How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1

by Will Kemp

in oil painting,portraits

portrait painting techniques

How to paint a black & white portrait in Oils

Have you been practising your drawing for years yet making the jump to paint always seems to end in an underwhelming finish?

Or do you walk around portrait galleries in awe with the question, ‘How do they do that?’

Maybe you’re frustrated by your process and don’t know how to change it.

Portraits can seem like the toughest subject to crack and you can easily be disheartened by your efforts. One wrong brushstroke can cause a subject to suddenly look ‘wrong’, panic sets in – your pencils get sharpened, charcoal out and you don’t come back to painting for a while.

But you don’t want to draw anymore, you want to paint.

So where do you begin?

A Step by Step approach


oil painting materials

Why oils?

They dry slowly, and for portraits time is essential.

Lets start at the beginning.

I’m going to keep things simple.

  • 3 easy techniques to learn.
  • 3 basic paints to use.
  • 5 weekly blog posts

Oil paint – for this series of demonstrations I will be using Artist quality oil paints.

  • Raw umber
  • Ivory black
  • Flake white (or Titanium White)

Oil paints are made by mixing ground pigment (the colour) with a drying oil. Most artist quality paints are mixed with cold pressed linseed oil. Whites often are mixed with a different oil, walnut or poppy oil, as they are less yellowing than the linseed oil.

I’m using Artist quality paints which have a higher pigment quality than student grade paints, you can read about the differences (see the 8 key differences between artist & student grade paint)

I am using a mixture of brands including Michael Harding, Old Holland & Winsor and Newton.

Support - ( what you paint onto)

For oil painting you need to use a support or surface that has been correctly sized or primed. If you are using raw canvas you will need to apply a coat of size. (this protects the canvas fibres from the corrosive nature of the oil) you can also work on board.

A  5 or 6mm thick piece of MDF can be a great starting point. Prepare the surface with an acrylic gesso, sanding in-between coats, see here how to apply gesso.

Pro tip: Make sure to give all sides of the MDF board a coat of size, especially the edges which can be very absorbent to moisture.

Many portrait artists prefer to work on linen rather than cotton as you can get a finer weave but for this demonstration I am using a pre-primed canvas. The actual canvas is a Belle Arti Cotton Canvas.

Brushes – For this demonstration I’ll be using:

  • Rosemary & co Ivory Filbert  - size 4, 2 & 10 (size 6 & 8 are also very handy to have)
  • Rosemary & co Kolinsky Sable series 33 Round  - size 3
  • Rosemary & co Kolinsky Sable series 66 Filbert  - size 8

To learn more about brushes see a quick way to understand brushes

Coloured ground

coloured ground

Oil paints increase in transparency with age, even thick opaque colours. To test for yourself, make a few pencil or pen marks on a piece of scrap canvas or board, paint over them opaquely and then take a photograph to see the coverage, check back the next day and then the next week to see if the opacity has changed.

For a tonal study a coloured ground is a must, it helps you to establish the extremes of the painting, the darkest darks and the lightest lights. It also makes it much easier for your to judge tones and is a lot more forgiving than a white canvas.

Pro tip: you can of course experiment with a pure white ground for creating an underlying glow to the skin. The Pre-Raphalite painters were fond of this method. Traditionally, the white ground has been used to illuminate the transparent layers of oil colour.

Acrylic or oil for the ground?
I have used acrylics in this example. It is a mixture of raw umber and titanium white, notice how it has been applied quite thinly, with some of the white gesso showing through. This is for 2 reasons:

  1. I don’t want to loose the ‘tooth’ of the canvas. The tooth is the grain, and texture of the canvas and helps to pull the paint off the brush. If you paint on a smooth prepared board you will notice the difference with the paint feeling like it is ‘sitting on top’ on the surface.
  2. You don’t want to create a seal with thick acrylic, you still need the oil to be able to adhere to the surface underneath, so always add water to your acrylic mixture.

You could also use quick drying oil paints which are sometimes called Alykds.

Or establish a tone just with raw umber and turpentine (or odourless mineral spirits) or standard raw umber and quick drying white.

White pigments dry more slowly than the raw umber which is an earth colour and dries fairly quickly (which is why I recommend a quick drying white above).

If you have an underpainting that has too much oil in it you will be breaking the number 1 rule of oil painting – fat over lean

What is fat over lean?

A new Paleo diet plan?

No, fat over lean is the expression painters use to make sure you prevent your painting from cracking.

It basically means that each succeeding layer of paint should have more ‘fat – oil’ than the preceding layer.

It’s all to do with how oil paints dry.

  • Turpentine or odourless mineral spirit (OMS) dries by evaporation.
  • Oil dries by oxidation – it absorbs oxygen

For this first stage we will be using OMS or Turpentine mixed with the oil paint so it has a ‘lean’ underpainting which will dry quickly.

When we get the next stages of the painting we will be mixing linseed oil with our oil paint and these layers will be more oil rich, hence ‘fatter’ and will take longer to dry.

Palette layout and tone

For this first ‘blocking in’ of the painting, we will be painting with raw umber only.

For further paintings and for a darker finish, a mix between raw umber and ivory black will be used, however, a great deal can be learned by just using raw umber and white.

The choice of palette colour can be a deciding factor in your success.

The image below shows the different optical effects that happens to the colours depending on the colour or tone of the palette they are placed on. If you were working on a very dark painting – a black palette would be very useful as beginners have the tendency to never go dark enough when they first start painting.

And when you see the raw umber on the white palette you can soon see why, the raw umber looks black.


For this painting tutorial I will be using the mid tone option. A sheet of perspex (3mm thick) that I have just laid on-top of the coloured ground canvas (raw umber & white).

Please note: Even though there is white on my palette this is just to illustrate the differences in using a tonal palette. I don’t use white at all in the first section of the painting.

Pro tip: When painting in the studio I have a larger sheet of glass that I can adjust the tones underneath depending in the subject matter. The tones could be a sheet of grey paper, a piece of black card or a section of canvas painted to a mid tone.

Reference Photograph

will kemp portrait artist

I have chosen a self portrait, as when you’re first starting you’re more forgiving of any mistakes on yourself.

The key points to notice are:

  • a wide tonal range from the bright white of the t shirt to the dark black of the hair.
  • a single light source so you get a strong cast shadow this can help to create the illusion of depth and interest in your painting.
  • a dark background so the lights on the face will stand out

Drawing out portraits

Accurately representing the human face has been an obsession with artists for years and there is still something amazingly compelling about portraiture.

For this series I will be concentrating more on the technical approach using Classical Painting techniques rather than using this as a series on a Portrait Drawing course.

Usually the initial issues stem from a lack of knowledge of drawing.

If you have studied drawing, or are aware of the powerful tricks your brain can play with you when trying to record something accurately then you are at an advantage for the initial drawing out stage – however, if are more interested in learning the painting techniques then just take your time and sketch as accurately as you can.

portrait drawingI’ve drawn out the basics of the portrait into the canvas with a 2B pencil and notice how I also draw in the shadow line.

The shadow line is where no direct light hits the subject, so the darkest darks. It should be a simple line drawing.

I gently rubbed over the initial pencil marks just to leave the faintest of lines. The less graphite you have to mix into the paint the better. Some artists prefer to draw in charcoal, or if you are working on a very photorealist finish a permanent marker with a fine tip can be used. Try to find a brown pen rather than black, as it is more forgiving.

underpainting portraitThe first mix is raw umber diluted with the odourless mineral spirits – OMS. Pure gum turpentine is traditionally used and ‘cuts’ through the oil easier, but if you are working in a confined space with poor ventilation then odourless mineral spirits are a great option. ‘Zest it’ is also nice to use and has a citrus scent.

sight size portrait

For this example the reference photo is the same size at the painted image.

This approach and technique is associated with the sight-size method and can be very effective when you are first starting portraiture.

You don’t have to set up a cast or model from life, just print out your reference image the same size as your canvas and practice working 1: 1. This way you can quickly and easily judge the tones and shapes in your painting, by flicking your eyes between the two images.

 Step 1 – Block in the background


Working between a number 2 and number 4 (Filbert Ivory brush) I begin to block in the background. The paint mixture is thin, yet opaque. I dip my brush into the OMS, when I say dip, I mean 2 mm. Just a really tiny amount. I then squeeze the brush tip in some kitchen roll so the brush is damp but not wet.

I apply the paint with a scrubbing motion, working between the smaller brush for the details, then swapping to the larger brush for the larger areas.


The initial ‘scrub in’ is quite loose, just to get a feel for the tone on the canvas. I then work over it with a larger brush to smooth out the tone. We are trying to keep the tones flat and simple so I work over any thicker areas of paint so the surface is more like a stain, rather than thick paint.

 Step 2 – Block in the darkest darks

portraittutorial darkest dark

I now establish the darkest area in the painting, still just using the raw umber. As I know some of these areas are even darker than the raw umber I can feel confidence to work with slightly thick paint. Again, not using too much of the OMS, it should feel like a dry brush effect and the more you ‘scrub’ the further the paint will go.

Areas where the tones are very close are kept as one single mass tone. The tendency will be to want to go in and add all the little subtleties and details you are beginning to see.

Like chocolate on a diet we have to learn to resist!

Step 3 – Dry brush in the shadow line

portraittutorial bedbug line

Notice how when I am applying the paint to the inner parts of the portrait I’m keeping the edges very soft. This is key when building up a portrait with this method. Hard, sharp edges are tough to cover over when you are working with thin layers of oil paint so try and keep your edges soft in these early stages.

The tendency now will be to try and grab some white and ‘get painting’ but again this is unwise- remember- start slow, so you can finish quick.

portraittutorial judging tones

Check the drawing on your painting and check your tones are going along the right lines. You can squint your eyes at the subject which is a very effective method of simplifying tonal values.

Now have a look at the edges between the background and the edge of the head, notice how the hair and the ear are blurred. The photograph as been taken to mimic how the human eye sees, so soften the edges.

If we look at Velasquez’s self portrait notice how soft and blurred the edge of the hair next to the face is. They blend into each other so your gaze is focused on his gaze.


 Step 4 – Soften the edges

portrait blending edges

To blend an edge take a dry brush (or a brush with a very little OMS if the paint is beginning to dry and you still need to blend it) and gently brush over the line. I often use sables for this, as the softer hairs enable a smoother blend. The Ivory filberts are slighly softer than a pure hog brush so are still very useful when blending, you just need to use a lighter touch.

portraitkitchen roll

I sometimes also use a piece of kitchen roll (ideally lint free) or a cotton rag to take the edge off. And sometimes only a finger will do just to get that subtle blend (If you like the effect of using your finger for blending then make sure you apply barrier cream before you start your painting session. Be aware to wash your hands. I know I sound like your mum, but the lead used in some of the paints can be dangerous if persistently having skin contact.

 Step 5 – Add more shadow detail

portrait shadow line

portrait tutorial eyes

I now put some more of the shadows into the portrait using the smaller round sable, at this stage I’m concentrating on the areas that would receive no direct light.

It is important to identify what falls into dark shadows and mid tones and it is not as easy as it sounds. Really study your reference image and say to yourself :

‘If I could only paint in pure black and pure white, what would I choose ?’

Everything that falls into the black category is what we are concerned with at this stage.

So even though some areas on my cheek are dark, I don’t put those in yet because they are halftones and will come as the portrait progresses.

You want to try and keep your darkest shadows one dark tone so when you come to put in the halftones you will have more scope to model the form.

I’m still keeping a flat tone and a dry brush so the effect is very soft.

 Step 6 – Using a smaller brush

portrait painting eyes

portraittutorial oil

More detail, checking the drawing and adding dark to the eyes, lips and collar bone.

 Step 7 – Refining shadows

portrait painting techniques

I now step back from the painting and squint my eyes, I flick my eyes between the reference photo and the painting and adjust any hard edges and drawing.

Step 8 – Checking edges and having a cup of tea

portraittutorial underpainting

portraittutorial beginners

oil painting techniques

portraittutorial lessons

It is really important when painting portraits to give your eyes a break, go and have a cup of tea, come back make your final tweaks and leave this stage to dry overnight.

Brilliant, our first stage is done.

Tune in next week for stage 2.

Happy painting!

You might also like:
1. How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 2

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Gunner Dave April 5, 2012

Will, what can I say, another great post!

I’m really looking forward to seeing how the painting develops. The source photo is wonderful – a work of art in its own right IMHO, and it will be interesting to compare the photo with the finished painting.

When painting portraits, is it your ambition to replicate the photo as best as you can, or does the process of painting allow you to ‘add something’ to the image? In other words, do you feel like you are somehow in competiton with the perfection of the machine-made process of photography, or do you consider that painting, with its hands-on human touch, has something extra about it which puts it in a different league?

Please forgive the amateur philosophy, but this is something I often ponder when working from photos …

All the best, Dave.


Will Kemp April 6, 2012

Hi Dave,

You haven’t been reading Walter Benjamin have you?

When painting portraits, is it your ambition to replicate the photo as best as you can, or does the process of painting allow you to ‘add something’ to the image? In other words, do you feel like you are somehow in competition with the perfection of the machine-made process of photography, or do you consider that painting, with its hands-on human touch, has something extra about it which puts it in a different league?

I never feel in competition with the photograph, for me a painting would always ‘win’
If you had 10 photorealist painters and the same image they would all come out differently, you can’t help your expression as a painter developing in the work.
When using a photograph, you’re working with it’s imperfection because all you have is a flat 2D image rather than a fantastic, living, breathing energy of a person.

When I paint a portrait from a photo reference it is a ‘guide’ albeit a good one, to develop a portrait that embodies the character of the sitter.

In a perfect world I would choose to paint from life but due to the amount of hours a sitting takes it is nearly always out of the question, however, I would always meet the sitter and take the reference photographs myself to try and capture what I’d felt when I met them.

Everybody has their own quirks, the way you hold yourself, the unconscious movements – that as an artist, you see.
The painting will always have an extra energy, something of the artist and the ability to hold the viewers gaze much more than the photograph will ever do as Walter Benjamin puts it, the artworks ‘aura.’

Having said all of this, when you are first starting to paint portraits, using reference photographs are a fantastic aid.
They don’t move or talk, the light is always constant, you can change the scale and make them black & white – as dealing with colour and skin tones is a whole new challenge!

Hope this helps,



Gunner Dave April 6, 2012


Very interesting to hear that even though you are obviously a great photographer you see painting as a superior way of making an image.

Unlike you, I often do feel in awe of photography, but find it too impersonal, since it could be said that the engineers who designed the camera are as much responsible for the quality of the image as the person who points and shoots (pro photographers may disagree!) With painting on the other hand I literally make every mark on the surface, good or bad …

Don’t think i’ve read the Benjamin book, must check it out.




Will Kemp April 6, 2012

Hi Dave,

I love photography portraits, just check out Jane Bown’s work and I don’t necessarily see painting as a superior way of making an image, but when I am personally capturing the character of a sitter through a portrait then yes, for me as a painter, my painting will always express more than my photography can.

You can read Benjamin’s essay‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, it might interest you.



Gunner Dave April 7, 2012

I totally agree, its about finding a medium which works for you and gives you pleasure rather than one medium being inherently better than another.

Oil paint has a special status because of its long and distinguished history, but in the end its always ‘horses for courses’.

Okay, enough deep thinking for one weekend, where’s the easter eggs … ?

Cheers Will,


Palak December 31, 2013

I agree.. that’s so well said.. ”Everybody has their own quirks, the way you hold yourself, the unconscious movements – that as an artist, you see.
The painting will always have an extra energy, something of the artist and the ability to hold the viewers gaze much more”
Thanks for the great tutorials


Will Kemp December 31, 2013

Cheers Palak.



Mario Rodríguez April 5, 2012

Hello Will.
Excellent post.
I’m looking forward to start!
Thanks for sharing all your knowledge and for the task you are doing on this blog.

A greeting from Spain.


Will Kemp April 5, 2012

Hi Mario,

Looking forward to working with you, glad you enjoyed the first post.



ML April 6, 2012

Looking forward to part 2!


Will Kemp April 6, 2012

Great to hear it,


David A. April 12, 2012

Hello Will,

I am a 12-year-old artist ,and have been reading your post for while now. They have helped me much.

Have a few questions about painting. I heard that the older and more beat up a brush is the softer it is. Does that make them better? If so how do you get them like that ,and what type work best like that?

I also would like to know if Princeton Art & Brush Co. is any good for brushes.

David A.


Will Kemp April 13, 2012

Hey David,

Great to hear the posts have been helping your painting.

To answer your questions,

I heard that the older and more beat up a brush is the softer it is. Does that make them better?

In my experience, if you’re working with Oils the older and more beat up the brush, the harder and more brittle it becomes. Due to working with the turpentine, it kinda eats away at the brush fibres so makes them shorter and less flexible, so harder to work with if you’re trying to get a smooth blend.

Even if you’re working with Acrylic paints the brushes as they age, still become stiffer due to tiny residues of paint building up over time.

The brush will be softest when you first buy it and the softness is dependant on the hair that is used. E.g: Hog hair from a pig is coarse and rough, sable from a mink tail will be super soft and springy.
This post about understanding brushes might interest you.

I also would like to know if Princeton Art & Brush Co. is any good for brushes.

I personally haven’t used these brushes but having a quick look at their website they look fantastic. The synthetic sable looks a really useful brush to have, are you working in Oils or Acrylics?

Hope this helps,



David A. April 13, 2012

Hi Will,

Thanks for answering my questions. The understanding brushes post has helped me.

I am painting with Acrylics but am very soon about to buy the Oil colors for painting black and white.

David A.


Will Kemp April 13, 2012

Hi David,

Glad the post helped,


Reinhard May 8, 2012

Hi Will,
in my ‘colour-quest’ (colour bias) I have stumbled across your videos on youtube and hence onto your proper site. What a blessing!!!!!! Many thanks.

I have my base in graphite (photorealism), want to move to colour, and have decided to give acrylics (Lascaux) a try. Am still sitting scared here looking at the still closed bottles but found so much on your site that all I can do is attempt to start. Since my love is the human face, a portrait it will be. I know that your portrait tutorial here is for oil but I think it might be helpful for acrylics as well.

Just wanted to thank you for your inspiration and help.

Cheers, Reinhard


Will Kemp May 8, 2012

Hi Reinhard,

Just starting is the best thing you can do, you really will learn loads through the process. Even if it is just a nose, or a pair of eyes!
You can apply similar techniques with the acrylics but might need to work on smaller sections at a time if you want that photorealist look.

The jump from graphite to painting can seem like a tough one as often the process can seem a bit back to front. There are some amazing painters that work in acrylics to get a photorealist finish. They often have a very methodical approach. Andrew Tift is a great example for inspiration of what can be achieved photorealist acrylic painter. Here is another post that looks at some of his methods Just take your time, with the same approach, and have a go!

Love to see your results,



Mario July 11, 2012

Hi Will.
Excellent advice on the brushes Rosemary & Co.
I am using the Ivory Fibet ones. And I love them.
In addition, the treatment of the company was excellent, and they sent brushes super fast.

Thank you very much.


Will Kemp July 11, 2012

Hey Mario,

Nice to hear from you, great to hear you are enjoying the brushes.




Rick September 18, 2012

Hi Will
Great Post
I have a question, I have never tried acrylic and I am wondering how do you make this tonal for the raw umber I mean darker umber for hair and lighter umber for the background? is it possible with water, or do you mix raw umber with white acrylic?
Greetings from Turkey :)


Will Kemp September 18, 2012

Hi Rick,

To make the tonal background I mix raw umber with titanium white ( you’ll only need a bit of raw umber as it is quite light) dilute the acrylic mix with water and brush onto the canvas.

You can just use raw umber and water but the colour will be darker and warmer in tone.

As we are looking for a neutral black amd white the raw umber & white makes makes a calmer grey for the underpaintng.



wanda October 31, 2012

Hi Will:
Thank you SO much for putting all this together:)
I am done with Part #1. Can’t wait until it dries to continue tomorrow!!. This has been a very useful excercise in values which is something I have had a lot of trouble with.
I love painting portraits but struggle a lot with the colors and values. This course is awesome!!!!


Will Kemp November 2, 2012

Hey Wanda,

Really pleased to hear it.

Let me know how you get on with the rest of the course,




a November 22, 2012

OM to de G that is good


Ghada January 7, 2013

So interesting!!!!


Jane January 20, 2013

At last, information I can understand
Just lovin your work
Addicted!!! Have already started to paint a portrait following your steps
Can see where I have been going wrong already
Only joined you on Friday ,
Thank you so much


Will Kemp January 20, 2013

Cheers Jane, really pleased you’re finding the articles helpful.



Kieran March 30, 2013

Hi Will.

Fantastic tutorial. It’s answered so many questions.

Just a quick question though: I am using the oil raw umber for the first stage and it is looking quite different to your image at this stage. I have been using the raw umber straight out of the tube, without mixing it with any medium. I dip my brush in the OMS, squeeze it out on kitchen roll and then get a small out of the raw umber on my brush. Am I missing something here? Will it be “lean” enough?

Thanks again for the great tutorial.



Will Kemp March 30, 2013

Hi Kieran,

Thanks, pleased you’ve found it helpful to your painting.

Yes, that’s right, just dilute the raw umber with the OMS, you can add quite a bit of OMS to the mix, to apply it as thin as watercolour if you want to, I just reccomend squeezing into the kitchen roll so it isn’t too liquid or the mix will run down the canvas.

Often, you’re aiming for the first consistency to be a bit thicker than milk and then the next layer similar to single cream is a good starting point.

Hope this helps,




Kieran March 31, 2013

Thanks Will. That’s a great help. I may have further questions as I go, which I hope you won’t mind answering too ;)



Nader April 15, 2013

Hi Will,

I downloaded your Oil course videos and they are great, it helped me do big steps in my education.

I have a question: I want to slowly start introducing colours to my oil portraits, what do you recommend for a start? which colours to use?



Will Kemp April 16, 2013

Hi Nader,

Thanks for dropping by, really pleased you’ve found the oil portrait course helpful. For starting to introduce colours it can vary depending on the model/lighting etc but a nice basic palette is Titanium white, Yellow Ochre, Light red, English red, Raw umber, Ivory black. You can read this article about a more extended portrait painting palette.



joan solomon May 13, 2013

What an instructive tutorial. I’ve been struggling with portraits for so long feeling frustrated and stuck! Now I feel like starting all over again.


Will Kemp May 14, 2013

Good one Joan, pleased to hear it,



Dan May 30, 2013

Hi will I was just wondering if there was a big difference between the cadmium colours, ? Say cad yellow light,? Cad yellow? Or cad red light or a cad red.? Many thanks


Will Kemp May 30, 2013

Hi Dan, not a great deal of difference, the Cad yellow light is brighter so is a good yellow because by adding a touch of permanent Alizarin crimson you have a colour that is pretty spot on for a cadmium yellow medium, and by being very bright you can always ‘dull’ it down. Equally, if you have a cadmium red medium and add a touch of cadmium yellow light your colour will be very close to a cadmium red light.

Hope this helps,


joan solomon May 31, 2013

I was also wondering about the cadmium lights. That was most helpful. Thanks.


Will Kemp June 1, 2013

Good one Joan


Dan May 31, 2013

Thank you will


bahareh August 3, 2013

hi will, yesterday i began the painting woman beside sea, its the first portrait i try, i wish it would be what i want to be….:) tnx for your nice article


Will Kemp August 3, 2013

Hi Bahareh,
Nice to hear from you, so please you’ve been inspired to paint your first portrait, and really hope the article has helped.



Melva September 30, 2013

Hi, Will,
thanks for the info. I’m new and started a oil painting of Christ I read about the black & white,checked it out with my phone and it showed it in bw very neat. I’ve never drawn a portrait and I’m amazed of what I’ve done. All free handed. I just hope I can paint it to look perfect. Hope to keep up with your help. Thank you.


Will Kemp October 3, 2013

Hi Melva, really pleased the article has helped with your black and white painting.



Marcy Sharit October 21, 2013

Hi Will. This is a great website. I am like so many others. I would love to do portraits but, I have only drawn them. I have used watercolors and acrylics. I have a set of oils for a bird painting book I have. When I draw someone, I erase and redraw to try to get the eyes, lips, etc. just right. How can I do this in oils? I mean, do I get the drawing just right and then proceed to the oils? I doesn’t look like you do a lot on the drawing itself. Being a beginner, I would like some advice.
Thank you,


Will Kemp October 21, 2013

Hi Marcy,

You’re right, when I’m painting a portrait, I draw in the basic shapes and underlying form then build the painting from there but still rely on my ability to draw a portrait when I’m adjusting the oil paint further along in the painting.

Some artist’s do draw the portrait in more detail before starting, others do even less than me, it’s what level you feel comfortable with, try a few with the drawing at different levels and see how you get on.

Hope this helps,



Tom A December 9, 2013

Hi Will,

Great tutorial, I will definitely be trying these techniques!

I was wondering how you care for your brushes; how do you clean them and where do you store them? Also, do you use the same brushes for acrylic and oils?




Will Kemp December 10, 2013

Hi Tom, I clean my brushes using Masters brush cleaner, it also helps to preserve them. I try to use different brushes for oils and acrylics. I store them flat to start with after washing so the water doesn’t gather in the metal ferrule of the brush, then in an old jug, bristle up.

Hope this helps,



Tom A January 7, 2014

Hi Will,

Thanks for the advice. I bought some Masters brush cleaner and it works a treat!

After a decent first stab at your self portrait tutorial I feel like I am ready to try and improve on my first efforts with a friend or relative, and was wondering about the use of oil or acrylic for grounds. Do you have a preference? I know that acrylic dries quicker and tends to be more opaque (if that is desirable), but are there any other considerations to take into account?

Thanks again,



Will Kemp January 7, 2014

Good one Tom, pleased the Masters worked well. An acrylic ground can work fine as long as you keep the mix thin enough so the subsequent oil layers can ‘grab’ onto the surface. I switch between the two depending on ground colour (for example I would use a acrylic black if I wanted a dark ground as ivory black in oil painting is a slow drying pigment)

Hope this helps, good luck with your next portrait.



Kryssy Read February 16, 2014

Hi Will,
You probably won’t remember me telling you I had started up an art group here in France where I live and we are all very long in the tooth but keen to learn. Anyway, we are two weeks in and I have watched many, if not all, of your tutorials and have started a portrait of my husband. First ever!! I have put on the raw umber layer and it is drying nicely in a quiet corner. I shall carry on with each stage and perhaps when it is finished – good or bad – you could take a look. I have joined the 21st century and opened a Flckr account to keep track of how I go and will try to figure out how to get the link.
Just one thing though….. hubby has seen me studying your tutorial – which I printed out – and has asked that I make him look as good looking and young in his portrait as you are in yours. Fat chance!!
Thank you for all the hard work you have put into your tutorials here and on YouTube. I am inspired.


Will Kemp February 16, 2014

Hi Kryssy, Yes I do indeed remember your email and really hope your art group is going well. So pleased to hear you started your first portrait and your husband sounds like a great choice for subjects (think I owe him a bottle of wine!)

Good luck working through the different layers of your portrait, looking forward to seeing how the final painting turns out.




Sonja Feldt Pedersen May 13, 2014

Hello Will Kemp,
I enjoy your free lessons

- but most of all I enjoy your good mood and happiness.

I am going to start a new portrait and as usually I go round and round not able to put the first paint on the canvas. What color to use and so on..
Then I find the artschool of yours and do something like that to start with…
Thanks for the artschool

Best regards


Will Kemp May 15, 2014

Good one Sonja, really hope you enjoy trying a more methodical approach to your portrait painting.




Sharon June 9, 2014

Morning Will!
Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge and personal perspective about how to paint, draw, mix paints, and so on. I’ve been hiding from my charcoal and paint brushes for years. I’m learning so much more from you than I did when I studied fine arts/studio painting 30 years ago at my university.

Back then, the focus was to paint in the abstract and only in oils. Acrylics were frowned upon (isn’t that strange since most painters then were using acrylics and even house paint!).

I can’t thank you enough for helping me get back to painting and drawing. Watching you paint made me really miss putting brush-to-canvas. Reading about how to paint and draw just isn’t the same as watching an artist work.
Warmest regards from the US to you!


Will Kemp June 9, 2014

Hi Sharon,

Great to hear from you, and thanks for your kind comments. Fantastic that you’re feeling inspired to get creating at the canvas again, so pleased you’ve been finding the articles and lessons of help.

Have a lovely day Sharon,



Dee July 4, 2014

I am soooo, so very happy that I came across your wonderful website! I’ve been playing around with oil paints at home without any real knowledge or direction and have been considering throwing in the towel (or oil rag) – but after reading through some of your helpful tutorials I feel the nag to keep pressing on and explore the medium further. Not giving up yet!

Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us all! :)


Will Kemp July 4, 2014

You’re welcome Dee, pleased you’ve found the lessons helpful.



terry hand July 21, 2014

Hi Will,

Thanks for such comprehensive guide to oil painting. I really appreciate you sharing this knowledge.
After a lifetime of using watercolour and gouache, followed by ten years of working digitally, I was really struggling with oils. I just couldn’t find a way into the medium at all. This is exactly what I needed.

Is the full course in a format that I can save on my computer?

Oh, and the Rosemary and Co. brushes are excellent!



Will Kemp July 23, 2014

Hi Terry, pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons, yes, the full video course is a series of downloadable videos (alongside a 10,000 word pdf guide) Pleased you’re enjoying the brushes!



terry hand August 11, 2014

Hi Will,

The video course is excellent – a really good basis for getting into this deceptively difficult medium.

Just a couple of small small questions – I apologise in advance if the answers are much more complicated than the questions!

Having taken the painting to a finished stage in black and white is it possible to apply coloured glazes on top to create a coloured painting. Or is it wrong to apply coloured glazes on top of white? I’m sure I read this somewhere, but there seem to be so many conflicting opinions, on this subject. Would this involve a completely different process? Obviously, fat over lean is going to come into it.

There are a lot of techniques that I have heard of, but don’t really understand, like scumbling, for example. Would it be possible for you to explain this in a few words?



Will Kemp August 12, 2014

Hi Terry, pleased you enjoyed the lessons and I’d be pleased to answer your questions:

Is it possible to apply coloured glazes on top to create a coloured painting.

Yes, you could add coloured glazes over the black & white portrait, but the lighter tones would probably be too dark. If you were aiming to create the black & white portrait as an underpainting for colour glazes you’d usually have the lights left a couple of steps lighter in preparation for the colour glazes ontop.

Would this involve a completely different process?

Yes and No, I’d use the same initial start to the portrait but not add as many subtle layers of glazes in the black and white, then go straight into the colour earlier on but then use different techniques, such as scumbling, (applying broken colour with a dry brush) with quite subtle colours. As a note of caution most beginners go in way too bright too soon.

There are a lot of techniques that I have heard of, but don’t really understand, like scumbling

You might find this Glossary of oil painting terms helpful

This technique shown is more for creating a finished black and white study rather than as an underpainting for coloured glazes, as getting your black and white painting right is 90% of the success of the painting.

Hope this helps Terry,



Ron Evans August 15, 2014


Your five part black and white oil painting instruction is superb. It teaches!!! Thanks you,. One question: Why do you use raw umber as an undercoat, if the final objective is black and white?



Will Kemp August 17, 2014

Hi Ron, working with the raw umber means you can establish the form quickly and it adds some subtle warmth to the shadows, this is a key skill to learn if you then move onto colour portraits as the warm shadows will juxtapose nicely with cooler highlights. Also it is a fast drying oil paint in compared to ivory black and titanium white so you can work over the top of it.


Gerrie September 15, 2014

Hi Will, came across you by accident, I am loving your YouTube videos and now your website. I struggle with drawing, any advice for me so I am able to move forward ? Thanx Gerrie


Will Kemp September 18, 2014

Hi Gerrie, pleased you have been enjoying the YouTube videos and articles, the absolute beginners drawing course is the best foundation to understand how drawing works, and then you can specialise from there, but it depends what you are struggling with in your drawings.
Hope this helps,



Sam October 12, 2014

Hi Will,
I understand that in “How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1”, from Step 1 through Step 8, you used raw umber only, no black, no white.
But, at the end of Step 8, some areas are darker than other areas. For example, the hair is darker than the eyebrows.
How did you achieve different darkness with one color and medium, without black or white?


Will Kemp October 12, 2014

Hi Sam, its just a case of changing the consistency of the paint. The thicker the paint, the darker it will look in it’s ‘masstone’ when it is painted thinner the ground colours shows through and gives the appearance a lighter look.
Hope this helps,



Sandi October 31, 2014

Hi Will,

I would like to follow your step by step guide to painting monotone portraits. Can you tell me what would be the optimal size of the canvas to use please.


Will Kemp October 31, 2014

Hi Sandi, when you’re first starting portraits having your reference image the same scale as your painting will make it much easier for judging shapes and tones, so depending on your printer size I would choose a canvas size to suit that.
Hope this helps,



Will Kemp April 8, 2012

Thanks Dave,

Bring on the eggs!



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