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Paint a Portrait Like a Renaissance Old Master

"Portrait of the Rock Star in Oriental Costume" - photograph and original artwork by the author, sockii.

"Portrait of the Rock Star in Oriental Costume" - photograph and original artwork by the author, sockii.

Creating a Portrait in a Classical Style

There's something about the classical portraits of the Renaissance era that still holds great fascination and awe for today's art lovers. Yet the techniques used in creating such works of art are reasonably straightforward and easy to apply, as long as you work methodically and with precision. Here I will present a step-by-step guide as to how I turned a photograph of one of my favorite rock stars, Stewart Copeland of The Police, into an Old Master-style oil painting.

The techniques I used were a combination of those I have learned from a number of different art instructors and realist painters who have studied the methods of the classical artists in great detail. I particularly use some of the verdaccio underpainting techniques taught by Frank Covino, which are especially effective for achieving lifelike, realistic flesh tones.


The Reference Photo

A Good Portrait Begins with a Good Photograph

Here was the original reference photo I used for the painting. It came from an old Police fanclub magazine, a photoshoot where the band was posing in different traditional Asian costumes. I have always loved painting complex fabrics and materials so this picture seemed as though it would be a lot of fun for me to work on.I knew from the beginning I wanted to get rid of the original background pattern behind Stewart as it would look much too busy in a painting. I also decided to crop the image to fit pleasingly onto a 16"x20" canvas board before proceeding on to the drawing stage. I did this using photo software on my computer, where I also stripped the color out of the image so I would have a pure black and white value reference with which to work.


Charcoal Sketch or "Underdrawing"

Planning the Portrait Painting

I used the traditional "grid method" of drawing to begin my painting. This method helped me resize the original 8"x10" cropped photo to a 16"x20" canvas board, maintaining the proportions as accurately as possible. Although the drawing would be completely painted over, I tried to be as exact as possible in starting to place facial features, light and shadow areas in charcoal. The canvas surface had previously been prepared with acrylic gesso mixed with marble dust, to make the surface more absorbent and durable.Once I had the main features placed, I carefully erased as many of the charcoal gridlines as possible and blended the charcoal with a bristle brush.


Initial Opaque Coloring

Building the Basics for the Portrait

Although I often paint a complete monochrome value study over my charcoal drawing, for this painting I decided to go directly to color except for the face. Part of the reason for this was the image had so many very vibrant colors that I wanted to preserve their qualities and not subdue them or have them dampened by the underpainted colors. Another reason was I had just taken a class on painting the costumed figure at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where my instructor did not utilize highly developed underpaintings, so I wanted to try his approach. Developing your own painting style often means experimenting with and trying the techniques of others, to figure out what works best for you.

Before proceeding, however, the entire drawing was sealed with several coats of fixative spray so the charcoal would not mix with the paint. I used Cadmium Red, Burnt Sienna, and Ivory Black to opaquely paint the red plume of feathers, and a lightened version of these colors mixed together for the background. I also used Ivory Black to begin covering the darkest area of the jacket and lightly glazed over the hair with Burnt Sienna to test the color.

Sealing the Underdrawing - Fixative Spray is a Must When Painting Over Charcoal


Color Blocking

Establishing Basic Tonal Values

In the next step, I began working on the costume and the hat's metal accents. These I blocked in opaquely with a mixture of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Cadmium Orange, other earth tones and Titanium White to create varying values and colors. At this point I was ignoring most fine detail and just trying establish a base tonal value. By doing so, even at this early stage, a sense of depth and volume begins to take shape.I also added another layer of opaque paint to the background, lightening it somewhat on one side to create more of a sense of shadow on the other side.

In all stages of the painting process, I used Windsor & Newton's Liquin as my painting medium, which helps the oil paint dry faster and spread more evenly when applied in both thin glazes and thick coatings.


Flesh Tone Verdaccio and Finer Details

Beginning Monochromatic Work on Facial Details

This next image illustrates two steps in the painting process underway. First, details were gradually added to the metal decorations on the costume, now that the base colors had been blocked in. Then, I also began to tackle the face but in a monochrome underpainting known as a "verdaccio." For the verdaccio I mixed Mars Black, Greenish Umber and Titanium White for a series of ten tonal values. The goal of the verdaccio is to establish the values and facial details as accurately as possible, so that in the next step all one has to do is worry about color.

By tackling these aspects of the painting in such a methodical manner, it was much easier to achieve a reasonable likeness. In fact, I refined the verdaccio over the course of several days to make sure there was both a thick enough coat of paint in place over my charcoal drawing and that it was truly as accurate as possible.

The Perfect Verdaccio Paint - A Great Oil Paint for Verdaccio Technique


Verdaccio Refinement

Perfecting the Details Before Adding Flesh Tones

Here you can see how on a second application of paint, the verdaccio of the face is much more refined. It is always tempting to want to rush into color, but being slow and methodical in the underpainting stages such as this one will pay off well in the final product. I also continued to work on the costume details, moving slowly right to left (since I am left-handed and this made it less likely to smudge my work when using fine-detail brushes.)


Each step in this painting process was only begun after the previous layer of paint was fully dry. The idea was to build layers of paint and color, opaque and transparent, without them mixing on the canvas. This is why use of a quick-dry medium such as Liquin was so important.

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