walnut oil to clean my brushes and to thin paint. I am using no painting medium at this early stage in the painting. The paint should be applied very lean and thin in the early stages so I am only using Gamsol and a bit of Walnut oil.

I am keeping the paint thin but thick and dry enough so it so it doesnt run.  I want it to stay where I put it.

I initialy I thought I would detail the face before moving on,  but I decided against that. I thought that I would have a better chance at getting the values and temperatures correct on the face if I laid in more of the painting first. This way, later when I work on the face, I can relate my paint application to the rest of the work.   I am trying to lay down an approximate position of the figure, as well as determine my color values and temperatures.

The hands (on her hip and leaning against the table) are beginning to form, as well as her scarf, which will provide a nice compositional element. The pose has some nice lines in it. I am going darker on the background near the bottom.


Im working with about four shades of red on the dress. I’m using Alizarin Crimson, Crimson Lake, Red Violet by Mussini, Cadmium Red Scarlet by Old Holland and Dioxazine Purple by Gamblin, with a little titanium white in the highlights. The scarf is getting some Camium orange and white mixed with my favorite brown…..Rembrandt transparent oxide brown.

I lightened up the arm lit by the window with a bit of white, yellow ochre and umber. I darkened the arm in shadow with terra rosa and umber.

There is no special formula for mixing flesh tones. It all depends on the light and the colors surrounding the flesh. I dont use primary colors when mixing flesh tones, but I do use alot of greyed colors ….red, brown, green, yellow, violet, umber, white etc… Getting the right flesh tone can only be done by feel. Look closely, mix, apply to canvas, adjusting the mix, standing back, squint down. If it’s appears too warm…cool it, as I did in this painting. Just keep adjusting until it looks correct in the context of the work.


After laying in some paint foundation on the face to get the basic skin values, I beging laying in some facial features directly into the wet paint. It’s scary because it doesnt look much like Adriana yet. Can I do it?

As I stand back and gaze at the painting in this early stage, it takes alot of faith to believe that I can take the work to the level that it needs to be taken. I desire a near perfect likeness of Adriana, and I would like her to appear very relaxed and at ease…unposed if you will. I would like the figure to appear so real that it looks like a living, breathing person standing in front of me. I also wish the painting to be very beautiful and fresh in the application of paint.

In order to reach this goal, everything has to work out. The composition needs to be excellent. I think the unequal  negative space and the angles and lines in her pose will work to that end. The cool greyed green background compliments her red dress and scarf well. Her direct gaze will be a challenge but if I succeed, I believe it will be a very intimate compelling portrait.

For the painting to be live up to my expectations, and read right, the values, color temperatures, proportions and edges must be correct; the paint must be applied in a beautiful way, and the painting must maintain a loose and fresh quality until the end.

We have a lot of work to do so let’s keep the faith, keep the focus, and move on.



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!


The previous face is a little stern looking compared to the next layer below. I had to get here before I could take it to the next level though.


If you compare the above hand on the dress to the below hand, you will see it really starting to take shape.



If you will notice, the face above has a more pleasing expression and is now much softer than the previous face. I do like her relaxed, pleasing expression now. It doesnt look posed or fake.


Notice the fabric line on her arm above compared to below.


Above, edges were worked around shoulders and arms. Layers were added to the arm on her hip, the hand, fabric, the table, chest, and a tiny bit to dress. I noticed the hair grew a little high so I took that down a bit, and it will have to softened later. As I worked the edges I added the values into the surrounding background as well. When working edges, adding paint into both sides of edges is necessary to get a wet-on-wet blended soft edge.

I am keeping the skin tones very cool now. It seems to go well with the colors in the painting, and the cool light from the window reflects these colors in Adriana’s olive skin. There will be no orange in her skin tone, and just enough red and yellow to read as skin. It doesnt take much when there is so much green in the background. Just a little bit of terra rosa or yellow ochre goes along way. The window light will actually reflect the grayed green of the wall onto her skin, so we will eventually see some of the dress tones and the wall tones appearing in places on her skin. Im not a huge fan of overdoing the skin tone colors though. I will have enough fun going crazy with colors in her dress, so I can keep the skin colors subdued and real looking. There will be plenty of color in her dress. The eyes need a place to rest. We need dark to have light and grays and neautrals to appreciate color.

Have you ever seen a painting that has no grays in it? ……. just all bold color?  It doesn’t work for me. I prefer beautiful grays and neutals with a splash of bold color in the right places ….. and voila ….. we’re there!


It’s always easy to spot the flaws in realistic work, and an artist could spend a lifetime on one painting and never get it perfect (whatever perfect is!)  So when encouragement  is needed, we can always look back and see how far we have come.  Just for fun I’m going to post the stages of the face , big and bold, below:









OK I feel better now. We have come a very long way, especially considering I was not painting on a line drawing so the edges will be very nice. There does come a point where an additional session (and an additional layer) does not translate to an improvement in the work. For you photoshop junkies out there, can imagine not ever being able to go back to a previous layer? I can tell you that there have been many times that I have painted a long six hour session only to wake up the next day, and upon seeing the painting in the morning light my wife says I liked it better yesterday!! This can be very frustrating.

The moral of the story is to step back and squint down alot and look at the painting in different lighting. Constantly try and determine if you are improving or hurting the work. Knowing when to stop is important. After all, this is paint on canvas, not ink on paper. It needs to look like a painting….not a photograph. If we wanted it to look like a photo we would have skipped the painting process and framed a photograph. We want a great likeness and we want it to look like a painting. We want it to be beautiful, and fresh and not overworked. Having said that, I’m getting pretty close to kissing this one goodbye.


Below is what the work looks like after some  another long focused session. Painterly brush strokes, bold colors and texture were  added to the dress.  I also worked on many other areas of the painting as well.



By the way, below is a PHOTOGRAPH of the beautiful Adriana. Do you think I captured a good likeness of her?


PHOTOGRAPH of Ardriana


Portrait Painting (Continued)

If you compare the below painting with the previous stage, you will notice that I completely repainted the dress with a focus on values (meaning light and dark relationships). It is very difficult to read values correctly with saturated paint colors like the reds in this dress. One can easily get caught up in the excitement of the colors and paint the light and dark relationships wrong. It’s all part of the process.  When the paint dries, and after a good night’s sleep and a fresh cup of coffee, it’s always easy to spot areas that can be improved upon. I suppose I could spend a lifetime on one painting.

I also painted another layer on the face and chest.



Another layer on the face…. I decided to increase the light coming in from the left side. This caused the lips to appear to dark …… so I had to repaint the lips a lighter value. This sometimes can get frustrating but it’s part of the push and pull process. I darkened the shadow side of the face under the eye. I added another layer on the chest and arms.



A few days later, I got a new attitude and decided to continue striving for perfection. I decided to focus on a couple of areas that I know I can improve upon. Today I chose to work on the hands. Before laying a stroke down on the hands I began working the areas around the hand. I needed to warm up first. Hands are extremely difficult and I dont stand a chance until I get the surrounding areas strong.

Once I brought the areas next to the hand up, it became easier for me to see the subtle changes that need to be made ………. using the surrounding areas as a reference.   As a result, I probably worked a couple hours on the dress, scarf, and background before touching the hand.

Even though I was planning on just focusing on the hands today, I ended up noticing areas in the dress and scarf to improve upon… I tweaked them again.  Notice that I darkened the left bottom background as I painted the scarf edges again, and I tuned the values and temperatures in the scarf.

If I do say so myself, I’m really very happy about how the hand on her hip and the surrounding scarf looks now!

Notice that I added another layer to the hand on the table. I also added one more finger. You can barely see it back in shadow. The fingers were too narrow and the values needed to be corrected.  I’m really loving this painting now and I’m ready to set it free.



Closing in on the finish, I have added another layer on almost everything. I out a rim of light on her hand on hip and arm. It’s subtle but you can see it.

I certainly lightened some shadows, added some highlights, and put a finishing touch on the background finally deciding to graduate it from light on top to dark on bottom. Once dry, I am ready to sign it.