How to paint a portrait: ‘It doesn’t have to look like your subject but it should feel like them’

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

So you want to: paint a portrait

A good way to make friends? Or a whole new way to fall out with them? As a portrait artist, humanity is your subject and, as every budding cubist knows, it doesn’t even have to look much like your sitter. The best portraits catch a sense of a person, and for award-winning artist Una Sealy, that was always her obsession: “As a child, I only drew people. Influenced by comics like Bunty and Judy, it was always girls or girls with a moustache when I needed a boy.” Sealy went to art college but you don’t have to sign up to full-time education. Inquire at your local art school or college of further education about evening classes.

Artist as teacher

Artists are often very happy to teach, and arts centres can be a great resource for information. Sealy’s advice is to get to know the basic proportions of the face and head, noting there are plenty of online tutorials. Try to get you started, where you may be surprised to discover that the eyes are actually exactly half way down the head.

Now focus

Look more closely and you’ll see that the edges of the nostrils line up with the inside edges of the eyes. It’s easy to get distracted by expressions; that’s why the experts hold pencils up to gauge how noses relate to eyebrows, and lips to chins. “Practice to gain confidence,” says Sealy. “Start with faces you know well, it is easier to capture a likeness.”

Is it okay to use photos?

Watch Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year and you’ll see them using photographs as a backup, but nothing beats the real thing. Sealy mostly paints “family, friends and people passing through our busy house. I’ll sketch anyone who hangs around, and if they hang around long enough I’ll ask them to sit”. If you are asking someone to pose, make sure you’re clear about how long you need, and what you’re planning to do with the finished piece.


Getting behind the eyes

Likeness is one thing, but you want your portrait to feel like the person too. “Although I do ask them to sit in a particular position, I like to chat with my subject, as that lets me see their face in movement,” says Sealy. “Every now and then I’ll ask them to stop talking while I paint their mouth.” As a portrait can take minutes for a quick sketch, up to days for a full oil painting, make sure your sitter is comfortable! Backgrounds and details of clothing can be done later — that’s where those phone snaps come into their own.

The best subjects are ...

“I love painting young people, in their teens and 20s. Their faces change so rapidly, there is a great feeling of catching a moment in time,” says Sealy. “Also, it’s a good opportunity to nail them down for a few hours, and I learn a lot from the dialogue.” But don’t get dismayed if your subject doesn’t recognise themselves. It can be odd confronting someone else’s vision of you. “They don’t always,” agrees Sealy. “But strangely, people often say that as well as recognising something of themselves, they see elements of other close relations that they hadn’t noticed before.”

Una Sealy RHA is a judge for the Zurich Young Portrait Prize 2022, which will be on exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in November.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture