4 Stages of Bringing a Portrait to Life: an Oil Painting Demo



Learn how to create lifelike portraits by painting in layers. Gustavo Ramos shares the secrets behind his masterful work in an oil painting demo of Mother and Child.

Gustavo Ramos: Mother and Child (oil on panel, 20x15)
Mother and Child (oil on panel, 20×15)

Stage 1: The Wipeout

To start this painting, I covered the surface with a thin wash of transparent oxide red and ultramarine blue diluted with odorless mineral spirits. I applied this mixture with a rag and wiped the panel until I achieved a light neutral tone. Then, I started planning out the composition and drawing by carving out the lights with a kneaded eraser.

Oil Painting Demo: Stage 1 | the Wipeout
In this stage, I am thinking in terms of mass and big shapes, trying to be general but accurate.

Stage 2: The Drawing

In the next stage, I switched from a mass mentality to a more linear approach to refine the drawing. By carefully positioning straight lines on the panel, I could determine the rhythms and spatial relationships of the pose, working from big to small. I kept my conté pencil sharp at all times and made subtle suggestions of form and volume as a warmup for the painting stage.

Oil Painting Demo: Stage 2 | the Drawing
I used a sharp conté pencil to refine the drawing and warm up for painting.

Stage 3: Painting the Whole

With my drawing established, my next objective was to cover the entire surface with a layer of paint. Using my full color palette, I attempted to do this in one painting session, working broadly and trying to understand the color and tonal relationships throughout the piece.

I was essentially trying to capture an accurate first impression. I believe the best way to accomplish this is by working on the whole painting at once rather than part by part. Using old synthetic brushes, I made sporadic marks that left an organic feel, which would show through in the finished painting.

Oil Painting Demo: Stage 3 | Painting the Whole
In this stage, I kept my shadows semi-translucent and built up some impasto passages in the lights, in anticipation for the next layers of refinement.

I treat this stage similarly to the way I used to treat writing a first draft of an essay when I was in college. I’m not sloppy or careless, but covering everything up in one go allows me to see how each individual part relates to the whole. I let the initial pass dry completely before painting another layer.

Stage 4: The Refinement

To bring the painting to completion, I painted over my original pass to precisely calibrate the colors and tones by using techniques such as glazing and scumbling.

In my previous pass, I intentionally leaned light, allowing for darker glazes in the upcoming passes to enrich the color and create a luminous “backlit” glow. I continued to be mindful of keeping my shadows transparent while adding more body to the lights.

Oil Painting Demo: Stage 4 | the Refinement
In this final pass, I spent a good amount of time adjusting the facial features, since they are the focus of the portrait.

The Benefits of Painting in Layers

Some parts of this portrait were completely resolved within two layers, while others took as many as five layers to achieve my desired refinement and effect. Some of my other paintings can have as many as 10 layers on certain passages.

Painting with many layers helps me achieve close control of color and tone; I get closer to the right tone with each layer. The Old Masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt knew they could not “get it right” with just one layer of paint, so it would be disrespectful for me to assume that I can.

Another advantage of painting in layers is the different effects that arise from the paint build-up. These effects are impossible to achieve with a single layer and help transform the painting into something deeper and more lifelike, rather than just paint.

See more of Ramos’ portraits: 8 Masterful Gustavo Ramos Paintings with Brilliant Form and Depth

Meet Gustavo Ramos Live

Join us on May 24 for an exclusive member event in which Gustavo Ramos shares his thoughts how to elevate the genre of portraiture and maintain an invigorating studio practice. Save your seat today!

About the Artist

GUSTAVO RAMOS (b. 1993 Brazil) is quickly becoming a prominent and sought-after oil painter in the realm of portraiture. His work has been exhibited in world class venues, including the European Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Sotheby’s in New York City. Connect with him on Instagram @gustavoramosart or explore his work at gustavoramos.art.



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