Ideas for 2016: A year to paint a portrait

No selfie or Instagram picture can capture the essence of a person the way a painting can. Here, experienced portraitists give some pointers so you can have a go yourself

In a world full of smartphones, selfies and Instagram moments, why would anyone take the time and trouble to draw or paint a portrait? The answer is, quite simply, because it’s a very lovely thing to do, for both the artist and their subject.

It’s a gentle but enthralling process that involves spending time with someone and looking beyond the facade to really see what makes them the person they are. Plus you end up with an artwork to last a lifetime, and beyond.

Daunted? There’s no need to be. Follow the advice and ideas from our artists, set time aside each week, and this time next year you can have a painting to be proud of. And don’t give up. Even the best artists have times when they doubt and wonder.


Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, and How to Paint a Portrait, from Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year are good books to start with. Don't go overboard with expensive equipment. You can buy better-quality stuff when you've settled on your medium. Start with a couple of pencils, which range from 6H (hardest) to 8B (softest), some charcoal sticks and a sketchbook. Add brushes, Conté crayons and paint as you go, but again, start with inexpensive ones.



Berni Markey, an artist and tutor at CEAD at the National College of Art and Design, has advice on angles and proportions. Begin drawing with light lines. Make a simple oval for the head. Look at your subject and imagine a vertical line running from the bridge of the nose down through the centre of the lips, and hold your pencil up to check the angle (this is called sighting). This is the central axis or tilt of the head. Draw this angle lightly. Then notice an angle through the eyes. With another light line, show this angle; it should cross the central axis at right angles and sit halfway between the top of the head and the chin. Continue down the face. The bottom of the nose is about halfway between the eyes and chin, and the lower lip is half that again. You can position the ear by sighting and drawing angles from the edge of the eye to the top of the ear, and the corner of the mouth to the bottom of the ear. Look for any other angles you could use to position points.


To draw features, try drawing the shapes around and beside them. Draw the brow and the shape under the eye and, because they have shared edges, the features will begin to appear. Be careful to leave enough space between the eyes; there is usually a full eye-width between them. The shape between the nose and the distant side of the face in the three-quarter view is useful. Notice where the tip of the nose nearly touches the outline of the cheek, completing the shape.


Spend 30-45 minutes drawing your head and shoulders in a mirror. The set-up should include an interesting background that has shapes and angles. Use the negative shapes to correct the positive shape in your drawing. Make a quick, loose plan for your head and shoulders (the positive shape). Then switch your gaze to the background (the negative shapes). Notice where vertical and horizontal angles in the background intersect the contour of the head. Compare the angles in the background to angles across the head, such as the axis of the eyes.


“The main thing is to capture the likeness. The face is an interesting subject; it’s all about nuances: a millimetre, sometimes even less, makes it the person, or not the person. Usually I choose people I know: family or friends. I work a lot from photographs, because my process is quite slow and I don’t have the confidence to ask people to sit for a long time. Even when I’m photographing, I’ll take about half an hour to get the shots I want. When people are posing for a portrait their expression turns very stiff after some time, but sometimes I am just trying to capture a moment and that’s where memory and also the photographs come into play.”


"The most important thing is to be attentive. To enable me to focus fully on the model, I like to have everything ordered around me. All my materials are close to hand, and I have arranged the easel so I can see the model by only moving my eyes.

“Working in watercolour, the touch of the brush is light on the page. The water transports the pigment around. I love the quote ‘You can make a wild goose tame but you can’t make a tame goose wild’, and I aim to begin every painting in an expressive way. It creates a dynamic feel that feeds into the finished painting.

“I love to gradually find and explain the bumps and hollows that make each particular face. As layers happen one over the other, a real quality of skin begins to emerge.

"I painted a watercolour portrait of Neil Hannon on the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year series. I found it very satisfying to gradually find his features. He was a lovely model and had a real depth and clarity in his eyes. The real pleasure in painting a portrait comes from being fully there, moment by moment, in stillness with another human being, as you observe each shift in tone, and then chisel these out in paint. Being fully present, we are fully alive: this is the real gift of painting from life."


“The drive for me is to make a painting. I shy away from the term ‘portrait painter’, because traditional portraits were commissioned so that the subject is engaging with us and we feel we’re forming a relationship with them. Mine are the opposite: we feel we’re intruding on a private thought; these people are on their own. I’m also aiming to leave room for the viewer to fill the gaps, to complete the work.

“It’s difficult enough making a decent painting of a head, but making a decent painting of a head that has to look like the person you’re painting is infinitely harder. Sometimes you ruin the painting by trying to bring the likeness through, sometimes you ruin the likeness by trying to make the painting.

“I always meet the person. I’ll make up to 30 shorthand drawings and I’ll bring the camera. I’m not precious about how I work. I believe if Rembrandt were alive he’d be using the camera. Vermeer would be doing the same; in fact he did. My sittings are all movement and talk. I play music. I say to the person that I don’t want their best side. And then I go to work using it all.

“When I painted Duke Special I wanted to make it big. Every painting since has been that size, because everyone has been an equal. That size allowed me to explore the idea of the head becoming something else, like a landscape.”


“I tend to work quickly and intensely, and the painting can be the result of a very brief moment of heightened, active concentration. I can’t guarantee that people will get the way I have resolved flesh and presence. Mostly I ask people to sit for my own interest, and there’s definitely a sense of gamble or risk.

“I have been working for a couple of years with the Collections Department at Imma. I got to spend time on residency there, ‘meeting’ the contents of Edward McGuire’s extraordinary studio. McGuire, who died in 1986, painted remarkable portraits which are very unlike my own in both method and personality; they often took many years to complete.

"I arranged sittings with a number of people who sat for him many years ago, including Wanda Ryan and Tresa Browne, painted as children nearly 50 years ago; Garech De Brún; and the poets Anthony Cronin and Paul Durcan. In the exhibition, both his and my versions hang together."


Going against the grain somewhat, Una Sealy reckons you should let the subject see the work as it progresses. “Sometimes it can be quite a shock to see oneself depicted in paint for the first time, as it can be so much more telling than a photograph. When a subject sees the painting develop, they start to become familiar with the language of paint, and their comments can make it a unique collaboration.

“My subjects and I talk a lot during sittings, and it becomes a safe environment for candid thoughts. What’s said in the studio stays in the studio. The painting is not just a snapshot in time, but a living process, where changing features and expressions contribute to the final whole.

“Another important aspect of portraiture is permanence. A sitter recently said to me he wanted something of himself to pass down to future generations, not because of any vanity, but because photos, if they are ever even printed, are more disposable. A painted portrait is hardly likely to be ever thrown away, and can last hundreds of years.”


Katherine Boucher Beug explains the shoebox theory of portraiture. “One of the easiest ways to perceive the human head three-dimensionally, before even trying to get the fascinating details of eyes, noses etc, is to imagine that the head you are looking at is a shoebox in vertical position. If the head is face-on and your eyes are on the same level with the model’s eyes, you see almost nothing of the top and sides of the imaginary shoebox. For this reason, most portraits are not done head-on but include a side and at least a partial view of an ear.

“If the model is bent over a book and tilting her head at an angle, you see quite a lot of the top [of the shoebox], the front is foreshortened and you see one of the sides. This makes the next part of the process – perceiving the features – much more natural.”


Don’t work from photos, advises Walton. “Working directly from life is more difficult, requiring skills rarely cultivated today, but there’s a huge pay-off. The human eye and brain are constructed on different lines to the digital camera, and record the world in radically different ways. Paint allows one to take one’s raw perceptions and make an image out of them entirely without the intervention of electronic processes. Every mark is an act, a decision, a record of the struggle to make something visible. As a way of working, it’s much more fallible, and it’s resolutely low-tech. But I believe the whole process captures more of our humanity than a camera ever can.

“We can all manage to compose ourselves, to smile or look happy for the length of time it takes to snap a photograph. In the time it takes to paint a portrait, no such ‘happy’ pose can be maintained.

“The portrait painted from life records time spent together, face to face, eye to eye. It can capture what we never experience looking into a camera: the shared bond of personhood; the look of recognition.

“So my tip to any would-be portrait painter is: show what you can do that a camera can’t.”


  • January Look at lots of art. Look closely at the lines, the brush strokes, the angles and shapes of faces. Start to draw. Work from family and friends. Keep sketching and drawing. Set aside time each week to practise.
  • February Draw enlarged details of individual features to learn their structure. Learn about tone by drawing with an eraser on to charcoal-covered paper.
  • March Loosen up with blind contour drawing: close your eyes and draw. Master the art of quick gesture sketches. Set a timer and see how quickly you can capture the essence of a face.
  • April Learn to lay out your drawing, negative space (see above).
  • May Transition in to colour from tone by drawing on coloured paper using Conté crayons or chalk pastels. Use the colour of the paper as your mid-tone, and make it a part of your drawing.
  • June Explore working with paint on a coloured canvas. Working on a colour surface can help you to notice the colour in the subject.
  • July Experiment with paint in order to pick your medium.
  • August Go out and about with the sketchbook: sketch faces, animals, flowers, leaves and trees.
  • September Pick your subject. If you know the person really well, persuade them to do regular sittings, or work from sketches and photographs (not all artists agree with this, see above). Experiment with angles, and think about the background to set your scene. Start sketching.
  • October-December From here on in, you're painting. Step 1: underdrawing and layout Step 2: blocking in broad colour swathes Step 3: adding tone, light and shade Step 4: finer detail. Congratulations. It's time to choose a frame.