How to Paint Figures

The artist’s biggest challenge is often considered to be painting people because of the subtly of skin tones. The best approach for the beginner is to paint people from photos. The oil painting demonstration of figures was completed from life.


Tips on Painting People


Artists often avoid painting figures, preferring to keep to landscape painting or still life because painting faces are perceived to be difficult to do. In fact, when it comes to painting figures, the same applies to painting any other subject matter. The following tips on painting figures might help the reluctant artist.
  • Avoid using oil paints labelled “skin tone” or “flesh tint,” as they can give a uniform or artificial feel to the skin colour.
  • Flesh colours contain the most unexpected hues, from green to violets. Believe what the eye sees and paint it in, even if this seems bizarre
  • Faces often form the focal point of a figure painting because every contour and shadow has great significance. It is wise to spend the most time upon this aspect of the painting, particularly the facial features such as the eyes.
  • Since faces are so crucial, it is also a good idea to begin the painting with the face whilst the artist feels fresh.
  • When the rest of the painting has been completed, it is usually necessary to return to the skin tones in order to make them key in with the surroundings.
  • Portraits or figures will not look right whilst in progress, for instance, eyes without eyebrows. The artist must accept this, and make adjustments once all the flesh colours have been painted in.

Painting Figures from a Photo


More so than any other subject matter, a good quality photograph is crucial when it comes to painting people. It must have high resolution, the figures depicted must not be too far away, and should not have been taken with a flash, or artificial lighting conditions. Flesh colours in natural daylight are best. A successful painting of figures is more likely if the people depicted look natural.


Oil Painting Materials

  1. Good quality photograph of figures
  2. Burnt umber acrylic paint
  3. Oil paints in the following colours: titanium, pthalo blue, ultramarine, permanent rose, cadmium red, lemon yellow, viridian, burnt sienna and burnt umber
  4. 12” x 16” (30.5 x 40.5cm) medium stretched canvas
  5. Sizes 1, 3 and size 6 round sable brushes
  6. A ½ inch wide bristle brush
  7. A palette consisting of a nonporous material such as china
  8. Small pot of artists’ white spirits
  9. A few rags
  10. Soft pencil
Figure Painting Tutorial
In order to get a fix onto the skin tones, the canvas had been prepared with a thin wash of diluted acrylic paint in burnt umber. Once the composition had been sketched out, the lightest skin tones were applied first. A little burnt sienna was mixed with a larger quantity of white. This creamy colour was applied onto selected areas via a thin sable.


What Colour is Skin?


With the highlighted skin colours applied, the mid tones were applied next. A little burnt umber and ultramarine was introduced to the mix and applied with a thin sable. Until the surrounding colours have been painted in, the figures will make little sense. Again, the colour was darkened with more burnt umber and ultramarine.


Making Skin Look Real


With a soft, clean sable, the flesh colours were blended slightly to rid of any unwanted colour ridges. The clothes were painted briskly in; the palette for the clothes on the right consisted of white and ultramarine, for the left, ultramarine with burnt umber. Viridian and white were used for the sun loungers.


With the background painted in, the tonal values of the figures can be appreciated. This was implied rather than illustrated to retain the focal point on the figures. Using a slightly dark palette will make the figures stand out.


Oil Painting People


Painting people is often viewed to be difficult, but the artist should try to have a go. Painting figures from a good quality photograph is likely to yield satisfying results.  Avoid using pigments that are purported to be “flesh coloured.” Indeed, skin colours often contain the most unusual colours. Patience and sensitive observation is key.



This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010