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Sketching, Drawing, and Painting Portraits With Acrylic Paints

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Acrylic portrait of two ladies from a tropical country.

Acrylic portrait of two ladies from a tropical country.

Types of Portraits

A portrait artist enjoys duplicating the face of an individual onto canvas and other surfaces. It is a challenge to paint an exactness of a person. The fine art artist is a master of reality faces and the human body. Other methods of painting human faces include caricature and abstract. These styles may not be realistic, but the person is recognizable with the exception of abstract portrait painting.

The essence of a portrait is to capture outstanding identifying features which identify the person. A caricature will maximize a significant feature which is a trademark of that person. The identity trademark may be red hair as in Lucille Ball or a ski-nose as in Bob Hope.

Many of us see works of caricatures in comics and political propaganda. Street artists who work in entertainment parks or artists communities enjoy painting caricatures for paying customers on site.

The artist may or may not use a live model for an abstract portrait, but when admiring the portrait, it will not be a realistic copy of the model as the artist has painted an emotional representation of the individual. The subjective interpretation of the artist will appear as an abstract to anyone else who views it.

A realistic portrait duplication of a young girl.

A realistic portrait duplication of a young girl.

Realistic Portraits

The realistic artist duplicates an exact image of a person. These portraits have been in existence for hundreds of years. Faces of historical figures, celebrities, family members, friends, pets, and self-portraits are but a few of the uses for realism portraits.

This style of duplicating reality is known as fine art.

Acrylic fantasy painting.

Acrylic fantasy painting.

The Abstract Artist

The abstract artist paints a portrait with original imaginings inspired by personal, fantasy, social, and cultural influences. I would include my style of painting portraits in this category. In the above acrylic portrait, a floral tattoo was placed on the face. This is very simple.

Other methods of abstracting an acrylic portrait include:

  1. Facial tones of tints with various colors
  2. Oversized or undersized eyes
  3. An independently shaped nose
  4. Pointed, squared, oval, or irregular shaped ears
  5. Assorted lip shapes
  6. Hair that is streaked with assorted tints
  7. Use non-brush techniques of sponges, scrapers, knives, cotton balls, fabric swatches, steel wool pads, sticks, or other objects to create blurring, streaking, dots, splatters, and more

Think of abstract as being out of the ordinary, out-of-the-box thinking, unusual, bizarre, or not within the confines of realism.

A portrait drawing of a young girl.

A portrait drawing of a young girl.

Sketching or Drawing Portraits

Sketching is a quick freelance outline of the intended object. Drawing is a precise replica of the object. An artist will make a quick sketch before painting towards a finished product. Other artists prefer to draw all details for accuracy then proceed to paint.

Drawing portraits requires study and many hours of practice. Until you are ready to take drawing lessons, test your current skills to determine training choice. Pick up a pencil, an eraser, and a sheet of paper. Select a face from a photo or any printed publication. Review your finished work and make a decision. Your decision will determine the type of portrait schooling which is needed to perfect your art.

Folks, regardless of whether you do portrait or landscape paintings, it is in your best interest to know how to draw. Most paintings require a minimum of at least a sketched outline. Think of your sketch or drawing as a map or a guide towards the finished project.

There are free online classes. Instruction books for drawing and sketching may be borrowed from a local library, or purchased. Local art schools, colleges, and community art centers offer a variety of classes.

As a hobby, being self-taught will usually be fine, but to become an accomplished drawing artist, it is best to attend formal schooling. Portrait painting is considered fine art. If you wish to establish credentials or to acquire a career, a degree from an institution of higher education is essential.

Drawing or painting a portrait will require much practice before acquiring reasonable success. Practice drawing a self-portrait, a friend, or a relative from a photo. Photos act as still life and are not as expensive as hiring a posing model. It is difficult to get a friend or a family member to poses for hours while you sketch their portrait.

Acrylic paints are available in tubes or bottles.

Acrylic paints are available in tubes or bottles.

Acrylic Paints

Choose paints according to their pigment content. Purchase the appropriate brushes and tools which best accommodate the paint choice.

  1. Acrylics are non-toxic. They have no allergy reactions and have multiple ways of using the paints. They are quick drying, offer several choices of paper, have an array of colors, canvas, or other foundations. Best of all, they are affordable and easy to cleanup.
  2. Non-toxic: No need for paint thinners or other products which are harsh on breathing and skin.
  3. No allergies: Because of its water base foundation and use of gentle products, there appear to be no allergy reactions.
  4. Multiple uses: The paints may be used to create watercolor effects, as an acrylic, or oil painting effects. Thinning or layering the paint will produce assorted texture effects.
  5. Quick drying: Oil paints take a very long time to dry; acrylics dry quickly. Some artists do not like the quick drying, but there are additives which can be mixed into the acrylic paints to give it a longer wet life.
  6. Choices of foundation: Acrylics can be applied to paper, canvas, fabrics, plastic, glass, wood, and other surfaces.
  7. Colors and tones: There is no limit for color choices. These paints are very easy to mix. For more glamor, glitter acrylic paints are available.
  8. Affordable: Able to stay within a budget. The price will be higher as the pigment becomes thicker and this is understandable. The costs are dependent upon the foundation and the effects the artist wants to create.
  9. Easy cleanup: During the painting or after painting. Water cleaning is all that is necessary.
An artist painting directly on canvas in an open artist market.

An artist painting directly on canvas in an open artist market.

Applying Acrylic Paints

After the drawing has been completed, apply tint choices. Use a thin or water color consistency to fill in the selected tints. The pencil markings will show through a thin layer of paint. Use light strokes when using a drawing pencil during the sketching process.

If the color choice is not correct. the acrylic paint will dry quickly allowing the artist to apply another tint in the same area. After color selections are satisfied, add layers of acrylic paint to hide pencil marks and to obtain the color depth and thickness of paint for desired texture.

Tip: Colored pencils may be used for sketching as their marks will hide very well under the paint.

Discovering the versatility of acrylic painting is as much fun as sketching or drawing a portrait.

Brush thin layers of tint covering work surface. This method prepares a foundation for easier paint application and adds richness and depth for any painting.

Brush thin layers of tint covering work surface. This method prepares a foundation for easier paint application and adds richness and depth for any painting.

Underpainting or Toning

Prepare the entire canvas with a thin layer of paint. It can be the first color which will be placed on the canvas, the last color which will be placed on the canvas, or choose whatever you like.

This technique is used often in oil painting. This technique is called under painting or toning. Many artists use this technique of canvas preparation to help hide canvas bleeds. The linen texture of the acrylic paper will direct the paint in the opposite direction from which it was intended. Applying a layer of paint on the canvas helps eliminate this problem.

Acrylic Painters

Questions & Answers

Question: How do you paint different shades of the face using acrylic paints? What are cool and warm shadows?

Answer: I am assuming that you are painting natural complexions. First of all, determine the colors of the undertone. Does this person have pink, orange, yellow, green, red, brown, blue, or black in their skin coloring? After determining the undertone pigment, mix a tiny bit with the complexion colors that you are using. (Complexion makeups vary in color by adding different color tints.)

Determine where the light is shining on the face. The light area would include warm colors and the area with minimum or no light would be the cool colors. When mixing tints with the base makeup color add warm color tints for the lit areas and add cool tints for the cool shadows. Warm tints include red, yellow orange, light green, light blue, and light brown. The cool tints would include cool colors of blue, green, brown, and black. Sometimes you can apply the tint directly to the painting. Work wet on wet to blend correctly.

Question: How do I determine which colors to highlight different shades in a portrait in pop art?

Answer: Everyone is an artist. The artist who chooses to paint with colors has a natural instinct for bringing colors to life. When anyone looks at a rainbow they see red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The color artist sees the same colors, the colors in between those colors, and the colors which surround each other. They see the differences of shades visible in the light, medium, and dark. And they see the variations in that shading.

There are color charts and the color wheel which may help you. In other words, you need to understand and have knowledge of colors or color theory. While you are learning about this subject, try these methods as they may help you to see the differences.

Make 3 copies of any portrait or pop art for practice and experimentation.

• Do the first copy in the manner that you have been doing.

• The second copy is applying new ideas and the third copy will be the color idea for pop art.

You want to paint the first image in the manner in which you have been doing in order to compare. One of the first things which I have noticed is that people want to color or paint and have perfection on the first stroke.

Tip #1: Artists do not create or paint perfectly. Do not apply heavy pencil or paint thickly. Artists work in layers. Apply a light color at first and slowly build layer by layer until you reach the desired tone. It is difficult to erase. When working with a light layer of color it is easy to erase or color over.

Tip #2: Think before selecting colors.

When coloring or painting portraits consider the nationality of the individual. There are variances in skin tones. The undertone may be red, yellow, pink, blue, green, orange, brown, or black. Apply the foundation lightly being aware of the undertone tint. This undertone will be helping with the shading.

Tip #3: Do the undertone very lightly. The reason for this is as you continue to build the complexion foundation of the skin the undertone may dominate rather than accent. Also as you blend colors you may create unwanted tones or tints.

Tip #4: Where is the light shining? The light will determine your highlights and shading. Highlights are the lighter and brighter colors. Shading is the darker colors creating shadows and depth.

The undertone which you used will be a very light tint under the light, as you near the crevices or indents of the face the undertone may be made a little bit darker. These areas would be the eye insets, the nose, the ears, and the neck, and hairline.

If the undertone tint is not satisfactory to you add another color to it. Once again apply color lightly and think before applying. Example: If you are painting an oriental face and you used yellow as the undertone, if you should apply the wrong blue and create a dark green, this may be an error. Applying orange or a very light shade of brown may be a better choice. Learn color theory!

Do not be afraid to use colors; mistakes will force you to make a better selection. After coloring or painting your portrait compare the reality of the finished product to the photograph or posed subject. How realistically accurate were you?

Compare your first original to the second painting and observe differences.

Shading applies to various tones of color. Pop art is selecting a color and then highlighting or shading the image. How do you select colors for this style of art? I think it is a matter of perspective. You may try choosing a color because it is emotionally appealing. Or consider coloring according to the definition of tints.


Red for anger, excitement, adventure

Blue for calmness and peace

Green for envy or money

Yellow for intelligence, opportunity, or happiness

I think you get the idea.

Regardless of which style of portrait or pop art … think, plan, slow down, and experiment. Keep a record of color combinations and techniques which were used that met your expectations.


M.K.Nair on April 24, 2019:

very informative..easy to learn about the subject..

ยิ้มที่มากกว่า on March 21, 2017:

Good article