How to paint a black & white portrait in Oils a Step by Step approach
In this series of 5 posts, I am going to look at the process of how to tackle painting a black & white portrait using oil paints.
So when you come back to your painting the next day, it’s a good time to reassess the drawing and have another look at the tones…
What we’re going to do to start with, is to strengthen the background and shadow tones, still using just the Raw umber.
Because Raw umber is a quick drying pigment it still sits in the principle of fat-over-lean but to make sure, we’re going to add some Linseed oil to our Odourless Mineral Spirits (OMS) to create our paint medium.
Mediums in Oil Paint
A medium is something added to the paint whilst mixing colours on the palette. Different artists vary greatly in their preferred choice of mediums. Mediums can help with blending, glazing, brush techniques and the handling qualities of the oil paint.
Mixing Raw umber for this layer
For this Raw umber part of the demonstration we will be using a very simple mix of OMS and refined Linseed oil, 1 part linseed oil : 4 parts mineral spirits
To add the oil to the OMS, I use a pipette. They make it easy to judge exact proportions and help keep a clean working environment.
The one thing to remember with a medium is less is more, you only need such a small amount of it otherwise you find yourself chasing the paint around the canvas instead of being able to scrub it in.
Refined Linseed Oil: made from the seeds of the flax plant. It adds gloss and transparency to paints and is available in several forms. It dries very thoroughly, making it ideal for underpainting and initial layers in a painting. Refined linseed oil is a popular, all-purpose, pale to light yellow oil which dries within three to five days.
Step 9 – Strengthening the Shadows
I now dip my brush in the medium, then take the excess off on kitchen roll until the brush is damp but not wet. I then paint on a slightly thicker layer of paint over the hair to reinforce the tones – the darkest dark and get closer to the reference photo.
I’ve also reinforced the shadow line on the side of the face and under the chin, this was using the size 4 Ivory Filbert, notice how I haven’t blended the edge yet due to the scale of the portrait being quite small.
I will swap to a Sable to have more control and dry brush and fuse the edge.
Step 10 – Adding more darks on the features
So now squint your eyes at your painting and the reference photo and still think of simple shapes, don’t get hung up on trying to paint the details – just concentrate on the shadow shapes, and look for the areas of the darkest dark around the portrait.
I’ve now added the Raw umber around the eyes, top lip and the neck, using a smaller, Round brush. These are the areas that need to go darker, it’s at this point you can check your drawing again.
It’s natural to feel that you might be going in too dark at this stage but feel confident that we haven’t used black paint yet, so there is still another tonal step available to us.
Step 11 – Strengthening the background
Now using a slightly thinner consistency, I paint over the background again. Notice how the paint colour appears warmer in tone because of the warmer underglow coming through.
Paints always look warmer in a thin layer and always go cooler as soon as you add white. Although this is a very simple point, it can be key in getting the most out of each pigment, rather than jumping to use a new colour.
Then, using a size 10 Ivory Filbert, I gently unify the tone to get rid of brush marks and fuse the edge between the hair and the background.
Step 12 – Introducing the Lights
“Most objects can be reduced broadly into three tone masses, the lights (including the high lights), the half tones, and the shadows. And the habit of reducing things into a simple equation of three tones as a foundation on which to build complex appearances should early be sought for”
Harold speed, The Practice and Science of Drawing
A note about underpainting white with acrylic paint
Pro tip: In this demonstration I under paint the lights with oil paint. However, if I’m working to a tight deadline and the ground has been prepared with an acrylic gesso there is another option that you can work an underpainting with acrylics.
Be careful not to paint too thickly or you will have a plastic resist to the oil paint, notice in part 1 how the coloured ground was applied thinly so the oil could still adhere to the canvas.
3 Different kinds of White
- Flake white – This is a lovely white that brushes out nicely and has a nice flexibility in the paint film. It is also a quick drier compared with Titanium white, so is useful for under paintings. This makes it a great white for mixing subtle tones when working with a full palette for oil portraits as you can shift the colour, yet still work in semi-opaque layers to develop the skin tones.
It has a semi-opaque finish and is the least white of the white. For finishing highlights or a really bright white, Titanium white is a better choice.
For this tutorial, it is not as important and you could use a Titanium white for the whole way through. This way you can get used to using thicker, more opaque colours that will help you to understand the basics of painting, rather than getting obsessed with the subtleties of glazing.
- Titanium white – I find this is the most opaque and bright white, it is a slower drier than Flake white and is very thick when it first comes out of the tube.
Pro tip: I often mix my Titanium white with OMS just to create a more flexible and free flowing consistency, I then keep a small blob of the pure white for adding the thickest, brightest highlights.
- Zinc white – Another semi-opaque white used for mixing and subtle-tinting of colours, I personally don’t use this much in my paintings.
The perception that “oil paints are hazardous” comes from the use of lead-based pigments.
Until the beginning of the 20th Century, lead whites were the only opaque white pigments available, Zinc white was available but had more transparency and a tendency to dry slowly, so was hard to paint thicker, solid colour.
In the mid-1920’s non-toxic Titanium White was introduced and gave artists a non-toxic alternative. So historically, painters have been exposed to much higher levels of toxic pigments than modern day painters.
However, some artists continue to use lead white because of its interesting working properties. Lucien Freud loved it so much he bought it in bulk, fearful Cremnitz white was going out of production.
A note about Lead Whites
- Flake White No. 1
- Cremnitz White
- Foundation White.
Lead white has been used traditionally by the Old Masters, and as such is often viewed in high regard. However due to the toxic nature of this paint, it is often only available in tins and recently has had issues with health and safety.
They are fast drying and offer a high degree of flexibility and as a result, they are often used for portrait work.
Specifically, Flake White No. 1 has a creamy consistency and handles really well.
Cremnitz White is ideal for achieving sculptural effects thanks to it unusual almost stringy consistency.
Foundation White is a traditional lead-based white, ground in Linseed Oil which thanks to its fast drying rate, is ideal for priming.
Please Note: Disposal of the lead waste from the painting process can be problematic. Throwing lead out with your regular rubbish is against the law.
Lead paint, the tubes it comes in, cloths and any solvent used for cleaning when working with lead, are considered hazardous waste and have to be disposed of at hazardous waste sites. (see comments below)
I’ve also seen that Gamblin produces a flake white alternative that is non-toxic. I haven’t personally used it but will look into doing a comparison post in the future.
Drying rates of oil paints
Oil paints that are slow driers should be avoided in the underpainting as it breaks our number 1 rule of ‘fat over lean’. When a faster-drying layer is painted over the top it will pull apart from the underpainting which contracts and gets smaller when it dries.
When working with the lights, you need an underpainting with a quick drying white. You could use Alkyd (quick drying oils), an underpainting white or, as I am using in this demonstration a Flake white.
When you are painting with a range of colours on your palette, the different drying rates of the oil paints are not as noticeable because you are constantly intermixing them. However, for the technique we are using so far, building up the painting in progressive layers, you need to be aware of the drying times of the pigments you are using.
How to speed up the drying rate
White (especially Titanium white) takes longer to dry than Raw umber.
If you are working on the underpainting and want the oil paints to dry quicker, you need to add a siccative.
A siccative is a name for a drying agent mixed in with the paint.
Traditionally in classical painting, cobalt driers were often used to accelerate the drying time of oil paint. Using a pipette, you can just add a couple of drops of cobalt drier to your paint.
Mixing White for this layer
You’ve got 2 choices, if time isn’t an issue, mix your white as we did before in Part 1 with a little OMS, this way it will take a little bit longer to dry.
Alternatively, if time is an issue you can add a siccative.
For the initial white layer of the painting, I do add a siccative and the siccative I am using is Liquin. So what I do is mix a small amount of Liquin with the Flake white until it has a buttery consistency.
Please note: I don’t add any OMS or Linseed Oil.
Liquin speeds up the drying by about 50 percent.
Notice how on the whites I block in the mix doesn’t completely cover the coloured ground.
With the white I am just painting the light side of the portrait, the lightest lights, leaving the coloured ground exposed on the right side of the portrait.
With the smaller round sable, I add lights around the eyes, I’m trying to establish a tonal range between the darkest darks and the lightest lights so I will be able to judge the next step easier when we mix our colour strings. Don’t worry if it’s not 100% accurate it is just a thin veil of paint to help our eyes judge tone.
Step 13 – Softening the Lights
On this stage of the painting, I have softened the white edges on the face so again. I don’t have any sharp lines and notice once we are at this stage I then have gone in heavier to make the white on the T-shirt more opaque as I am more confident in matching the tonal value.
Great work! next week we can start to mix colour strings and model the form of our portrait.
Tune in next week for stage 3.
You might also like:
1. How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 1
2.How to Paint a Portrait in Oil – Part 3
3. Choosing a Basic Palette for Portraits
This Post Has 55 Comments
I notice that when I squint my eyes at your painting, I see only two colors. Is that how the colored ground is supposed to look? When I do that the raw umber looks way to dark.
Yes that’s right. Often when you first start painting it is a real tendency to try and get working on the details too soon.
If you squint your eyes at the subject you are working from and then your painting you can see if the simple tone masses are working.
If the painting is working in it’s basic tones, when you add the details it will be a lot more effective.
Thank you for your lovely blog, I have learned so much. I am very new to oil painting and was wondering regarding Flake White, what is the safest way for disposal because of the lead content? eg. the paper palette or OMS/Linseed residue (if you make a medium with the two to dip your brush into whilst painting)
Glad you are enjoying the blog, great question about the disposal of lead.
It can vary depending on country. I collect any residue and store in a resealable, heavyweight plastic container (a thick tupperware) and then, every few months, I drop it off with a local waste collection firm that deal with hazardous waste.
I had an account with the waste management company when I was running our gallery so it didn’t seem too much hassle, alternatively you can drop it off at a local approved council disposal facility, the container needs to be marked as containing hazardous waste “Lead Contaminated – Poisonous”.
But I can see as a beginner this might seem a bit off-putting if you just want to get started with oils!
For the rest of the painting I will be using Titanium white so using flake white is definitely not essential. (I just wanted to show exactly how I personally work)
An alternative to flake white is to underpaint with a quick drying Alkyd paint or another non-toxic paint.
I’ve also seen that Gamblin produce a flake white alternative that is non toxic. I haven’t personally used it but will look into doing a comparison post in the future.
From the Gamblin website:
Hope this hasn’t scared you off! thanks for the great question, hope this has helped,
Thank you so much for the insightful information, Will! It would be wonderful if you could do a comparison post one of these days. I’ve been using Titanium with seemingly good results, and have been curious about the touted Flake…
One additional question, have you ever used the newer water mixable oils that have come about? (My laziness in clean-up asks this of you.)
Thanks kindly & cheers from abroad! (NYC)
You’re welcome, I have used the water mixable Oils but found they didn’t have the pigment strength or quality that artist quality Oils have.
They do have the advantage of an easy clean up but lack the qualities of Oil paint I love so much.
Hope this helps and I’ll try and review those as well!
Hello, I have recently started painting. I bought linseed oil to thin paints. I hear the danger from oil soaked rags, bit what about a painting with linseed oil on it. Is it equally combustible? What would be the proper storage for a painting while drying with linseed on it? Thank you for the info..
Thanks for the comment, your painting will be absolutely fine.
It’s the combination of a confined space and large surface area of a pile of rags that can make rags combustible.
As the oil oxidises (begins to dry out) the linseed oil goes through an exothermic reaction – this is a chemical reaction that gives off heat.
So, the more rags the quicker the temperature can rise.
When there is a pile of rags the oil begins to oxidise, giving off heat, the more oil, the greater the chance the temperature may eventually become hot enough to combust.
I say may because you would have to have an excessive amount of oil to cause such a reaction.
What would be the proper storage of an oil painting?
Ideally you want some airflow and the painting turned out towards the light, but not in direct sunlight. This helps to lessen the yellowing effect of the linseed oil on your painting. (the better quality paints you use the less effects of yellowing) try to find a storage area that does not have excessive levels of cold, heat, moisture, or dryness.
Hope this helps,
Will, your tutorials are fairly easy to follow and highly informative! I find myself shaking my head every time I come across your “beginners mistakes / errors” because I can relate. It’s as if you’re talking directly at me… I already notice a difference with your method as I just finished part 1! A Million Thanks!!
I have one question though do you trace your reference photo or is it freehand?
Thanks for your kind comments, pleased that the posts are helpful in your painting. I’ve freehand drawn this portrait using the sight-size method to draw it out. You can of course trace or grid out when getting started as the painting will be tricky enough! However, when drawing out you really get to know the shapes and the face, this way it helps you when you come to do the painting because you are more accustomed to it. Just as using the burnt umber helps you to see the shapes and make adjustments at an early stage rather than going in with full colour straight away.
Hope this helps,
Well done. I hope I eventually get confident / comfortable with sight-size method and painting-in the sketch in place of pencil.
Thanks for this most informative tutorial, So well written and explained.
You’re welcome Jeannie, are you going to give a black & white portrait a go?
I have painted a few B/W portrait with much success but I did not implement any instruction…I winged it. However after looking through your tutorial several times I will no doubt improve even more.
Great to hear it Jeannie, often one slight tweak can make a big difference in portraits,
Hi! Thank you for your tutorial, it’s very helpful! Just a question; should you leave the painting to dry after darkening the shadows and before painting with white?
Pleased you’ve been finding the portrait tutorial helpful, when painting in the white you don’t have to wait for the painting to dry before adding the white.
Hi Will, me again! Are you using the acrylic raw umber here again? Or have you switched to oil. I didn’t think medium was used with acrylic..
Hi Kieran, for this specific portrait demo I used acrylics for the coloured ground only and then work with oils throughout.
I’m Jose. I’m from Barcelona-Spain.
First thanks for all your help!
I have on question:
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD ELAPSE MORE OR LESS BETWEEN SESSIONS?
Thanks again for your time and congratulations for your success
pleased you’ve been enjoying the tutorials, the time scale varies depending on if you are adding an Alykd medium to the oils & the thickness of the oils, but if you’re painting quite thinly you should be able to start each stage the next day. if you are using quick dry oils you can sometimes move onto the next stage the same day.
Hope this helps,
Great tutorials. One comment in the United States there is no law against mixing hazardous waste in domestic trash. It is exempt under the Resource Recovery Act. Don’t know the situation in Europe. So if you dump lead based paint in your trash your not a nice person for doing it but your not a criminal in the U.S.
Thanks for the note for any US readers.
I’m having a bash at this. So far so good.
Working on part 3 at the moment. I’m using Winsor & Newton Artisan oils (the water mixable ones). Painting on a piece of thick card about 8″ high primed with 2 coats acrylic gesso painted on relatively thickly to give a bit of tooth.
I often use thick paper or card for practising on. Because its cheaper it takes the fear factor out of wasting a good canvas.
I roughed in the initial stages with W & N hogshair but switched to nylon filberts for the dry brushing. They are definitely not as soft as your ivory brushes!
Medium is the water mixable linseed and the Artisan thinner. I could have used water to thin but decided on the thinner to keep it more like normal oils.
For parts one and two I used zinc white with a drier. I found the zinc white handy because its semi opaque and allows you not to overdo the brightness. For the next part I’m going for the titanium white.
I noticed how you vary the tone of the background leaving some parts more covered than others. I missed this at first but then just rubbed the paint back a bit to lighten it.
I would recommend the water mixable oils to anyone like myself you lacks space and ventilation for conventional oils. Its less bother cleaning brushes too.
Although they may not have the pigment strength or quality they are still pretty good and have a greater saturation than acrylics.
Thanks for the review of the tutorial using the water-mixable Oil paints, as space and ventilation can be a common issue when tackling traditional Oils.
Looking forward to seeing how you get on in the next parts.
Will, I just wanted to drop a line and say Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I’ve always stayed with pencil because it was “comfortable” and I knew how to work it. But recently I’ve dipped into color and the world’s opening up now in a vivid way. Though there are a million ways to be taught, I know “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. So I choose to learn how the old masters learned……..the right way. Thanks again you’ve helped me beyond measure.
Nice to hear from you and do pleased you’ve found the articles helpful in making that step from pencil into colour. It can feel like you’re going backwards to start with when you’re first using colour, but just take it a step at a time and you’ll be away!
Hi! I am absolutely thrilled to have come across this tutorial! Thank you for taking you time and being so dedicated. I’ve never painted a portrait before. .so Im excited to experiment. I have burnt umber will that be fine to use?
Hi Bernadette, yes that will work as well, you’ll just have a slightly warmer feel to the painting.
Thanks for the quick reply!
You’re welcome Bernadette,
Hi Will, thanks for this in-depth series. It’s very helpful to see the complicated process broken down into such simple steps.
I was wondering if you could address the differences between painting from a photograph, as you’ve done here, and painting from life. I was taught not to work from photos, except as references later, and to focus on drawing from life. Do you work from live models? How is your process of refining/finishing different in that case?
Also, in the future, I would love to see a blog series on the next steps: glazing with color on top of grisaille! Thanks again, lovely stuff.
Pleased you’ve found the portrait series helpful, it all depends on the sitter, situation and the style of painting you’ve after. I work from life and from photographs and enjoy working from both.
thanks will i wd like 2 appreciate the work you are trying to do be blessed by the almighty by Andrew, portrait painter uganda kampala.
Thanks Andrew, pleased you’re enjoying it.
thanks will… Ama so glad wit dz ur painting tutorial, am a Nigerian, though am nt new to oil painting in portraituring, bt wud like to understand sumtns… Wen paintin colored portraitures, can flesh tint be used as a replacement of white in representation of light?…
…….thanks …awosola angello
Hi Angello, pleased you’ve been enjoying the portrait tutorial. If you where to introduce a flesh tone you would also introduce it in the shadows aswell.
ps. does my stage one need to be completely dry before my stage 2?
Yes, it will work best of it’s dry.
Hello Will, I enjoyed your demo very much. very informative. may I use one of your images which shows the grisaille. I am putting together a power point for my students for educational purposes only. no reproduction
thank you, Jeanean
Hi Jeanean, pleased you enjoyed the demo, absolutely, you’re welcome to share the images with your students.
Hello Will, Please dont mind me keeping you bothered with a series of questions.
So this stage would again see me mixing Flake white with a little OMS only. And the umber I mix with Linseed and OMS as mentioned. Am I right?
Also, now i see in 1 of your comments, it is stated that exposure to direct sunlight would cause yellowing? Is that so?? On finishing the Stage 1, I had it exposed to direct sunlight for quicker drying. was i wrong in this?? I was hoping to do the same for the following stages as well. But because the following stages use Linseed oil, would you advise me from exposing direct sunlight ?? Please advise on this.
And thanks soo much Will for all the help you provide through this medium
Exposure to sunlight will help prevent yellowing, the comment on keeping the paintings out of direct sunlight was in reference to the question ‘What would be the proper storage of an oil painting?’.
Thank you so much Will.
So does sunlight help in helping reduce cracks?
i find this page very very useful. great job! Kudos to u!!
I have just begun working on a B&W portrait and I am not sure if I am religiously following the ‘fat over lean’ – – lest I neither go with thin over fat. I am keeping them uniform, meaning my oil colors (Umber, black and White) with just a little turpentine. Would this be fine? Or lead to cracks. I do have Linseed with me, would you advise to go ahead and add it in the steps following.
Could you please let me know on how to avoid the cracking?
Hi Jay, the sunlight won’t help reduce cracks, cracks are all to do with the Fat over Lean rule when working in layers to keep the lower layers of the painting drying more quickly than the higher layers, I would definitely recommend adding in linseed oil to your medium for the next layers.
Thank you VERY VERY much for your tutorial. I painted my husband as described in your lesson. His portrait looks like a photograph of himself. Everybody likes it.
Good one Monika, really pleased your portrait of your husband turned out well, thanks for letting me know.
I have looked through your tutorial and was just wondering about this: how will the shadows be if the face is “plane”. So in other words, if there isn’t a face, no nose, eyes, mouth etc. Although, the ears are still included.
This might be a little bit of a weird question but any answer is greatly appreciated!
Thank you in advance.
Otto Z :)
Hi Otto, sounds like an egg with ears? the light will behave the same as on an egg shape and the shadow line and darkness of shadow will vary depending on the intensity, angle and position of the light.
Hope this helps,
I’ve only been painting for a few years and am completely absorbed by portraits but have only used acrylics until now and used them pretty thickly. Your introduction to oils using a black and white self portrait has fired my interest in oils. I’m going to try this but wondered if I should be leaving each layer to dry between stages? The joy of acrylics is the speed with which they dry but I can’t ignore the fact that so many paintings I love are in oils.
Many thanks and all the best
Hi Andrew, yes, ideally you’d leave each layer before working over the next one. As they are quite thin, they often dry within 24hrs. Using an alykd (quick drying oil white) will speed up the drying time.
Hope this helps,
Very instructive Will, I was wondering if you could tell me what would be the final difference of an oil painting using different grounds eg. Grisaille or verdaccio.
Hi Anthony, It would depend on how much you allow each of the underpaintings to show through. If you have a look at some of Edward Povey’s portraits you can see the effect of a verdaccio underpainting.