A great way to learn more about painting and improve your skills is to study paintings! I don’t mean just looking at paintings but actually studying them through copying. You come to understand a painting on a much deeper level and how it is made when you take it apart and recreate it. Which is why I created this Caravaggio portrait painting tutorial.
There is SO much to be learned by just copying from the masters. Of course I don’t mean to copy a painting and call it your own – but rather create a copy as a form of study and apply the lessons to your own work. The old masters from the past would frequently copy paintings as a form of learning. Why should things be any different today?
So here I created a copy after a Caravaggio painting, ‘The Musicians’. As you will see, I didn’t copy the entire painting but rather painted a portrait from his piece. In this article I will show you step by step how I studied and broke the portrait painting down so that you can do the same. My goal wasn’t to just come out with a beautiful painting but rather to study and learn from it.
The portrait study was done from the figure who is second from the left in the Caravaggio painting above.
How to set yourself up
Before starting your portrait painting you want to make sure that you have a great setup to work from. This means that you can easily view the painting you are studying with your painting set up next to it.
Notice in the image below how I set up my easel next to my propped up Caravaggio book. I simply used a tall table to set my book on while the back of the book leaned against the side of a cabinet – allowing it to stand up.
How to Sketch out your Portrait Painting
Before you start the painting I recommend to first apply an imprimatura to your painting surface. You can learn how to do that here. Once your set up is in place and your painting surface ready you can get started!
To start, mix up a very neutral color with ultramarine blue and burnt umber. You only need to use a very small amount! Since you want your sketch to be very light in value mix the paint with some solvent to thin it out a little bit.
Start drawing the basic outline of the Caravaggio painting you are studying using a small stubby brush. You do not need to capture every detail in the sketch. Rather focus on just the basic architecture of the portrait painting.
As you work on the Caravaggio painting sketch be sure to pay attention to the placement of the eyes, nose and mouth. Remember that you do not need to get everything perfectly accurate. This drawing is for you to have an idea of where things are placed. You will be painting over this sketch and adjusting and correcting as you continue.
Applying the First Colors to the Portrait
Once your basic drawing of the Caravaggio painting is complete you can start laying down the first color spots. I chose to start by the nose because that area allows me to work with a dark, light and medium value. When you first start a painting it is important to identify a place where the basic three values (light, medium and dark) are intersecting. Then start your painting in that area.
Once you are able to paint the light medium and dark values of an area and get them to work together you can move on. But it is really key to make sure that the three values are correct and create a sense of light right from the beginning. It is much easier to correct the values at the very beginning than do some in depth painting ‘surgery’ later on! Caravaggio was after all the master of chiaroscuro – so its good to make extra efforts with value in this study!
In the image above you can see me adding a light value to the nose. Notice how the medium, dark, and light values creates a sense of light right from the beginning!
Expanding a Portrait Painting Beyond the First Color Spots
Once the three main values are on the painting I can start to expand into other areas of the portrait. However, I always paint the colors adjacent to the paint I already laid down. This is because it is important to always compare the new color I am painting with a color I already laid down on my canvas.
For example, if I put down a color on the far left corner of the Caravaggio painting it would probably be completely off. I have no color to compare it to since that area is still blank on my painting. The painting process is one of constantly comparing colors and values next to one another to find out whether they need to be darker, lighter or more pink or yellow.
How to Paint Eyes
Like always, when painting a portrait it is important to not think of facial features as objects but instead as shapes of color. For example, in the above image you will see that I start to paint the eyes by first figuring out the shapes of the eyebrows and then mixing the color that goes beneath the eyebrows.
Instead of paying attention to what the facial features look like I focus more on the color spots that are laid down. For the eye on the left I made note of what value and shape the area was beneath the eyebrow. I do not worry at all about details at this stage. I am first and foremost thinking about the general shapes of value and color.
Painting Eyes in Greater Detail
After I have the general value and color spots laid down I can now think about getting a little more specific with painting the eyes in my Caravaggio portrait painting study.
Notice that I now start to make a darker outline for both of the eyes. Not all painted portraits will have dark outlines around the eyes, but this Caravaggio portrait painting does! However, it isn’t just a dark outline but the dark outline at the bottom part of the eye will turn into a darker shadow shape.
Painting Pupils in an Eye
Now you can see how the outline isn’t as strong of an outline anymore around the eye as some of those edges become soft. You always want to make sure that you don’t make something “too outlined” as this can lead to a piece looking too cartoony.
The pupils of the eyes in the Caravaggio painting are treated as shapes. Therefore, I apply a darker round shape where the iris and pupil is placed. Be sure to observe the precise location where the eye is. This will make a big difference in the accuracy of your Caravaggio painting study.
Now the eye is more complete! When painting the white area of the eye be sure not to use pure white as this will be far too bright! Look how dark the whites of the eyes are on the Caravaggio painting study. Even though they are quite dark they still look ‘white’ next to the darker iris and pupil. Color is always relative.
Painting the Cheek of a Portrait
After completing the eye area of my Caravaggio portrait painting I move on to the cheek area of the painting. Like before, I continue to think of all the colors and values in Caravaggio’s painting as shapes. This is also how he thought when he was painting.
The most obvious shape is the darker yellowish shadow area on the far right side of the Caravaggio portrait. I also paint the dark muted pink to the left of the dark brown/ yellowish shadow area.
Next, I work on painting the hair that is on the Caravaggio Portrait Painting! The most important thing to be aware of as you paint hair is to make sure that you are comparing your hair color mixture with the forehead area. You want to make it look natural and not like a wig.
Observe the colors and values that are on Caravaggio’s painting and you will be able to understand how he did it. This is exactly the purpose of doing a Master Copy Study – to be able to learn from a great painter.
I mixed up a few different shades of brown for the hair area on the portrait study. Some areas are darker or lighter while other areas are warmer or cooler in temperature. For the darker parts of the head I mixed burnt umber with ultramarine blue, pthalo green, alizarin crimson and sometimes a little bit of cadmium orange. For lighter parts of the head I would mix yellow ochre with burnt umber as well as some Provence violet bluish, veronese green, and also sometimes a little bit of ultramarine blue as well.
Painting lips on a portrait can be surprisingly difficult at times! It is easy to paint them too pink or red. This is where doing a study of a painting like the Caravaggio portrait painting study can be valuable. You will be able to learn how to mix up a more believable color and how that works for the rest of the portrait painting.
To mix up the color for my portrait study I use cadmium red, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cadmium orange, and white. The blue helps to mute the color enough so that it does not look too pink or red.
First apply the lighter value color of the lip and then transition into painting the darker value. To mix up the darker color I use alizarin crimson and pthalo green as well as a small amount of white.
Throughout the process of painting the lips I continue to think of them as shapes of color and value. This really helps to break the painting down and understand it better.
Notice in the image below that I mix an even darker value color for the inside portion of the mouth. This color works as a shadow and makes the mouth appear slightly open. To get the color I mixed alizarin crimson and Pthalo green together.
Painting the Chin
I turn my attention towards painting the chin area of the Caravaggio portrait study. I lay down a shadow color on the chin that is similar to the color on the far right side of the portrait. Once the shadow part of the chin is laid down I proceed to capture the light value color that is on the chin.
Notice in the image above that I place a light pinkish color beneath the dark shadow area that is below the lip. This lighter color completes the chin!
Painting the Neck
Next I move downwards in the portrait and work on the neck area. Since value is the most important element in a painting I pay attention to what parts of the neck are lighter or darker in value. I start out making the far left side of the neck a little bit darker and yellowish in color than the rest of the neck.
The middle section of the neck is a lighter pinkish color. Having proper values will help your neck have a realistic sense of volume and dimension.
When moving to the far right side of the painting I mix up some real shadow colors for the neck! In order to get these colors I mix cadmium orange and alizarin crimson with some white. Then I mixed in some ultramarine blue and a small amount of pthalo green to mute and also darken the color.
The far right side of the neck is even darker in value. Simply mix more pthalo green and ultramarine blue into your color.
Painting the Background and Shoulders
To finish up the Caravaggio portrait painting study I start to paint the background area of the painting. The background part of a portrait painting is just as important as the portrait itself! The background helps for the portrait to look like it is placed in a particular spot versus just a floating head on a canvas.
Painting a background requires you to carefully mix colors that work with your portrait. You want your portrait to look like it belongs in your background – not like an artificial cutout. To successfully do this you just need to continually make sure that the hair color ‘matches’ or ‘fits’ with the colors on the portrait. This goes back to what I touched on at the very beginning of the article when I mentioned how necessary it is to always compare the colors next to one another so that they will fit and harmonize together.
Create More Painting Studies!
Studying paintings from great painters of the past is an excellent way to learn. In fact it should be an essential part of your learning process. Writers study the works of other great writers so they can learn from them. Just like painters study the works of great painters that came before them.
Take Advantage of the Available FREE Resources
There are so many resources available to us today that make it possible to study paintings. No longer is it necessary to have to hop on a plane to Madrid so that you can go to the Prado and study the paintings of Velazquez. Not only do we have books with excellent reproductions but we also have incredible high res images of thousands of paintings right at our fingertips. My personal favorite place to go to for viewing artwork is the google arts and culture library. Simply type the art you want to see in the search bar!