Want to Show Painting Improvement Now?

Portraiture is, in my humble opinion, the domain of artistic masters. All the greats, such as Velazquez, Rembrandt, Goya, and Sargent, can be counted as incredibly skilled and innovative portrait artists in addition to being pretty brilliant at everything else they chose to paint.

The Milkmaid of Bordeaux by Francisco de Goya, 1825, oil painting.
The Milkmaid of Bordeaux by Francisco de Goya,
1825, oil painting.

Their portrait art was so great because they were great—they took their vision and unique perspectives and applied it to their compositions no matter what they were painting. For example, I have always been in love with the way Sargent would put together a composition—and that goes especially for his portrait paintings. His ability to capture a person's personality in the way that they sprawl on a chaise or simply stand at the base of a staircase—how does he do it? And it's the same with Velazquez's paint treatment, or Goya's subtle, muted tones.

Portrait Painting Expert Process

Contemporary artist and portraitist Daniel Greene has been teaching the same master practices of the artistic greats, and his insights can put your portrait painting practice a head above the rest, no pun intended. Greene treats every step of a painting as a building block, coalescing the parts into a unified whole that is individualized and memorable. To give further insight into how he does what he does so well, he's offered his step-by-step painting process to us.

Step 1: Create several studies from life. When working on a large canvas, think about beginning with pastel studies before moving on to working with oil.

Step 2: Initially, Greene uses fast-drying earth tones and lean mediums containing little to no slow-drying oils. With the successive layers, he increases the oil content in his medium. He starts with a diluted raw umber base coat, applying the paint slightly darker than the tone he wants as he wipes down the canvas surface and removes some of the pigment.

Danielle - Spring St. by Daniel Greene, oil painting 24 x 22.
Danielle – Spring St. by Daniel Greene,
oil painting 24 x 22.

Step 3: On the semidry surface, Greene uses raw sienna mixed with black to rough in the composition, and then refines the painted sketch using burnt umber. He attests to "beginning with a broom and finishing with a needle," indicating how he migrates from painting loosely and leaves details for last.

Step 4: Work from dark to light, painting in layers. Throughout the process check yourself by evaluating the painting with mirrors and keep your initial studies on hand for reference. Once you move on to full color, your aim is to create visually interesting cool-warm relationships within your colors.

Step 5: Oftentimes, Greene will oil out—a process of laying down a layer of medium and allowing it to dry, so that the painting is ready for final detail work.

For more expertise on painted portraits, I seek out another expert–Mario Robinson. His Portrait Painting Collection is an all encompassing resource collection for us to master learning how to paint people by watching this natural painter at work. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “Want to Show Painting Improvement Now?

  1. Always love to ready your Artist Daily. I would like to point out however, that factually, not “every” painting the Masters painted were “brilliant.” I think the “un-brilliant” ones were destroyed and lost to time. I remember recently reading in Sargent’s biography that he had many unsuccessful paintings. This is almost impossible to believe with the volume he left us, but true. 😉

  2. thats nice to know Lori about the Master Artist having failed paintings too. All I ever hear about are the masterpieces, and it can be very intimidating for a young artist like myself who is just starting out. Its refreshing to know that they messed up too, and that there paintings didn’t always turn out the way they had hoped. Lets me know that if i mess up its ok, trash it so that when i am a famous artist no one can find them like the masters did lol!

  3. I like to paint and have done many, I have went to many different classes, but always leave with a feeling that I didnt receive what I needed, The question is this, when I look at a painting done in any media, the picture is soft and all one value, if that is right, The subject doesnt come at me any different than any other part of the painting, and they look professional and relaxing to look at. Whether it be a landscape, bowl of fruit, or flowers, there is a wonderful feeling of professionalism in the painting. I would like that, How do I obtain it. I am sure there is a way of seeing that before I start. I have tried different medias and all give me the same results of starkness and that is not what I want. Can anyone give me the advice I need. PaulM

  4. Hi Paul,
    I would suggest taking online classes from Johannes Vloothius. He teaches in every medium. He is at improvemypaintings.com. Classes run about 19.00 for three. They last 5-6 hours. You will learn more than all the classes and books you’ve ever read. You can also download every class for free afterward. You are also able to ask questions during the classes through the “chat” section. A great way to learn and share with other artists. Best wishes to you.