This step-by-step of my photorealistic portrait of Egils will be rather long
so be sure to scroll all the way down so you dont miss anything.
“Egils” Acrylic and oil on canvas. 35″x28″ 90x72cm
I receive a lot of questions about what technique and what tools I use in my work, so here I will share a step-by-step on how I did this portrait of my friend Egils.
This is of course far from the only way to paint a portrait but an approach that works for me. I will make this rather basic and aim it to beginners and intermediate artists. Hopefully you will find a tips or two you can use in your own work and maybe a little inspiration.
As you will see I am painting the start of the portrait with airbrush but even if you don’t use an airbrush in your work there are hopefully techniques you still can find useful for your own medium.
A couple of tips before I begin:
This kind of paintings are very time-consuming. Be prepared to spend some time with it and be patient. Shortcuts are no good idea.
Paint in big sizes. For me life-size for a portrait is the smallest. I would rather make it double size. Details so small you have difficulties finding a brush small enough is suddenly no problem when the size increases.
Also try to get the colors as correct as possible. It is much a matter of trial and error. Mix, compare with the photo, adjust the mix, compare again and so on.
After I have printed all the photos and taped them together I put them on the light-box (you can also use a window) and tape the canvas over it. I trace the photo on to the canvas with a thin graphite-pencil as exact as I can. The canvas I use is thin and made of polyester and the light can easely penetrate through it.
This is the canvas I use:
When I am finished I turn off the light-box and tape tracing-paper (or grease-proof-paper) on top of my sketched canvas. Then I copy my first sketch on to the tracingpaper. I need the sketch on the tracing-paper for cutting out the parts as masks (stencils) for airbrush-work and later on I need the sketch on the canvas for freehand-work with airbrush and oils. This seems like tedious extra work, but later on you will see why this is a good way to do it.
3.When there are many masks to keep track of it can be a good idea to name them.
4.Then I cut out all the masking parts with a scalpel. Be sure to use a sharp blade or else it is easy to tear the paper. I also cut small holes along the side of all the parts so I can tape the tracingpaper on the canvas (see image 6)
I cut small peices of tape …
6.… and put the maskingparts on to the canvas. Now I have good help of the sketch on the canvas to get them in right position.
7.Now all the masking parts are taped in place and I am ready to start painting the background.
With my reference-photo close by I start building up the background.
9.The background is blurred because I focused on the face when I took the photo. This effect is easily done with an airbrush. I could paint it with oils or some other material and get a similar look but personally I prefer the airbrush for effects like this.
There are some diffuse reflections in the trees. When things get blurry on a photo they tend to get a circular shape. I freehand paint them with the airbrush to get them blurry.
Now the background is completed …
… and I put back the background masks and instead reveal the top of the head.
As you can see I have printed my reference-photos in the same size as the painting.
This is not necessary but I think it is easier to get things correct when I also have the information of the size of things and not only the colors and shapes.
13.I am starting to paint the hair. I look closely at my ref-photo and try to mimic it as exact as I can even if I am only making a “rough” base with the airbrush as a start. All detail work is done with oil colors when the airbrushing is finished.
As you can see on this photo I have used a flexible tape to make masks for the edge of the forehead and for the top of the glasses where it is sharp edges. I don’t want “hair-color” in these areas.
The hair also have some darker shadows. Sharper details are done later. Now on to the the glasses.
When working on a canvas I usaully mask with tracing paper as I showed in the beginning but airbrush masking film (frisket film) is better when it comes to smaller details. If the canvas has a rough grain it can be hard to get the frisket film to stick to it and stay in place. In this case I added some extra gesso in the area of the face and sanded it carefully to get the surface flater and not so rough. Then it was possible to use frisket film.
I cut out a square piece of low tac adhesive frisket film to cover the glasses …
15.… and trace the sketch from the canvas to the frisket film.
I remove the film from the painting when I cut out the parts. If I cut it directly on the canvas I risk cutting through the canvas… not good. After cutting out all the parts I put them back on the canvas again.
Notice that I also covered the eyes and only revealed the parts that should have skin color.
Now I start painting the skin and always following the ref-photo closely. The edge between hair and forehead is kind of diffuse so here I don’t need a mask.
I add shadows and some wrinkles with a darker brown.
Notice that the highlights in the forehead are almost white as the canvas. Be careful not to get things too dark. It can be very tricky and frustrating to try to get back to lighter colors when you realize it became too dark.
If you try to add light color to a darker area you will probably get “blue-shift”. Colors tend to get blueish which is not always preferable. I am always working in small, subtle steps to avoid getting it too dark.
Again a piece of flexible tape to protect the hair.
I continue adding skin-colors and shadows to “sculpt” the shapes of the face.
I tape my ref-photos in the exact position as the painting but with tape only in the left side. Now I can flip the photos back and forth to compare the photo with the painting. This makes it easier to see exactly where to paint. It also makes it easier to compare the colors.
In the second image I have flipped the photo on and you can see how I have cut small holes in the photo where I easily can see if the colors match or not.
Normally I paint both shape and color at the same time but when it gets tricky I use the traditional under-painting-technique in one color. Now I can concentrate on the shapes only and add the colors later.
The airbrushing-part of the face is getting close to finished.
Time for the eyes. I still have the frisket-film on the glasses. I have also put the parts that covers the skin around the eyes back. Hard to see in this photo though. Now I remove the film from the eyes.
The iris is exactly round and if you look closely at a person or at a photo you can see it also have a soft edge. This can be done with help of a stencil.
To not get the edge too sharp I put a little piece of tape on the underside of the stencil to lift it a millimeter. Now the paint can swirl in under the edge of the stencil and leave a perfect circle with soft edges.
I choose a hole in a suitable size and cover the closest ones with tape.
The outer edge of the iris is painted darker then the center.
The black pupil, details in the eye-corners and the small reflections are added with a tiny brush with oils.
26.I remove the masking-film from the glasses and start painting the arches with oil.
Of course this could also be painted with the airbrush but personally I prefer to work with oils and small brushes when details are getting smaller.
Usually I use fast drying oils.
When working with very thin layers like this the paint is dry in an hour which makes it possible to go on working in the same area without having to wait for two days. A portrait like this takes long enough as it is…
27.Glasses ready. Notice the green area you can see through the glass. I choose to paint this with the oil-brush instead of the airbrush when there are so many small details.
28.As with most small details I paint the tiny hairs with oils.
29.For most of the hairs I use a quite small and flat brush. When it is filled with paint it becomes very sharp and works fine for thin hairs.
30.The combination of an airbrushed base and the brush-painted detailed hairs works fine I think.
31.I keep on adding hairs. It doesn’t matter how many hairs I add. I will never even get close to how many there are in real life…
32.The face is ready and I cover it with the masks.
I airbrush the shirt-fabric without protecting the buttons and buttonholes. They are not very different in color and I can easily cover the light blue airbrush color with oils later on.
I normally don’t recommend taking shortcuts when painting photorealism but in a case like this you can save some time and work.
33.I try to follow the reference-photos as close as I can. I could of course improvise things and try to paint what I think could look right but then the risk that I take a step away from the realism is imminent.
The base of the left side (Egil´s left side) is ready. Now it’s time for some details.
I have added buttons and buttonholes and started on the last part with the patterned fabric. These small details and parts doesn’t have any bigger or blurry areas which the airbrush would be perfect for, so here I only use oil-painting.
36.I often prefer a flat brush when working with oils even if it sometimes have to be very small.
Notice the long and curly white hairs on the chest. They are quite tricky to paint with a flat brush. In this case I have used a round and very small brush with long hairs. I have diluted the paint to get it runny or else it is hard to get the paint out of a tiny brush like that.
37.Adding some small threads along the edge of the shirt to get a nice and soft cotton-feel to the fabric.
38.The shirt is finished. Here the combination of airbrushed bigger soft areas and the small oil-painted details work quite well.
39.As I told earlier I print my reference-photos in the same scale as the painting but I also print one smaller with the hole picture on. Sometimes it is good to see the hole picture at ones instead of looking on only one small part at a time.
So this should end my step-by-step. I hope you have enjoyed it, learned some tricks and feel inspired to try some of them yourself.