Guide to Art Materials for Painting Portraits

Portrait painting is often considered the most challenging subject matter to attempt and which is why the best art resources are essential. Find a summary of the art materials I use for portrait painting below.

Art Pigments for Portrait Painting

Avoid pre selected packs of art pigments as redundant colours are often included, such as olive green, orange or yellow ochre.

A wide variety of skin colours mixes can be achieved by the use of a limited palette, but some colours, the portraitist cannot do without. I use just several colours but you can add others as required. These are: titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber permanent rose, cadmium red, ultramarine and pthalo blue. Other colours worth exploring are: carmine red, Winsor blue (red shade), cadmium yellow (pale) (sparingly), viridian green and alizarin crimson. Reserve black only for the pupils of eyes.

Colours to Avoid in Portraiture

I never use tubes labelled ‘flesh tint’ or any such pigments purporting to be for flesh colours, as these invariably look artificial. Avoid also too many earth colours, as these will result in dirty colour mixes. Prefer to mix skin colours from scratch from the aforementioned art pigments. This will provide (in my experience) the ideal skin colour mixes for pale skin, dark skin and anything between.

Portraiture in Oil Paints

Fine sables are crucial for portrait painting as high detail and soft blends will be needed. This means avoiding cheap brushes that have no springiness to the touch and that which splay easily. Invest in good quality sables such as Kolinsky or Winton. Acrylic art brushes would do just as well as those for oils. No’s 1, 3 and 6 ‘rounds’ possesses a fine point and that which enables the artist to achieve high detail. This will be useful for eyes, lips and highlights.

Soft wide brushes size 9 or 12 or fan brushes will make possible the most delicate colour blends and fine washes, such as the flat planes of the face and hair.

Brushes for Backgrounds to Portraits

Filbert bristle brushes will come in useful for pasting in large areas of colour and expressive brush strokes. Backgrounds, clothes and impasto lends themselves to more hardy brushes which can be brought from high street DIY stores as a fraction of the price to their artist-quality counterpart. Sizes 9 or 12 should meet most purposes.

Portrait Painting Art Materials

Smooth art surfaces such as panel or fine grain canvas will make high detail and soft blends easier. The art panel should be sanded with fine glass paper between coats of thinned acrylic gesso primer. Of course, art shops provide for all needs, including art boards and canvas boards, dispensing with all such preparations.

Things to Remember in Portrait Painting

Cherry-picked art materials will come to little use without excellent visual resources. This means a clear photo of the subject that is not blurry or small on the photo. Painting a portrait from life provides the ultimate challenge. Good lighting will make features easier to see. Take ample time to get the under-drawing right. This will increase the portrait’s chances of success.

Tips and Advice on Portraiture

Portrait painting requires the right art materials but does not necessarily mean expense. Some art pigments cannot be done without. Others are superfluous. Soft sables and smooth art surfaces and the best visual resources from which to work form. But don’t expect the portrait to work out after a first attempt. Practice is the key. Read more about portraiture from my art book offering tips and advice for the portraitist, whether a beginner or developing expert.