10 Steps to Improve Your Oil Painting Portraits on Canvas
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Choose the right canvas
  2. Prepare your canvas
  3. Select your oil paints
  4. Sketch your subject
  5. Start with underpainting
  6. Focus on light and shadow
  7. Detail your portrait
  8. Add textural elements
  9. Finish with glazing
  10. Clean and store your painting

Do you ever look at an oil painting portrait and think, "Wow, I wish I could create something as stunning as this?" Well, you're in luck because getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas is not as hard as it sounds. All you need is a little bit of guidance, practice, and passion. Let's dive into these ten easy steps to help you improve your oil painting portraits on canvas.

Choose the right canvas

Choosing the right canvas is like picking the perfect home—it needs to be just right. A good canvas can set the tone for your entire painting, making it an essential first step in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

There are many types of canvases available, but for oil painting, I recommend using a pre-stretched, medium-texture cotton canvas. Cotton canvases are affordable, versatile, and available in various sizes. They also provide a smooth surface that's ideal for capturing fine details—a must when you're painting portraits.

When you're choosing your canvas, consider the size of the portrait you want to paint. A larger canvas can give you more room to add details, but it might also be more daunting if you're just starting out. A smaller canvas, on the other hand, can be less overwhelming and perfect for practice.

Remember, the canvas is just the beginning of your art journey. With the right canvas in hand, you're one step closer to getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas!

Prepare your canvas

Now that you've chosen the perfect canvas, it's time to prepare it for your masterpiece. This is like prepping a stage before a grand performance. So, let's get your canvas ready for the show!

First, you need to apply a layer of gesso — a white paint mixture that prevents the oil paint from soaking into the canvas. Think of gesso as a magic shield that protects your canvas and ensures your painting remains vibrant and intact for years. Apply a thin layer of gesso with a wide, flat brush, let it dry, and voila, your canvas is prepped!

After applying the gesso, you might notice some brush strokes. Don't worry! Simply sand it gently with a fine-grit sandpaper to create a smooth surface. Remember, a smoother canvas means easier paint application and better control over your brush strokes, which are key factors in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Alright, your canvas is now prepared and ready to host your artwork. The next step? Choosing your oil paints. Stay tuned!

Select your oil paints

Now that you have your canvas ready, let's dive into the colorful world of oil paints. The choice of paints is a huge part of getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas. But don't worry, it's not as daunting as it sounds!

Oil paints come in a myriad of colors. And yes, while it's tempting to grab all of them, it's best to start with a basic palette. A good starting point is to have a set of the primary colors — red, blue, and yellow. Add to this a tube of white and one black, and you have a palette that can mix up a rainbow of hues.

Now, let's talk about quality. Those shiny budget paints might look appealing, but trust me, the quality of oil paint can make or break your painting. High-quality paints have more pigment and less filler, resulting in vibrant, rich colors that truly bring your portrait to life. Brands like Winsor & Newton or Gamblin are known for their quality and are favored by many artists.

Remember, the journey of getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas is all about experimenting and finding what works best for you. So, don't be afraid to mix and match brands and colors until you find your perfect palette.

So, you've got your paints ready. What's next? It's time to bring your subject to life with a sketch.

Sketch your subject

Now that we've tackled the paint selection, let's move on to the next step in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas: sketching your subject.

Sketching is like laying the foundation of a house — it's the groundwork for your painting. It helps you map out the proportions and features of the face, ensuring your portrait looks like your intended subject. But remember, it doesn't have to be perfect. It's simply a guide for you to build upon.

Start with the general shape of the head— an oval works for most people. Then, draw a line down the middle of the face to mark the position of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Keep in mind, relative distances between these features can greatly impact the likeness of your subject. So, take your time with this step.

Once you have the basic features mapped out, you can start adding some details. But remember, this isn't the stage to get caught up in intricate details. Those will come later. For now, think of your sketch as a rough blueprint, not a finished product.

Feeling good about your sketch? Excellent! You're now ready for one of the most exciting parts of getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas — underpainting.

Start with underpainting

Underpainting, as scary as it might sound, is actually quite straightforward. It's a preliminary layer of paint applied to give your canvas some tonal values. This stage is all about creating a map of light and dark areas, which can be a game-changer in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Start by using a monochromatic color scheme, often a mixture of white and a dark color like burnt umber or ultramarine blue. This creates a grayscale image of your portrait. Why grayscale, you ask? Well, it's easier to figure out the tonal values without the distraction of colors. Plus, it helps to establish the overall mood of your painting.

When painting, keep your strokes loose and don't worry about the details just yet. The goal here is to figure out the light and shadow areas. If you squint your eyes and the underpainting looks fairly similar to your subject, you're on the right track!

Let your underpainting dry completely before moving on. This might take a day or two, but remember, patience pays off in the realm of oil painting. You're now one step closer to getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Focus on light and shadow

Once your underpainting is dry, it's time to give more attention to light and shadow. This is a key point in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas. The magic is all in the contrast!

First, let's talk about light. Where is it coming from in your portrait? Is it a soft morning light or a harsh afternoon sun? Light affects the color and intensity of your subject. Typically, areas directly hit by light are the lightest and most saturated. Keep this in mind while choosing your colors.

On the other hand, shadows are not just dark areas. They carry color, too! Depending on the light source, shadows may have a hint of blue, brown or even purple. Ever noticed how shadows are cooler on a sunny day and warmer on a cloudy day? That's color temperature at play.

Remember, shadows are your friends. They add depth and dimension to your oil painting portraits. So, don't shy away from using dark colors. Using a mix of burnt umber and ultramarine blue, you can create a rich dark tone perfect for shadows.

By paying attention to light and shadow, you'll see a dramatic improvement in your oil painting portraits. It's all about observing carefully and translating what you see onto the canvas. Keep practicing and you'll surely master the play of light and shadow, taking you one step further in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Detail your portrait

Next up, it's time to add some life to your portrait. Detailing is an essential stage in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas. It's like putting the icing on a cake; it brings everything together.

Starting with the eyes, remember they're not just white and black. They contain shades of blue, green, brown, and even red. Look closely at your subject's eyes. What colors can you see? Now, bring those colors into your painting. The eyes are often said to be the windows to the soul, so this is your chance to make your portrait truly come alive.

Moving on to the skin, it's not just one flat color. It has a range of tones and hues. For instance, areas like the cheeks and nose might be a bit redder. This is where your observation skills really come into play. Look closely at your subject and try to paint what you see, not what you think you see.

Lastly, don't forget the hair! Hair isn't just a single color, but a mix of colors. Each strand catches light differently, creating a beautiful array of tones. Try to capture this effect in your painting.

Good detailing can make all the difference in your final piece. Remember, patience is key. Take your time, and don't rush this process. You'll find that with each portrait you complete, your attention to detail will improve, helping you get better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Add textural elements

The next step in getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas involves adding texture. Texture can add depth and interest to your work, making it more engaging to the viewer.

One way to add texture is by using your paintbrush in different ways. For instance, you can use the flat side of your brush to create broad strokes, or the tip for more detailed work. Experiment with different brush strokes to see what effects you can create.

Another way to add texture is through the thickness of your paint. Thicker paint can create a more raised texture on the canvas, while thinner paint can be used for smoother areas. This technique is known as "impasto", and it can really make your portrait pop off the canvas.

Also, don't forget about the power of contrast. Textural contrast can be a powerful tool in your painting arsenal. Smooth against rough, thick against thin: these contrasts can make for a visually interesting piece.

Adding textural elements to your work may take some practice, but it's definitely worth the effort. As you continue to experiment and learn, you'll find yourself getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Finish with glazing

Once you've added those captivating textural elements, the next step in our journey to getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas is to finish with glazing. Glazing is a technique where you apply a thin, semi-transparent layer of paint over a dried layer of paint. This can add depth and luminosity to your painting, enhancing the overall effect of light and shadow.

Glazing can seem daunting at first, but trust me, it's simpler than you might think. You'll need a glazing medium—this is a mixture that thins your paint without diluting the color. You can buy pre-made glazing mediums from art supply stores, or you can make your own using linseed oil and turpentine.

Once you have your glazing medium, mix it with a small amount of oil paint. The key is to keep this layer thin and transparent. Then, using a soft brush, gently apply the glaze over the areas of your painting where you want to enhance the color or depth. Remember, less is more when it comes to glazing. You can always add more layers, but it's difficult to remove them once they're dry.

The glaze will take longer to dry than your other layers of paint, so be patient. Once it's dry, you'll see a beautiful, luminous effect that can truly elevate your portrait.

And there you have it. With practice and patience, you'll find yourself mastering the art of glazing, and as a result, getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas.

Clean and store your painting

Now that you've put in all that hard work into getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas, it's important to ensure your masterpieces are well-preserved. Cleaning and storing your painting properly can keep it looking fresh and vibrant for years to come.

First, let's talk about cleaning. Don't panic. Cleaning an oil painting isn't as terrifying as it sounds. You'll need a soft, lint-free cloth - microfiber works great. Gently dust off the surface of your painting with the cloth, being careful not to press too hard on the paint. For stubborn dust or grime, a gentle clean with a damp cloth can work wonders. Just remember, never use household cleaners or chemicals on your paintings!

Storing your painting properly is just as important. A cool, dry place out of direct sunlight is ideal. If you're storing multiple paintings, use a protective cover or separator between each one to prevent any unwanted scratches. And don't stack them too high - gravity isn't kind to art!

Finally, remember your painting isn't just a piece of canvas with oil paint on it - it's a reflection of your talent and dedication. Treat it with the respect it deserves and it'll reward you with its beauty for a long time to come.

And there you have it! By following these steps, you're well on your way to getting better at oil painting portraits on canvas. Happy painting!

If you're looking to further improve your painting skills, consider checking out the workshop 'Improve Your Acrylic Painting Skills' by Rachel Christopoulos. While this workshop focuses on acrylic painting, many of the techniques and insights shared can also be applied to oil painting portraits. Give it a try and enhance your artistic abilities!