Step by Step Oil Portrait Painting and Master Copy

This article may contain affiliate links, please read my affiliate disclosure for more information.

BONUS FREE Color Mixing Guide – Help take the uncertainty out of mixing colors!

Oil Portrait Painting and Why Do Master Copies?

Learning to oil paint by doing a ‘master copy’ is one of the best ways to learn how to paint. It helps you along in the process of learning how to see and think as a painter. The 19th century French artist, Edgar Degas, continued the practice of doing master copies throughout his life as did many other artists throughout history. Today, with the plethora of high resolution images available online, it is easier than ever to be able to study paintings from the past (and present).

In this oil portrait painting tutorial, I will show you step by step how to deconstruct a work so that you can start studying paintings yourself! I chose to do ‘Portrait of an English Woman’ by Hans Holbein the Younger. I will show you the process of painting a portrait and doing a master copy at the same time.

A note about master copies before we start the Oil Portrait Painting…

The point of a master copy is not to create an exact replica of the original, but rather to study and explore the work so you can learn from it. To get the most out of doing a copy you want to deconstruct what is in front of you. Ask yourself questions like ‘what is the simplest way I can approach this passage’ or ‘What color is this area compared to this other area’. In the end you come out of it having learned a great deal from the artist’s painting – and will be able to apply the lessons to your own painting.

Brief sketch and Basic Value Shapes in the Oil Portrait Painting

First, start out putting down a neutral wash/ underpainting to your surface. Once that is dry then start making a basic line drawing to get a general architecture of what you are doing. Then, try to find an ‘intersection of light and dark’. By that I mean finding an area that has a dark, middle and light value. You want to try to get a sense of light from the very beginning, and you will if you paint an area with a dark, light and middle value. Make sure you are painting these values in the same area so that they are next to each other. In the first stage of the painting to the right you see three general values represented.

If you haven’t already – Grab my FREE Color Mixing Guide for help with color mixing techniques in your painting!

Find First Shadow Shape

After you have your initial three or four values in, try to find your first value shape. In portrait, these are often found on either side of the nose depending on which side the light source is coming from. As you can see to the left, I found a shadow shape running from the ‘eyebrow’ area down the side of the nose. It is good to think of these shadow areas you find as having a distinct shape to them. The more you approach your painting in a geometric way, the better it will go for you.

Continue Finding Shapes

Continue by painting the areas that are right next to what you already painted. In this way, you are able to make accurate color combinations. It just makes it a lot easier to do it this way! Continue to find shadow shapes – in the example you will see that I looked for shadow shapes in the eye area on the opposite side of the face.

oil portrait painting

Do Not Be Afraid To Use Color in Portrait Painting

Do not be afraid to use more color in areas that are more ‘colorful’ and darker in value. Continue to try to look for shapes that are in the portrait. For example, you can see the darker shadow shape on the right side of the face as well as the lighter shadow shape under the eyes.

Find The Shape Of The Eyes

As with the rest of the painting, search for clear geometries as you work on the eye area. Be sure not to make the eyes too dark as you want them to ‘sit’ in the eye socket. Also, notice the precise shape of the eyelids.

oil portrait painting

Nose + Mouth

Find the distinct shape of where the nose ends and the upper lip begins. Also, you will notice the very thin light shape that is below the eye socket area. As well as the thin darker shape that on the nasolabial fold area.

Lip, Chin, Background

Carefully measure the distance between the nose and the lip. If the distance between is too short or long, it changes the likeness of a portrait quite a bit. Next paint the lips. The trick is to make the color of the lips muted enough for them to appear natural. Follow the specific shape of the lips. The top part of the lips is typically a slightly different color and value than the lower part. So, pay attention to this.

oil portrait painting

oil painting portrait tutorial

Neck + Background

It is good to work on the background and portrait more or less at the same time. Doing so helps you to make soft edges between the edge of the face and background – as you will be working wet in wet.

Also, find the shape of the chin and where it ends. Then work on the neck. Carefully note the changes in color and value in the neck.

Head

This painting is after Hans Holbein the Younger – who lived in the 16th century – a time period when many of the noble women would wear elaborate head dresses. So, the next step in the painting is painting this head dress!

oil painting portrait tutorial

hans holbein portrait tutorial

Simplify

Just like the rest of the painting, simplify what you see. When looking at the original you will see that the head dress is a very elaborate passage in the painting – to try to paint every exact detail of this would be a waste of time. The point is not to create a replica of the painting but to deconstruct it so as to understand and study it.

The Completed Stage

You are not obligated to fill up every white space of canvas, if you feel that you learned what you set out to learn from the painting – then you are done! The most important thing is to approach your piece with an attitude of wanting to explore and not striving for a finished product at the end. Ask lots of questions as you study whichever work you are looking at. Try to find the formal properties that are hidden when just passively viewing it. In the end you will come out with new found knowledge and skills you can apply to your own work.

oil painting portrait tutorial, hans holbein master copy

Hans Holbein the Younger Original Next To My Study

oil portrait painting, hans holbein
oil painting portrait tutorial, hans holbein master copy

I hope this tutorial helped you to understand how to deconstruct paintings more as well as how to do your own master copy studies. Being able to do studies like these is a profound learning experience that allows you to connect with painting of the past and bring it into your own work in an alive and fresh way. Study from the painters you admire and you will notice the lessons you will learn show up in your own work.

Colors used in this Tutorial Available Here

oil portrait painting

Alizarin Crimson

oil portrait painting, cadmium yellow

Cadmium Yellow

cadmium lemon

Cadmium Lemon

cadmium orange, oil portrait painting

Cadmium Orange

Pthalo Green

Burnt Umber

Ultramarine Blue

Cremnitz White

Burnt Sienna

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

Art Studio Life exists for you to be able to stay inspired, learn, and improve your skills.

Get a FREE color mixing guide! Subscribe to Art Studio Life

    Receive your FREE Color Mixing Guide!

    As a subscriber to Art Studio Life you will receive regular post updates, painting tutorials, lessons and ASL's latest and greatest. Along with a Free Color Mixing Guide!

      We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

      3 thoughts on “Step by Step Oil Portrait Painting and Master Copy”

      1. Pingback: Painting Technique Tips from Velazquez - Art Studio Life

      Leave a Comment

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *