How do you approach lighting a portrait painting?

by Will Kemp

in portraits


This week I’ve been featured in the U.K’s best selling artist magazine, ‘Artist & Illustrators‘.

The article was on understanding ‘How light sources can add impact to your portraits’.

It looked at three professional portrait painters and how they approach portrait lighting set ups of their subjects.

Below is the conversation I had with Martha Alexander from the magazine…

How do you approach the lighting when you first meet your sitter?

To make the decision on how to light a portrait painting, several considerations come into play.

The first meeting with the sitter is often very casual, and in this relaxed atmosphere, I can start to get a feel for the personality and I’m always looking to try and see an angle of their face that just looks right, take into account age and character.

Some peoples character suit a ‘face on’ more confrontational pose, whilst others are more gentle and require a more sensitive approach.

These are some of the first points I consider when planning the lighting set up.

The second meeting we discuss the sitters personal ideas of the style of portrait they would like, the location and the overall atmosphere the portrait would evoke.

This can vary from dramatic Chiaroscuro with ornate gold frame to a very natural, soft and demure final piece.

I would then start to get a feel for the piece and think about what would be the perfect lighting for the client.

What effect would you hope to achieve with using multiple light sources, as opposed to, say, a single light source or natural light?

So for example, if I had a strong character whose face I thought could handle a harder, directional light and enjoyed the idea of a dramatic portrait painting, then I would use a single light source.

This would give very dark shadows, very light lights and a form to the face, however, it’s not for the faint hearted as it’s not the most flattering light but you would achieve a very powerful portrait.


Self portrait (using a single light source), Will Kemp, Oil on Linen, 40 x 30 cm

Multiple light sources doesn’t necessarily mean multiple lights. You can achieve a good balance very easily by using bounce boards which are simply flat white boards that reflect the light back into the shadows of your subject.

I would use multiple light sources when I wanted a more flattering light on the face, or to use it as a compositional element to the painting to draw the viewers focus.

For example, cool blue window light in the background set against soft, warm orange table light on the sitter.

It’s all about creating a balance so you can achieve the most flattering portrait for the sitter.

Natural light is generally great for a more casual feel.

Children and group shots work really well in natural window light, it doesn’t have to be North facing (although this does give a nice constant light) just not in direct sunlight.

Do multiple light sources lend themselves to a certain kind of mood? Are they best used with a certain kind of person or character?

The mood created by using multiple light sources is generally uplifting, light and impressionistic.

I find it suits most women, as it’s very flattering and gentile, although most people would look great with this lighting.


Portrait of Geoffrey (using a multiple light source), Will Kemp, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 50 cm

Is there a danger of the subject being flooded with light? How do you ‘control’ the light?

Yes, there is a danger of there being too much light.

To avoid this, it’s best not to work in direct sunlight if working with natural light, you can always soften the window with a thin sheet for diffused light.

If in a studio set up, the main light (called a key light in photography) should be twice as powerful than the fill light (the light that puts light into the shadows created by the key light) – however if your key light is too powerful this could ‘blow out’ the sitters face and you would lose detail in the lightest areas on the face.

You can control this be either moving the light further away, diffuse the light or change the output of the light.

What type of lamps/lights do you use? Is finding the correct position a case of trial and error, or are there formulas?

When first starting portraiture, simplicity is always key. A great place to start is with ‘Rembrandt lighting‘ and then modify from there.

To spot Rembrandt lighting on a portrait look out for a triangle of light underneath the sitters eye on the shadow side of the face.

Pro tip: The triangle of light should be about the same width of the sitters eye and length of their nose.

I personally use fluorescent lamps with a diffuser for softness.They give a constant cool light and a balanced for natural North light.

Start by setting up the main light (called a ‘key light’ in photography) facing the sitter at about a 45 degree angle. You want the light to be coming down on the subject, ideally so it’s just above the sitters head.

If the light is very harsh and you want to soften up the shadows the simplest thing to do is ‘bounce’ some of this light back into the shadows.


Portrait of Liz (using bounced natural light), Will Kemp, Oil on Canvas, 95 x 160 cm

Board reflectors

This is simply a flat surface used to reflect or bounce light onto the subject. Other colours can be used to enhance the subject, the two most commonly used are silver, and gold. Silver will reflect a cool light onto your sitter (blue light) whereas gold will give your portrait a warmer feel – (orange light).

You can go for a DIY approach with kitchen foil or invest in a collapsible photography that are double-sided.

I personally usually use a piece of white foam-board, as it helps to keep the colour temperature constant.

You might also like:
The other portrait artists featured in the article are Benjamin Sullivan & Helen Masacz
A digital version of the magazine is available from Artists & Illustrators.
Black & White Oil Portrait Course for Beginners 


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

mick whyte November 14, 2012

Hi Will

Thanks for that, it was very informative. I will pick up a copy of the magazine


Will Kemp November 14, 2012

Cheers Mick, glad you liked it.


Diana Lanni November 14, 2012

Thanks Will,
I’ve just started doing portraits and am getting serious about it. This was very good info. I’m glad you are in the company of that B. Sullivan – he is a really insightful fellow. Thanks for being the inspiration to get me back into art after 40 years out! You are a Great artist and have a delightful and easy nature to learn from. If I get some $$ I will take one of your classes.


Will Kemp November 15, 2012

Thanks Diana, pleased you are finding your painting inspiration!


Fizz November 15, 2012

Some great tips to use for future works. Thanks Will.


Will Kemp November 15, 2012

Cheers Fizz


chavali November 15, 2012

You give good details, thank you. I definitely like to learn from you may be it takes some time till then I keep reading your literature


Will Kemp November 15, 2012

Thanks Chavali


Robert Dahl November 21, 2012

Hi Will

Congratulations on being featured in the magazine! This is very informative and inspirational (as always) and I hope it brings you more work and evn more recognition (well deserved) :-)




Will Kemp November 21, 2012

Cheers Robert


Michael Furlong November 28, 2012

This reminds me of a book I read on Tim Hildebrandt’s techniques, I recall him using two light sources of different qualities on most of his works to give it more interest and dimension. “Tim tries to include at least two light sources to keep the scene from becoming monochromatic.” Its good to see people talking about lighting, I’ll have to try out more of these techniques.


Will Kemp November 29, 2012

Thanks Michael,

Glad you enjoyed the article, lighting can make such a difference in your portraits.



John January 12, 2013

it was interesting to run the above article over the newspaper report and photo on the recent portrait of kate middelton. The issue of the ‘faint heart’ (among other aspects) for all concerned in portrait picture making becomes quite relevant.

Best of all for us punters, is the ability to be able to approach such an ‘art moment’ with some developing technical and philosophical awareness.



Will Kemp January 17, 2013

Hey John,

Pleased it’s helped to give you a more critical approach when observing portraits.




livvy stainer May 10, 2013

Hi Will,

I always have trouble lighting my subjects when photographing my subjects so this article was very useful, thanks. I’ve been painting portrait commissions for 20 years specialising in childre. Your tutorial on paintinga portrait in oils has been a revelation to me. I am pretty much self taught and it was facinating to get an insight into classical painting techniques. It was also reassuring to know that even someone of your standard gets frustrated with the same things as I do- this gave me hope as I often feel like giving up! So thank you very much, painting portraits are much more enjoyable now and with a much better outcome. Do you have any tutorials for painting colour portraits in oils? I would buy it immediately,
Thanks again,


Will Kemp May 10, 2013

Hi Livvy,

Great to hear you found the articles helpful in your portrait painting, and getting a much better outcome, good one!

I do have a colour portrait course planned but a few months off, for any details on it I’ll post details on the blog,




Judy September 4, 2013


I love great precise information! Congrat.s on all of your hard work combined with a natural eye. I am so excited to get back into my oil paints, as I did not want to breathe the fumes while pregnant. Oh it has been so long and totally worth it. I have two toddlers for inspiration, and all I want to do is paint their funny ways and sweet faces.

Thanks again for sharing your insights and knowledge,


Will Kemp September 8, 2013

Thanks Judy, pleased you’re enjoying getting back to your oil paints.


Debra December 30, 2014

Hello Will,
I ordered your acrylic painting course and i am very pleased with it and am excited to begin. I am transitioning from oils to acrylic and I am apprehensive about being able to get portraits that look close to oils. I was wondering if you have any portraits that you can show me where you used acrylic (besides the ones in the course). I need encouragement.


Will Kemp January 1, 2015

Hi Debra, pleased you’re excited to begin the course, the self portrait at the bottom of this page is painted in acrylics.


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