As a beginner portrait painter, it can be challenging to paint portraits that look realistic.
Some portraits have an uncanny valley effect, where they look somewhat realistic but also unusual. Other portraits just look childish, and they lack the detail that makes them look human. Some portraits have awkward flesh colors, while others look nothing like the subject.
How do you paint portraits that look more realistic? What are the best tips, practices, and strategies for creating realistic portraits? We’re highlighting some of the strategies beginner and intermediate portrait painters can use to create more realistic artwork.
Start with an Outline
Many portraits are doomed from the start because they lack an outline. Some portrait painters are over-confident, and they simply start painting without considering balance or scale. Start with an outline, beginning with the eyes and working outward from there.
Many portrait painters draw the image first, then seal the drawing with a translucent layer of acrylic paint mixed with clear medium, then let it dry.
If you don’t want to draw freehand, then use a projector to trace the image. Effective outlining is the foundation of any good portrait painting.
Practice Eyes Repeatedly
In many cases, the only difference between a beginner and intermediate portrait painter is the eyes. Practice painting eyes.
Pay close attention to the detail in the eyes, and try to replicate that detail instead of just painting white eyes, colored irises, and black pupils. There’s much more detail in an eye than many people first realize.
The whites of the eyes are rarely pure white, for example, and adding detail to the sclera of the eyes can instantly make eyes more realistic.
Since eyes are the focal point of many portraits, eyes are crucial. By practicing eyes, intermediate portrait painters can quickly separate themselves from beginners and start creating more realistic images.
Work from Dark to Mid to Light Tones
Tones are important with all painting, and they’re particularly important for portrait painting, where tones emphasize details, shadows, and balance, among other aspects of the portrait.
Most experts recommend starting with dark tones before moving onto mid tones and finishing with light tones for smaller details. Add mid and light tones onto darker details to add greater detail to your painting.
Learn How to Paint Hair with Texture
Many beginner portrait painters struggle with hair. Just like with eyes, hair is easy to mess up and difficult to perfect.
To paint hair more effectively, paint it as a single mass instead of individual strands. As mentioned above, start with darker tones and build up to lighter areas. This tip works particularly well with hair, where lighter and darker tones can give the suggestion of individual hairs without painting each strand.
Keep strokes as fluid as possible to give the hair a natural appearance. Add smaller details using a fine brush to make the hair look perfect.
Choose the Right Colors for Effective Flesh Tones
Choosing the right palette for portrait painting can be difficult.
Even experienced artists can struggle to create effective flesh tones. It’s easy to create colors that look somewhat like flesh while still looking not quite realistic. By choosing the right colors, you can maximize the realistic appearance of your painting.
As explained by Lori McNee, Steven Rosati’s portrait painting palette system recommends using the following colors, then mixing them as needed to create different flesh tones:
• Ultramarine blue
• Ivory black
• Burnt umber
• Cadmium red medium
• Yellow ochre
• Cadmium red light
• Cadmium yellow lemon
• Titanium white
Spend More Time Finding a Good Reference Image
In many cases, the difference between a good and bad portrait is the reference image. A good reference image is large, clear, and detailed.
Good reference images have strong and effective lighting with an ideal amount of shadow on the face – enough shadow to highlight features without obscuring them. If you don’t have a good reference image, then your portrait may be doomed from the start.
Spend more time researching the reference image to make your paintings more realistic.
Final Word: Paint More Realistic Portraits Today
Portrait painting is empowering. There’s something special about being able to capture the likeness of someone using brushstrokes and paints. By implementing the tips above, you can create more realistic portraits – whether painting a self-portrait or working from a reference image.