Prolific Painters Share Their Top Tips for Painting Extraordinary Portraits

Portrait Painting Tips for Beginners and Professionals Alike


Learn to be careful with color.

Sketching and making tiny adjustments to your drawing can be time-consuming. It’s tempting to want to start working in color and painting the fine details—that’s the fun part, after all! But both Miller and Hanna caution jumping into hues too soon.

Portrait Painting Artists

Shelley Hanna shows her painting progress after starting with the darkest areas first.

Value is everything,” Hanna says. “Getting values correct is by far the most important of all portrait painting tips as far as I’m concerned. A drawing can be perfectly accurate, but will not look right because the values are too light. Novice and experienced painters make this mistake all the time.”

To get her values right, Hanna first blocks her darkest colors in and then works her way up to the lightest. “If I get my colors too light too fast, it’s really hard to tone them back down without everything getting foggy. That’s when you have to scrape off your paint and try again!”

Likewise, Miller implores you to determine the values in your subject before mixing your hues. To make these decisions, continually ask yourself questions. “Which are the lightest? What falls in between?” Miller asks. “Is the underside of the nostril slightly darker than the wing of the nostril? But the wing is slightly darker than the top?” Miller ponders. “I love putting colors together in ways that make them pop, but one of the most important lessons I ever learned was that value is so much more important than color. You’ve got to pay attention to that first.”


And last but not least… practice your portrait painting!

You can read about all the approaches and theories of portraiture, but if you want to get better, you’ve got to paint… keep on painting. “One of the best ways I know how to get a likeness in portraits,” Hanna says, “is to practice doing a lot of portraits! I think people and animals are absolutely fascinating to draw and paint. Get curious about what you can learn from your subject not by talking to them, but by really looking at them and noticing what makes them unique.”

Drawing and painting from life is a valuable experience, so whenever possible, opt to work in person. “Find opportunities to paint live models when you can,” Hanna suggests. “There is nothing better than learning from other artists and developing relationships within the art community.”


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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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