Painting portraits: self-taught lessons on making better art

Drawing people is really hard, right? We can spend hours painting portraits but if one part of the facial features is slightly out, it can make the whole effort feel like a waste of time. It don’t look like ’em!

Does this sound like you, “I know I should practice making art every day but I end up so tired after the day job, house work, family care etc has been taken care of it just all seems too much. Maybe I’ll make art tomorrow. Hello Netflix and my comfy chair”?

Recently I’ve been enjoying painting portraits, but finding it difficult to give myself a boot up the bum and get started. One way I found to make art a regular habit has been to go to a monthly portrait club in town, and spend a couple of hours drawing away. Once a month is better than never, right? My main goal while I’m there is nailing the likeness of the sitter. This month, the likeness did not show up in my work.

Experimenting with materials

I went a bit experimental in September, wanting to try painting straight away on the surface without doing an initial drawing AND try limiting my colours. For materials I took old cereal packets as a way of upcycling on the back of the card, some acrylic paints and a couple of brushes. The colour palette chosen was the Zorn palette colours – ivory black, titanium white, cadmium red and yellow ochre because I’ve seen other artists’ results and was itching to use them. If you want to know more about the Zorn palette, there are heaps of YouTube videos to inspire you.


Usually I will warm up for portraits by getting the crap ones out of the way in a big sketchbook, but on this day I decided to go straight for the big picture. I painted the highlights and shadows first, then basically hoped the rest of the painting would simply slot in nicely.

As you can see, the first results were less than impressive!

Original reference photo
Reference photo to compare my results: Nathan sitting superbly still
First attempt at painting the portraits
Attempt number 1. Oh dear lordy. Nope. Not a good day for painting portraits.
Second attempt at painting the portraits
Attempt 2. Slightly better, but still – yikes!

That day was not a good drawing day. I found the cardboard soaked up the paint like crazy, leaving me unable to move it around on the surface.

After the session, Nathan very kindly let me take a photo so I could work on it another time and I made a second attempt a few weeks later, using favourite familiar materials: my sketchbook and a graphite pencil. (Note – no eraser, I got told off for the use of erasers in art college!)

Here’s the sketchbook version and I’m much happier with this one. I started with a circle for some structure in the head and added features from there. It’s not perfect but at least he’s more recognisable.

Final sketched portrait
Sketchbook page
Final sketched portrait close up
Portrait sketch close up

I’ve learned a few things from September’s portrait club session and here are my takeaways:

  • Try new things even if the result turns out to be less than desirable – you learn from your mistakes
  • Prep surfaces with gesso before using acrylic paint
  • Loosen up before making a portrait by doing quick sketches. Know that they’ll probably be crap.
  • If at first you don’t succeed and you want to do better, redo the darn thing another day
  • Everyone says it, we all know it: consistent practice will make your work improve. MAKE yourself do it, switch off the telly!

Where to find resources on drawing and painting portraits

There are a few good techniques to capturing a likeness in a portrait, I’ll share my methods in a future post. If you want to make a start on drawing people, I tell everyone to read the book “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards, for some fantastic advice. YouTube is also a brilliant resource, search for the Andrew Loomis method.

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