How to Paint Acrylic Portraits

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting, portraits

acrylic portrait painting tutorialPainting portraits with acrylics can be frustrating.

It can seem that you’re facing an uphill struggle.

After the pleasure of not getting headaches from toxic turpentine and being able to paint with thick impasto marks there seems to be double payback for daring to tackle a portrait with acrylics.

Not only do the colours appear unsophisticated and garish but the paint dries too quickly to blend together successfully, especially when you’re trying to mix subtle skin tones.

You can be left feeling disappointed with your results, admit defeat and crack out the thinners for another go with the Oils.

I’ve been working on a new portrait course, that can help develop your portrait skills and dramatically shorten your learning curve to achieving classical looking portraits with acrylics…

Taking you from Rookie to Rembrandt

It is something that I would have loved when I was first starting to paint portraits with acrylics.

I’d always painted with Oils through art college and had used full strength turpentine – safe in the knowledge my fellow students were cool with the fumes and I had the luxury of time to wait for the Oil paint layers to dry (perfect time for a few pints down the pub!)

However, when the relaxing days of college ended, I found myself painting in a small studio at the front of a teapot factory that was open to the public and mounting bills to pay…now the 6 month drying time of Oils didn’t seem so attractive!

Plan B – a crash course in acrylics.

So I knew how to structure an Oil painting but translating that knowledge to acrylics, to make them look like Oils – wasn’t easy.

The paint tube names were different to the historical colours I’d used with Oils and they all seemed to be a lot brighter in saturation as well.

The acrylics seemed to dry so quickly – I didn’t have time to alter the shapes on the canvas and the edges of my brushstrokes were just too severe.

On top of that, there was a colour shift in the drying time of the paints, that kept on putting my mixes out.

I tried painting really thick …. then really thin and I did produce a lot of acrylic portraits, some award-winning but the subtleties of tone and smokiness of the Old Masters still alluded me.

I needed to change direction, think around the problem and comeback with a new approach.

The Royal Seal of Approval

So how the paintings turn out?

Pretty good.

I had my portraits exhibited at the Mall Galleries in London, became a finalist in the Artists & Illustrators Portrait Artist of the Year and then I received the letter.

You know the ones you don’t really think exist. It was a letter wax sealed with a Royal Crest.

Had I been asked to paint the Queen?

Not quite but for me the prize was even better.

I’d been awarded a Queen Elizabeth Craft Scholarship to study Classical Portraiture in Florence, Italy.

I could finally put all the pieces of historical information I’d put together myself, into an order that worked for me.

It changed the way I painted and cemented my existing practice.

I developed a method that enabled me to get consistently natural skin tones, keep the paint wet whilst using the minimum amount of colours.

Mixing natural skin tones with Acrylics that look like Oils

The main problem with acrylics is they dry too quickly. You don’t enough ‘blending time’ to create smooth subtle transitions.

But what if you did 80% of your mixing before you even picked up your brush?

If you just mix your portrait with the colours straight from the tube, you’re missing a trick.

Subtle mixes, scumbling and glazing effects can all be easily achieved with acrylics if you have the right approach.

I’ve found taking techniques and colour palettes from the past Masters and combining them with the qualities and properties of acrylics, can turn the ‘disadvantages’ of acrylics into your advantage.

You can learn more and join the Acrylic Portrait Course by just clicking this link.

 

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy November 6, 2014

Awesome! I tried Water miscible Oils but don’t really understand those either and I prefer Acrylics. So, I too have struggled with the Acrylics drying too fast to do good wet-wet blending, hard edges (ridges), the colors drying darker than what was intended, and don’t even get me started with how glaring and intense some of the colors are – a far cry from the lovely muted palette of the Masters. I am looking forward to this course – should be a blast – thanks Will~!

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Will Kemp November 6, 2014

Hey Nancy, they can be tricky can’t they! really hope you enjoy working through the course and let me know how you get on.
Cheers,
Will

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Donna November 7, 2014

I am a beginner painter. I haven’t done any portrait work at all. Would this course be appropriate or beyond me as a beginner?

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Will Kemp November 7, 2014

Hi Donna, even though it’s a painting course it depends on your current skill with drawing. The painting techniques, the colour mixing is not beyond you as an beginner as I go through each step, but with every portrait it would be a challenge. Portraits are a challenge even for seasoned pros!

However, if the lines of your first drawing are ‘out’ then the whole portrait would look out, but the painting techniques would not. So if you work from a grid method or trace the basic line drawing of the portrait you would be able to learn all of the colour mixing techniques for the skin tones. Have a little look at the welcome video at the end where I show the progressive stages of the last portrait, you can see the initial drawing for the painting there.It’s just a few lines to get the basic shapes in the right proportions. Once you have that down the painting would come together well, even if you’re brand new to portraiture.

Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Donna February 23, 2015

I worked through your tutorial for painting a portrait in oils. It was my first time using oils and my first portrait and I am THRILLED with the results! Your instruction is incredible, even for an absolute beginner!! The portrait was from an old photo of my mom who has passed away and everyone is amazed with the portrait. (Don’t know how to include a photo here or I would).
Now I have a situation where I am needing to paint a portrait in acrylic, so am going to use your acrylic portrait tutorial and hope for similar results.
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible talent for teaching!!

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Will Kemp February 24, 2015

Hi Donna, lovely to hear from you and so pleased you’re happy with your results from the portrait painting lessons, really hope you enjoy the colour portrait course.
Cheers,
Will
p.s would love to see your portrait, just attach it to an email through my direct email on the contact page.

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sanaz November 7, 2014

I always enjoy you tutorials Will :) as well great method and kind support you always have. Im sure this course is great as others. keep making more ;)
Cheers,
Sanaz

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Will Kemp November 7, 2014

Thanks Sanaz,
Cheers,
Will

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Ellen Knolls November 7, 2014

I am so excited to take this course. I am finishing up the black and white study now, and working on a piece using the course as a guide.

I paint with color in most all my portraits and as a self taught artist, using acrylics is always a challenge. I hope to learn patience and better application styles in this course. Thanks Will!!

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Will Kemp November 7, 2014

Good one Ellen, sounds like perfect timing. Really hope you enjoy the course.
Cheers,
Will

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Eileen November 10, 2014

Hi Will, Ironically I have just started working on sketching portraiture in pencil and applying the technique of using shadows to create shape rather than line. Every portrait is an improvement as I gain understanding and insight into how to create a better shape and level of accuracy to the model or photograph I am working from. Very challenging, but so exciting. When asked would you paint a portrait my response was I would love to, but have no idea where to begin. Your timing is perfect. So excited and inspired about this course! :-)

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Will Kemp November 10, 2014

Hi Eileen, sounds like great timing! Your work on understanding the drawing structure and shading of the portrait is the perfect foundation for then incorporating colour mixing and painting techniques. Really hope you enjoy the course.
Cheers,
Will

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Dan November 12, 2014

Hi will . Firstly I would like to say thank you for the acrylic portrait course , Very good value indeed . I currently use the basic acrylic palette you have suggested before . Cad yellow light , crimson . Burnt umber , ultra marine blue and have been amazed by how many colours I can make or close to ie burnt sienna yellow ochre cad red light raw sienna ext . I have been told that burnt sienna burnt umber are a good choice to mix a basic skin tone for all skin types . Then add yellow ochre , maybe drop in a brighter yellow for pal skin tones . Add more burnt umber and blue for darker skin .I just want a starter point of burnt umber and burnt sienna . Two colours that I really love . Does this sound ok ? Many thanks

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Will Kemp November 12, 2014

Hi Dan,

Pleased you’re enjoying the course, yes you can use these colours as a starting point, all palettes are personal to each painter. As long as you understand the principles of colour mixing you can alter and adapt a palette to suit your own personal tastes. You can see examples of the burnt sienna and burnt umber both on the final painting and lesson 6 where I show mixes with both to match a base tone.

Cheers,
Will

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Dan November 12, 2014

Cheers will

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Laurie November 21, 2014

Hi Will
Thank you so much for this course. I attended a year of art fundamentals in college and in spite of being expected to produce natural skin tones in acrylic, the teacher never once taught anything about how to mix the paint. I’ve always been a good artist and good with pastel, but when it came to mixing colours it was like a road block, I’d get frustrated and put everything away.

I’ve finished the first portrait and so far I’m am really thrilled with the course and the results.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest come out.
Thank you for helping me take my art to the next level.

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Will Kemp November 21, 2014

Hi Laurie, nice to hear from you and so pleased you’ve been achieving good results with the acrylic portrait course. Looking forward to hearing how your other portraits turn out.
Cheers,
Will

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Tom M. November 23, 2014

Greetings Will,
I purchased your course and I think it’s great. I would encourage anyone who prefers acrylics over oils and wants to paint portraits to get the course too! Off and on I’ve been looking for a book or video that covers portraiture with acrylics and I have not found anything satisfying until now. I really liked how you developed each phase of the course. I also really appreciated how you took the time to go into great detail of all the little facets of painting that can lead to frustration. The real time video allows the viewer to catch all of the little details. It’s better to have it that way instead of a ‘speed painting’ video that you can miss things. I’m on a Mac and if I wanted to I just did the key command to run it at 2x or faster when reviewing. Well done.

Tom

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Will Kemp November 23, 2014

Hi Tom, great to hear form you and thanks for sharing your experience of the acrylic portrait course. Really looking forward to seeing your results from the course (thanks for the 2x tip aswell!)
Cheers,
Will

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David Smith December 2, 2014

Hi Will,
I recently bought your acrylic portrait course. I had a run through all the videos and it looks great. A lot of detailed and useful info. Can’t wait to get stuck in.

I’ve worked through your 5 oil portrait lessons (the web page versions). A lot of reading but well written and I really learnt a lot.

As a follow up I did a portrait of my niece and was very pleased with the results. I think something must have sunk in!

PS Could you check I’m on the email list OK as I don’t get the messages when theres an update to your site. (I very nearly missed the introductory offer for this latest course… phew!)

Cheers.

David

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Will Kemp December 4, 2014

Hi David, thanks for purchasing the course and really pleased your painting of your niece turned out well, I’ll have a check on the email software.

Will

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Sabeen Virk December 4, 2014

Hi, Will! I just wanted to say that this course looks brilliant! I emailed you awhile back about learning to paint portraits after I had given up painting for many years, and you were kind enough to reply with encouraging advice. I tried to apply the tips you gave as well as the information from your portrait painting course (which was for oils) towards using acrylics and ran into all the problems you’ve described. Imagine my excitement when I saw that you had put together a course which addressed all the problems I was facing and I’m sure others were as well! I’m really looking forward to purchasing this next course and hope that you will put together more because you are an excellent and very talented teacher. Cheers!

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Will Kemp December 4, 2014

Hi Sabeen, lovely to hear from you and pleased you’re looking forward to working through the portrait course.
Will

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Gucks December 21, 2014

Hello
I really like your work so much for its impressionistic appeal and thanks for sharing your knowledge about how Old Masters do their work. If I really have the money now, I’ll buy your portrait course :) cause I really want to learn the techniques. I have done some portraits before but I wasn’t consistent yet with the techniques, I’m self-taught so you’re a great help.

I just want to ask if using a hog brush or a nylon/ synthetic brush has its bearing in making portraits. Which one would you recommend for a portraiture that I can also use for landscape and other subjects as I want to keep things minimal. Thanks in advance :)

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Will Kemp December 27, 2014

Hi Gucks,

To answer your question:

If using a hog brush or a nylon/ synthetic brush has its bearing in making portraits.

Yes, the stiffer the brush (hog) the more texture and brushmarks will be visible, but the easier it is to move around thicker passages of paint, if using a nylon/synthetic you can achieve softer blending but the brush will bend more when trying to move paint around. You might find this video on choosing acrylic brushes of interest.
Cheers,
Will

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Dan January 26, 2015

Hi will I noticed that your portrait palette consists of raw umber and ivory black . I’m also aware that you can also mute down skin tones using ultra marine blue and also a burnt umber . Does it come down to personal preference ? . I love burnt sienna and recently practiced muting the colours down using equal parts raw umber , ultra marine , and burnt umber separately . The only difference I noticed was that burnt umber darkened the sienna quite considerably whereas the ultra marine and raw umber were very similar . Is it just personal preference what you use ? Many thanks if you don’t mind answering this question .

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Will Kemp January 27, 2015

Hi Dan, yes that’s right its a personal preference really to what palette you begin to feel suits you and your painting style, burnt sienna can produce some lovely tones.
Cheers,
Will

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Dan January 27, 2015

Thank you will .

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mathew arthur February 2, 2015

Hiya Will,
Have completed the first 2 exercizes in the Portrait Course and am quite happy with results. As to the Black Girl; I’m really struggling.
I only have ivory black and am finding her hair is not dark enough.
Also, her complexion has become rather chalky.
Otherwise the painting is coming along nicely – especially at a distance!?
Do you have any suggestions to aid me with it’s completion.
Sending you a photo of it might be an idea, but I don’t see how to do that.
Anyhow, Cheers to you, Matt

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Will Kemp February 2, 2015

Hi Matt, pleased your portraits are coming along nicely, on the final portrait the ivory black should be plenty dark enough, I would be tempted to warm it up with some cadmium red. The chalky surface can just be the acrylics drying, this is usually brought back in the varnish stage of the painting.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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mathew arthur February 3, 2015

Thanx for your quick response Will.
I am So impressed with your professionalism.

Regards,
Matt

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Will Kemp February 3, 2015

You’re welcome Matt

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claudia lapham February 9, 2015

In reading the comments on your portrait videos I’m encouraged to purchase them. I’ll be checking out what other videos are available before making my decision. Thanks for all of your free videos and written information it’s been very helpful. I live rurally and it’s impossible to find teachers unless you’re willing to travel a few hours and have funds to pay for hotels and the classes.
thanks
Claudia

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Will Kemp February 12, 2015

Good to hear it Claudia, if you have any questions on the course just let me know.
Cheers,
Will

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Alyce Trebra March 8, 2015

Hello Will – What is the charge for the Arylic Painting Course? How long doers it last?

Am very interested…….

Thank you

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Will Kemp March 9, 2015

Hi Alyce, you can read more details about the course and prices here. The course is a series of downloadable video lessons so is yours to keep forever.
Cheers,
Will

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Guri April 2, 2015

Hey Will! I just wanted to ask something, art is just my hobby and actually i m diing engg. I usually draw pencil sketch portraits and now i want to try it with colours.
So plz tell me how to begin.
Thanks
Guri

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Will Kemp April 7, 2015

Hi Guri, if you start with black and white paints and then slowly introduce colours to your portraits.

Cheers,
Will

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doug q May 20, 2015

I will definitely be taking this course. I can draw a pretty good likeness but I have yet to be very successful translating that into painting. I am only now starting to get some control of acrylics and I find that the new open acrylics from Golden help me a lot as they dry a lot slower. Will’s Cherry painting tutorial was really helpful and I am eager to see if he can help me start painting decent portraits.

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Will Kemp May 21, 2015

Good one Doug, really hope you enjoy the course.
Cheers,
Will

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Diego July 1, 2015

Hi Will,
thanks very much for sharing your knowledge and your tips in your blog (actually I’ve found your video on YouTube first).
This is my first painted portrait ever, done with acrylics on canvas among the things:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10206833536739131.1073741840.1297715282&type=1&l=56947525c2

Not at your level of course but satisfied about the result and again thanks for your help!!!

All the best,

-Diego

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Will Kemp July 3, 2015

Hi Diego, great to hear from you and really pleased you’ve been finding the lessons helpful. Great job for your first painted portrait, you’ve got a nice subtlety of skin tone on the faces and a good tonal range from through the darks in the foreground.
Cheers,
Will

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Edgar Srerard August 6, 2015

Hi Will,
Thank you for your website – I do enjoy following your tips and your travels. Why is it that you can fiddle and get frustrated with portrait painting and then just one brush stroke can make a face come alive.
Kind Regards Edgar

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Will Kemp August 6, 2015

You’re welcome Edgar, ha, ha, yes portraits do seem to have that knack!
Will

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Anshul December 9, 2015

Hello WILL, I am new to canvas painting and just painted 2 canvas with acrylic. But I am not satisfied with my work, may be due to lack of guidance. I just want to know how to paint portraits and objects like rocks, old buildings so that it look realistic.

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Will Kemp December 9, 2015

Hi Anshul, it’s often a case of keeping things simple to start with a limited palette of colours and then concentrating on the drawing aspects of your work. Get the drawing right and the realism will start to come.
Cheers,
Will

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Anshul December 10, 2015

Thanks WK

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Jackie Calderone June 15, 2016

This acrylic portrait course looks awesome and just what I need right now. I live in the USA and presently own Liquitex and Golden acrylic brands of paint and various mediums. Would I have to invest in another brand of paints and mediums or will these work just as well? The reason I ask, is I viewed another Youtube video on the same subject and the artist was using and recommending another brand of products.
Thanks so much for your reply,
Jackie Calderone

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Will Kemp June 15, 2016

Hi Jackie, on the course I mostly use Golden brand and Winsor & Newton Brand, so you wouldn’t need to invest in another brand of paint.
Cheers,
Will

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Jackie Calderone June 15, 2016

Thanks Will! I’ll be in touch soon.

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Gary Green July 25, 2016

6 month drying time!!! My goodness I hope you’re exaggerating. I’ll stay away from oils. I’ll still with acrylics. I’lll go with Crayolas if necessary.

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Anne K August 3, 2016

Hi Will,

Thank you for sharing your techniques and helpful advice. I often come to your site for because I paint with acrylics. I actually just started a few months ago – I sketched my entire life, but now at retirement have finally got the nerve to paint. I am pretty good at mixing colors, I am kind of learning as I go. I am painting a photo of my niece for her birthday. It is a profile of her looking over the Hudson River. It was looking incredible until I began applying the paint to her nose, mouth, and chin. I can’t seem to get it right. I have painted white over it 3 times now to redo. Any advice? I am also going to check out the course information as well. But leaving next week for New York and hoped to take the painting with me. Thank you, Anne

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Will Kemp August 3, 2016

Pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons Anne, you’ve got some great inspiration from the Hudson River School painters! often a change of scene and a fresh look at the painting can help to give a fresh perspective on the portrait.
Cheers,
Will

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