Skip to main content

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.


The Flesh Tone Palette

Limited Colors to Achieve Brilliant Results

Verdaccio underpainting gives flesh tones a unique richness, as can be seen here as I have just begun to apply color over the greenish umber underpainting. My flesh palette contained Cadmium Orange, Yellow Ochre, Raw and Burnt Umber, Red Ochre, Titanium White and Ivory Black. I played with the application of color as necessary, trying to follow a guideline of not mixing more than three of these colors together at any one time. This rule helps keep the colors strong and from turning muddy and gray. In areas of shadow, such as where the hairline meets the side of the face, I was able to even simply apply a thin glaze of Umber over the verdaccio, allowing the green and brown to create a perfect dark flesh tone hue.

I also started darkening the background to give it more of an Old Master feeling.

Cadmium Orange: A Flesh Tone Essential


Completion of Basic Color Application

Building the Realistic Illusion

At this stage of the process, the entire painting had been covered with at least two layers of color paint. I could then move on to refining details further with color glazes, highlights, and minor corrections if necessary to improve the impression of near photographic realism. I tried to blur the edges of the costume and hair into the background to emphasize a feeling of depth and volume. One trick of classical painting is to realize that the camera over-sharpens and flattens images compared to real life. So to avoid the dull look of "photo-realism," an artist has to understand how the eye, opposed to the camera lens, truly perceives the world around us.


Background Shift

The Major Impact of Background Color on the Portrait

Something was bothering me about the painting overall, and I realized it was the background. Most Renaissance portraits feature the figure against a dark background, so I decided to apply a heavy glaze of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna over my earlier efforts. This helped the central figure "pop out" of the painting considerably and give it even more of an Old Master feeling. If I had not liked the look of the glaze, I could have wiped it away quickly, as the layers beneath the glaze were set and fully dry.


Flesh Tone Adjustments and Detail Work

Glazing and Opaque Highlights

The influence of the background on how the central figure appeared was evident in how much lighter the flesh tones looked after I darkened the background. I toned this contrast down with some further glazes and opaque color applications to the face. Details throughout the painting were refined with further glazes of Ochre, Indian Yellow, other colors and some opaque highlights to pop out the shine of the metal ornaments.

For Safe Brush Cleaning... - Keep Your Tools Clean and Fresh with Turpenoid Natural


Finishing Touches for my Classical Portait Painting

Completing the Final Details

The painting was finally finished with some last details around the eyes, and glazes on the background to blur the edges more and create an illusion of depth. Once the painting was fully dry, it was varnished for protection and to give it a unified gloss finish.All told this painting took several months to complete, as it was so demanding of concentration and detail work that I frequently took breaks away from working on it to tackle some simpler projects. Breaking up the painting process also allowed me to keep going back to the painting with "fresh eyes" and see things to adjust and correct that I had missed in earlier work sessions.

Stewart meets Stewart!

Stewart meets Stewart!

Subject Meets Portrait

In Which Stewart Copeland Today Meets With His Image From Yesterday...

I was thrilled to be able to get a print of the painting to Stewart Copeland himself during The Police reunion tour in 2007. I even offered to present him the original as a gift but he insisted it deserved to be "hanging in the Louvre" someday. As it now stands, it hangs in my living room and is one of my few paintings with which I refuse to part. But if you'd like to see some of the artwork I do have for sale, please visit my personal art website Nicole Pellegrini. There you can order prints, related merchandise, and view more of my portfolio of paintings.

Further Reading on Classical Painting Methods - One of the Best References on Traditional Oil Painting Methods

Frank Covino Books and Videos on eBay - Learn more about my painting methods

If you can't find a copy of "Controlled Painting" at a reasonable price on Amazon, check eBay. You may also find some of Covino's other excellent books and DVDs for sale.

Sockii's Art Tutorials on Squidoo - Want to learn more? Check out my other tutorials on HubPages

Creating a Classical Still Life Oil Painting
The image to the left is an oil painting I completed entitled "Still Life with Two Pears." People are often amazed by the depth of color and realis...

Getting Started with Oil Painting: Recommended Materials and References
Although acrylic painting has become increasingly popular in the past several decades, for many artists it is still no substitute for oil painting. Oil paint...

Paint a Portrait Like a Renaissance Old Master
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 ...

Painting From Photographs: How To Achieve More Realistic Results
Like many artists, I often find myself needing to create paintings from photographs when I don't have access to a live model - or if I want to work on a deta...

Reproduce a Renaissance Portrait Painting
Creating a reproduction of an old master or Renaissance portrait painting can be a fun and educational experience for any artist interested in realistic pain...

Tips for Painting Realistic Flesh Tones in Oil
Ask any artist who does portrait or figure painting and they will tell you that mixing and applying realistic flesh tones is one of the hardest challenges th...

Using Grisaille and Glazing Techniques to Reproduce an Old Master Painting
Grisaille is a fine arts term applied to a monochromatic, grayscale style of painting. Grisaille painting is often used in decorative art or to reproduce the...

What is Verdaccio and How To Use It In Your Paintings
Verdaccio is an underpainting technique - and specific paint color - which originates from the Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance. Created trad...

Why Reproducing Art is an Important Learning Tool for Artists
Many beginning artists scoff at the idea of reproducing other artists' work, especially when first presented with the idea in an art class or workshop. Of co...

Please let me know what you thought of this tutorial and if you would like to see more step-by-steps through classical painting techniques from me in the future.

© 2011 Nicole Pellegrini

Leave Me Your Feedback!

Treasures By Brenda from Canada on April 29, 2015:

Great instructions. I like the idea of starting from a good photograph!

Randall Guinn from Pinellas Park, Florida on October 11, 2014:

A great article by a very talented artist.

Nicole Pellegrini (author) from New Jersey on September 09, 2014:

LOL, Robert! Believe me, I have seen people come into a workshop with no experience painting or drawing whatsoever and leave with a beautiful painting. It's such a scientific approach that many people can become proficient in the technique...of course, making the next leap into artistry is the challenge.

robertzimmerman2 on September 08, 2014:

Very informative but how does it work if all you can draw is stick figures?

Nicole Pellegrini (author) from New Jersey on April 24, 2013:

@anonymous: I use damar varish and wait for several months to make sure the painting is fully dry first.

anonymous on April 23, 2013:

What kind of varnish did you use at the end? or was it mixed into your medium? Did you just apply the varnish right after the last layer was dry or did you wait a few months?

anonymous on April 06, 2013:

A generous and invaluable lesson here - I visit to refresh my memory frequently. Thanks for sharing.

AceofHearts on December 30, 2012:

Had to vote for this lens as the best I viewed in 2012! Thanks for sharing these important techniques. I loved it!

Nicole Pellegrini (author) from New Jersey on October 31, 2012:

@anonymous: Goache and watercolor can work to an extent - I have tried some of the techniques and the glazing applications can certainly work in watercolor, and some of the pre-mixing of colors for gouache. But, it is more tricky than with oil painting because underlayers can get muddied with fresh applications of color washes - whereas with oils, once an underlayer is dry you can paint on top of it easily.

anonymous on October 31, 2012:

Wonderful Tutorial! I'm a great admirer of classics and old renaissance works so this will help me greatly! My question though is can you apply this technique with mediums like watercolour and gouache?

Deadicated LM on October 04, 2012:

Awesome, you are very talented; thanks for the inspiration.

soaringsis on September 11, 2012:

I would love to be able to do what you do with your art. You make it sound so easy.

anonymous on August 15, 2012:

I liked your demonstration, but I would like hear more in depth analysis of how warm color gradually becomes cooler and looses intensity as the light travels from lighted area to the shadow area. Some more theory and prinsiples behind color transitions rather then just names of pigments you are using, if you understand what I mean.

djroll on July 06, 2012:

You have a beautiful gift of painting and teaching. Thank you.

Millionairemomma on July 04, 2012:

Totally inspiring! Everyone can see the process of this painting technique!

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on July 04, 2012:

How awesome is that... the picture you painted of the band member and then you showed it to him... cool! I painted a picture of some boats in Grand Marais Harbor and made a wooden frame and gave it to the person who runs the Blue Water Cafe. The cafe truly inspired me to paint because of the objects used to decorate it, so I gave them the piece I painted.

anonymous on May 22, 2012:

pls, i wll like to lean

julieannbrady on March 27, 2012:

What an artistic tale ... you know, I would sincerely love to be able to paint a portrait. You've given me hope that some day I might be a master.

kathysart on February 21, 2012:

YOU are my new hero.. LOVE your lenses and thank your for your generosity. Angel blessed.

anonymous on February 18, 2012:

Wonderful lens. thanks

jimmyworldstar on February 03, 2012:

Great tips, although I thought paintings of the era were in the profile view?

skefflingecho from Tobermory Ontario on January 30, 2012:

Wonderful lens. You have so much talent and obviously love what you do! So cool he got a print and you met him too! Blessed.

curious0927 on January 28, 2012:

I would love to see more step-by-steps from you! Great lens, I don't want to leave, but will, to look at more of your outstanding work. I dabble in drawing and painting, even won a place in the yearly magazine in community college for a color pencil drawing! Like you, I've made and sold jewelry on a much smaller scale, however one of my favorite crafts. Thanks for the wonderful tutorial, book marked, liked, and of course Blessed!

Paul from Liverpool, England on January 25, 2012:

Late return to add a Blessing - I wasn't an Angel when I first saw this.

jadehorseshoe on January 14, 2012:

Multiple Return Visitor. ... Sam Shaker's new book has some similar good tips, too.

seosmm on January 08, 2012:

Beautiful work and very nice lens!

scss on December 17, 2011:

This is a glorious painting, and your tutorial is just perfect! Loving your work - on my way to checkout your stores.Helene Malmsio

sousababy on December 09, 2011:

Fabulous, so glad to see raphaelo already found this. In the early 90's I went to a concert (Toronto, Canada) of Steward Copeland's . . and had a chance to get his autograph. Amazing percussionist (and the other musicians, too, on tour with him).

anonymous on December 05, 2011:

So wonderfully artistic lens of you.. dear lady sockii : I always love any kinds of art, especially the charming of its renaissance art. I do fall in love with all your beautiful and great tips, information and guide here. Thank you so much for making my day. 5 art loving stars for you. Tweeted to all my fans. Have wonderful times.. always :D

KarenCookieJar on October 21, 2011:

Wow, that's beautiful, I was I had half as much painting talent.

EMangl on October 14, 2011:

Maybe one day i give it a try to paint

Johanna Eisler on September 02, 2011:

Positively beautiful work! How generous of you to share each painstakingly perfect step with others!

marsha32 on August 25, 2011:

Jane of all trades---that's me too. Nice lens.

Laraine Sims from Lake Country, B.C. on August 13, 2011:

Very fine!!! I couldn't do that if I took several YEARS!

Laraine Sims from Lake Country, B.C. on August 13, 2011:

Very fine!!! I couldn't do that if I took several YEARS!

hysongdesigns on August 07, 2011:

great lens! I love painting in a similar manner, even tho I use acrylics and generally paint animals, not people, the principles are the same.

JannaB on August 07, 2011:

What a lot of work you put into both the painting and this lens. Wish I had some of your talent!

SandyPeaks on August 04, 2011:

Delightful lens, very impressive painting too!

NZHarris on July 30, 2011:

You did an excellent job. On the painting and the on the lens!

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on July 28, 2011:

Truly impressive! You have THE gift. Loved seeing how you made the magic happen. Congrats on LotD!

AlleyCatLane on July 28, 2011:

Fascinating lens. Beautiful work.

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on July 28, 2011:

Well, you are a master artist. I don't have the patience (or skill) to paint like that. You are so talented! Great instructions and details.

anonymous on July 28, 2011:

Fabulous! Congratulations on your Lens of the Day, most deserving!~ Blessed by a Squidoo Angel ~

Srena44 on July 27, 2011:

awesome lens

AgingIntoDisabi on July 27, 2011:

What a great lens. Art is not my strong point, but I appreciate the effort and talent it makes to create something so beautiful.

Natural_Skin_Care on July 27, 2011:

I love the old masters, especially the Flemmish style. Thanks for a great lens!

DebMartin on July 27, 2011:

Okay, I'm impressed. And a little intimidated. Nice work.

Sheilamarie from British Columbia on July 27, 2011:

What a fantastic step by step instruction! I haven't used oils for years. You've reminded me how wonderful they are to work with. I only play with paint. It's fascinating to see how you work.

happynutritionist on July 27, 2011:

Hello from a NJ neighbor up north, loved following your step by step. I don't paint, but love looking at art and how it's done, lots of artists in the family. Congrats on the LOTD.

editionh on July 26, 2011:

What an ambitious project and what a great painting! Event though you explain the process it still is kind of magic how you could do it :). The painting is much more interesting to look at than the photography you started from.

AceofHearts on July 26, 2011:

Dear Jane-of-All, Lovely, lovely lens! I saved it to my favorites, i liked it, fb'd and I am thrilled that you answered the flesh tone issue that has been plaging me for sometime! I am so happy for you making lens of the day. Congrats and mostly thank you!

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on July 26, 2011:

Interesting lens. Congratulations on LotD!!

Michey LM on July 26, 2011:

This is amazing technique, a lot to learn and practice.

Chazz from New York on July 26, 2011:

Congratulations and Bravo! What an incredible lens and such talent! Well presented and informative too. I'm off to read more of your related lenses. Congrats again!

GrowWear on July 26, 2011:

Congratulations for your LOTD here. I so admire your talent.

Bill from Gold Coast, Australia on July 26, 2011:

Wow, you have done an amazing job with the painting. You are very talented. Congrats on LOTD. Well Done! :-)

Indigo Janson from UK on July 26, 2011:

Very cool. Congratulations on producing such a great work of art. What a well-deserved LOTD!

TravelingRae on July 26, 2011:

Impressive. I took painting lessons for years and couldn't have come anywhere near these results. You have talent!

dfishbac on July 26, 2011:

Congrats on your LOTD. What a beautiful portrait! I don't think I have your patience but it is really interesting to see how you developed the painting, beginning to end.

justholidays on July 26, 2011:

It's a superb painting! I like renaissance paintings and this one looks really like one of the age. This being said, I'd definitely need a way to preserve my paintings from cigarette smoke, that thing makes the beautiful paintings a real mess.Congrats on your LOTD!

Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on July 26, 2011:


Lisa Auch from Scotland on July 26, 2011:

My goodness me this is amazing, I am overjoyed it has been recognised as it truly is a work of art! How cool was that, actually giving Stewart Copeland a copy too. it was so interesting to read how you actually brought it all together.

yammi on July 26, 2011:

Amazing, always wondered how one could do paintings with such great Detail and Expression.HolgerAmidalla Searchengine

Tonie Cook from USA on July 26, 2011:

Wonderful! Excellent online tutorial.

squid-janices7 on July 26, 2011:

Wow - so talented and thanks for sharing the process. Congrats on LOTD!

amkatee on July 26, 2011:

It's so cool to look at the process. Not being an artist, I just look at it in too simplified of a method. Art is more complicated than I thought! And totally cool that he owns a copy!

Mortgage411 on July 26, 2011:

Very cool! THanks fo rsharing your art (and your process!).

jodijoyous from New York on July 26, 2011:

Congratulations! Well done!

Lady-Ellen on July 26, 2011:

Wow...amazing work. I learned a lot here. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this all

nebby from USA on July 26, 2011:

What a great lens and love the story. How wonderful to actually have a photo of Stewart Copeland with your painting -how cool is that!Congratulations on LOTD.

anonymous on July 26, 2011:

This is a lovely piece of art. Congratulations on LotD!

pkmcr from Cheshire UK on July 26, 2011:

Congratulations on a well deserved LOTD for this wonderful lens

anonymous on July 26, 2011:

This is awesome! Congrats on a well-deserved LotD!

anonymous on July 25, 2011:

Brilliantly done! Congrats on the LOTD - very well deserved.

Kathy McGraw from California on July 25, 2011:

I too was wowed as normally I cannot follow the steps in tutorials, and your painting step by step was captivating! Congratulations on your selection for LOTD consideration...that in itself is an accomplishment. Giving this an Angel Blessing.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on July 24, 2011:

Wow. Truly impressive. So well done in every way. I'm going to nominate this lens for Lens of the Day. Beautiful, instructive, clear, and did I say beautiful?

miaponzo on July 23, 2011:

Wow! Absolutely amazing! Congratulations on your fantastic work!

jlshernandez on July 22, 2011:

I have never tried oil painting and have only dabble din watercolor, sketching and acrylic.This lens is one I need to revisit when I am ready for my first attempt at oil painting. Thanks for sharing.

NYThroughTheLens on July 03, 2011:

This is such a great lens. I am totally bookmarking it!

viscri8 on July 03, 2011:

Useful description of the technique -- sure helps for portrait and still lfe.Nice lens on this art topic and for sharing the skills. Keep well!

Delia on July 02, 2011:

OUTSTANDING!!!! amazing artwork...I love the Flemish technique and occasionally use it, but must confess am not good at it...thanks for sharing!

CelinaHamm on June 30, 2011:

The portrait is absolutely beautiful. Great colors and detail. You just keep amazing me on your many talents. I love your lenses.

YourFirstTime on June 25, 2011:

Your lens taught me a lot about nuance. Thanks!

sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on May 22, 2011:

great tutorial on painting. your step by step instructions are useful. thanks. ~blessed~

OriginArtz LM on March 28, 2011:

Woah! The drawings and colors looks nice! I love this lens. Hope to see more of your art tutorial.

Related Articles