Saturday, 26 January 2013

What Type of Canvas Should I Use for Oil Painting?

Art stores exhibit different types of stretched canvases for various painting needs, from cotton duck, synthetic fabrics to linen. Various grades and textures can also be found. But when it comes to exploring various oil painting techniques, which canvas would be best and of which grade regarding texture?

Guide to Types of Canvases for Oil Painting


From top left:
untreated, coarse, medium
and fine grain canvas
Canvas broadly speaking is woven fabric, often cotton, linen or hemp that has been entwined into a fine weave. The resultant fabric can either be rolled up for storage or pulled over a ‘stretcher’ ready for priming and painting. Oil paint or acrylic can be applied onto prepared canvas. Oil painting panels have been superseded with stretched canvas, but oil paintings on canvas can be found as early as 1400s.

Canvas was traditionally manufactured from ‘hemp,’ the cannabis plant for its tough fibres, but is now produced from linen or cotton. The term ‘cotton duck’ is used to describe a type of cotton strand that is most commonly used for oil painting. ‘Duck’ in this context comes from the Dutch word ‘doek’ meaning ‘cloth.’ Linen is considered superior to cotton as the strands are finer and can therefore produce a highly-intricate weave with a regular pattern. Belgian linen is thought to be one of the best.

Canvases Artists to Avoid

Beware of cheap quality canvases that have a loose weave, likely manufactured from poor quality cotton. Telltale signs are the ease to which the fabric can be pulled this way and that. The weave will appear distorted and therefore will be more prone to warping once affixed to a stretcher. With a loose weave, the canvas will also be more unstable and prone to distortions. This will be hard to correct once the canvas has been stretched.

Good Quality Canvases for Oil Painting

Linen fabric is considered superior in quality to cotton, and the two do indeed come from different plants, being flax and the cotton plant respectively. Linen canvases are the more popular choices for the professional artist and are lighter in feel. But cotton duck, a later innovation, is more widely used for its economy. Cotton duck stretches more broadly and exhibits a more mechanical sort of weave pattern.

However, what ultimately what matters are the robustness of the fabric and the tightness of the weave. The canvas ‘support’ must be properly sized with gesso or artist’s primer before embarking the oil painting. (Gesso is traditionally chalk ground in warmed rabbit skin glue, but artist’s acrylic primer can be used). Each coat of gesso will act to smooth over the texture of the canvas to create a flatter surface but retaining some of the grain. The size will also create a suitably tough surface for the oil painting, more vital once the canvas has been stretched. Of course, without this vital layer, the oil in the paint will sink into the fabric and cause it to rot, not to mention create a dull painting.

The Best Canvas for Portraiture or Landscapes

Canvases come in different grades, from fine to coarse. These measurements describe not only the tightness of the weave, but also the weight of the canvas (in oz per square inch). Starting from 1, which describes coarse-grain (heaviest) canvas, the finest grain can be found in 12. However, art shops most often describe canvas textures and weights as simply ‘coarse,’ ‘medium’ and ‘fine.’

An array of canvas weaves can be found in between offering lots of choice. But when it comes to working in high detail, it might be wise to opt for fine-grain canvas, as the intricate weave offers a suitable art surface for the paint to fill the ‘depressions in the fabric, as they are smaller. This means that only a small amount of paint will be needed to express brush marks.

Another advantage is that fine sables can be used to express fine, even lines on a relatively flat surface. The fine bristles will not wear out so easily. Ideal art techniques to explore might be fine glazes, dry brushing and high detail. Realism in portraiture or smooth effects in skies or water can more easily be achieved with fine-grain canvas. Indeed, ‘portrait linen’ as its name suggests, is geared towards the fine detail of portrait painting. In respect of such exacting techniques, the quality of the canvas is vital.

Coarse Grain Canvas for Landscape Art or Expressionism

Stretched canvases with coarse grain might be more suitable for artists wishing to express looser, more uneven paint layers, as can be seen in impressionist art or landscapes. The use of wide bristle brushes or impasto might prove complimentary to this distinctive canvas weave. With deeper troughs between each strand, the paint will ‘skid’ over the surface, creating interesting patterns within the painting. Such effects define an oil painting completed on canvas. In respect of more robust expression however the quality of the canvas is not so vital, and indeed, fine grain can be used for expressive art.

Cheap Artist Canvas for Oils

Medium grain canvas can be used to suit most subject matter and techniques, such as alla prima or for a beginner in oils. Medium grain is more widely available for its popularity and therefore can be purchased cheaply in some supermarkets as well as art shops. Canvas made from synthetic fibres offer a cheap alternative, but being a relatively new innovation, has not stood the test of time as yet and some artists may avoid it.

How to Use Canvas Paper

Canvas paper also offers a cheap alternative for the artist who wishes to explore painting onto canvas textures. Canvas paper is simply thick paper that has been moulded via heat to create a canvas-like surface. The surface of the paper has already been sized, ready for the oil painting. Oil painting paper can be found in art pads of twelve, ideal for the beginner concerned over the cost of stretched canvas.

Canvas Choices for the Artist

Canvas glued onto board in the form of canvasboards or canvas panels are available for the artist who does not like the canvas’ ‘give’ during the painting process. This form of art support can easily be made at home with good quality, tough linen fabric. Simply glue the fabric onto a firm surface such as hardboard or panel. Plain fabric such as sheets or polo shirts can be used. Avoid dyed fabric or those with patterns. I used PVA glue, but as it is not fully water resistant, will fix it by blending artist’s acrylic primer into it.

I will apply a liberal coat onto the panel before stretching the fabric over the panel. Apply a coat of the acrylic-glue mixture over the fabric once stretched, before applying a final coat of primer. This will form a tough, firm surface, ideal for oil painting. Preparing your own canvas board also offers more choice for the artist regarding the grain of the fabric.

Great Canvases for Artists

Scumbling technique over
coarse canvas
Choosing the best canvas for a particular oil painting technique requires some thought. Canvases can be found in linen, cotton duck and synthetic. Canvases are often stretched over a frame, but can also be glued onto panel, or the texture embossed onto paper. The weight and grain of the canvas are denoted by numbers, beginning with 1 for the coarsest and 12 for fine. Fine-grain canvas would be ideal for high detailed work or fine glazes. Coarse canvas would be ideal for the artist who wishes to explore how the paint skids over the texture for scumbling or quick oil sketches. Canvases must always be properly prepared with a gesso prior to applying the oil paint.

Advice on Preparing Art Surfaces for Oil Painting

How to stretch canvas
How to cure canvas warp
Types of gessoes for oil painting
Cheap art boards for oil painting
Which art support for oil painting techniques
My site on color behaviour
My site on photography
Tips on how to paint lightning

Monday, 21 January 2013

Guide to Water Mixable Oil Mediums for Oil Paints

Water soluble oil paints offer an alternative for the artist who wishes to explore oil colors without having to use solvents. Various reasons might be allergies, painting in a small space or simply an aversion to the smell. With this in mind, oil paint manufacturers have found a way of making the oil in the paint soluble with water. With this new product, their associated oil mediums have been developed. Harsh solvents may never be used. But what are all these mediums for?

Oil Mediums that can be Thinned with Water

Water soluble oil mediums
Artisan oils and Cobra are two such examples of watermixable oils. But with these oils come an array of water-based oily mediums that can be used to alter the properties of the paint in similar ways to the traditional oils. Also known as ‘water miscible oil paint,’ the oil in the paints possesses altered molecules that make them bondable with water. Find a guide on how these water mixable mediums can be used. (separate articles have been dedicated to a more indepth guide to alkyd mediums and traditional oil painting mediums.)

Water-Soluble Oil Mediums for Artists

Linseed oil, stand oil, drying oil, thickened oil, refined oil, poppy oil and safflower oil, all have their water-based equivalents for water-soluble oil paints. These can be cleaned and thinned with water or (if preferred) a water-based solvent. Now that other paint manufacturers have cottoned on, the artist can find water soluble oil paint ranges from Royal Talens’ Cobra range, W & N’s Artisan, Reeves and Duo Aqua Oil. With this in mind, how can these various mediums for water-based paints be used?

Water Mixable Linseed Oil

This medium is the waterbased equivalent to the most popular oil medium used by artists. Linseed oil is slow drying, adds gloss and translucency to the paint. It is also good for detailed work as it improves flow. As watersoluble linseed oil is the chief carrier of the watercoluble oil paint anyway, adding more to the paint mixture is rather like adding water to watercolor. Linseed oil tends to yellow slightly with age, so safflower oil is used for pale colors such as titanium white.

Water Mixable Safflower Oil

As mentioned above, linseed oil tends to yellow slightly with age, which might not be desirable for pale colors. Safflower oil is lighter in texture and in color. It is also resistant to yellowing, making it the ideal medium for a painting with lots of pale colors. Again, safflower oil increases gloss, transparency and flow.


Water Mixable Stand Oil

This oil dries to a tough, durable finish rather like enamel. It is also slow drying and leaves a glossy finish. This makes stand oil ideal for the artist who wishes to deliberate over a painting over a series of days. If high detail is the aim, stand oil will make the paint flow and flatten out brush marks.

Water Mixable Fast Drying Medium

This water soluble oily medium can be added to the water based oil paint to speed its drying time. It is ideal for glazing techniques, adding transparency and flow. This makes the paint easier to handle for detailed work and ridding of brushmarks for smooth effects. As it dries quickly, a second glaze of oil paint can be added in just a few days or so.

Water Mixable Painting Medium

This medium is non-yellowing, so is ideal for pale colors. It is often used for oiling out, a means of nourishing the oil paint if it has dried dull. This can happen if the painting has been applied onto an absorbent surface or if the paint has been overly thinned with water. Once the painting is dry, dab the oil onto the dull patches with a clean cloth. Repeat if the patches reappear. This oil is slow drying and adds transparency to the paint. If this medium is not at hand, linseed oil will serve just as well.

Solvent for Water Based Oil Paint

As mentioned above, water mixable oil paints dispenses with the need for solvents, as the paint can be thinned and cleaned with water. However, using water alone as a solvent can cause the moisture in the paint to evaporate quickly and create an emulsion-like film on the paint on the palette prematurely. This thinner keeps the paint moist and workable for longer. It also retards this ‘film’ from forming too soon.

Water Mixable Impasto Medium

Water mixable oils for oil colors
This medium is not strictly an oil medium, but an alkyd; but as it is also used with traditional oil paints, deserves a mention here. Impasto medium accelerates the drying time of the oil paint and bulks up the paint-body, making impasto techniques possible, as well as Sgraffito and palette knife application. Brownish in color, impasto medium will not affect the oil paint’s color once mixed in. Use no more than 1 parts to 4 in the oil color.

Which Water Soluble Oil Should I Use for Painting?

Just like traditional oils, there is an array of oil mediums that can be thinned with water for water-soluble oils such as Artisan or Cobra. Stand oil, drying oil and linseed oil, not to mention alkyds have their own watermixable counterparts. But the artist does not have to possess all these oils. In fact, I would recommend thinner, linseed oil and impasto medium for water soluble paints for starters. With these, you can explore glazing, impasto and alla prima techniques. Bear in mind that using traditional oil painting mediums with water-soluble paints will make them more water-resistant, so to enjoy the benefits of water-soluble oil paints, it is worth sticking to the water-soluble oil mediums.

More Articles on Art Mediums for Oil Painting

Guide to alkyd mediums for oils
All about traditional oil mediums
Types of gessoes for oil painting
Tips on impasto techniques
My science of color website

I’m Confused about Alkyd Mediums for Oil Paints. What are They For?

Alkyds are special painting mediums that are made from an oil-modified resin treated with alcohol and acid, hence the fusion of both words to create a new word, ‘alkyd’. The result is a honey-colored substance that dries quickly to a hard enamel. All alkyd mediums dry much faster than the ‘drying oils’ used with oil paint, enabling the artist to apply a second coat of paint on the following day.

How Alkyds are used in Oil Painting

Types of Liquins for Oil Colors
Alkyd is the carrier of alkyd paints, which is a painting medium in its own right and is different to oil paints. However, the alkyd medium in isolation can be added to traditional oils, to create ‘alkyd oils.’

Alkyds are designed for glazing techniques as the medium adds translucency and accelerates drying of oil paints. The drying rate of tradition oils can be speeded up to fifty percent, although factors such as the thickness of the paint and environmental factors will come into play. But an oil painting that becomes touch dry in 5 – 12 days will become touch dry in 2 -6 days with the addition of alkyd mediums. This may help the artist choose whether to use alkyd medium or oil medium in a painting. Or the artist may opt for watermixable oils.

Alkyds also leave a semi-matt finish that is in contrast to the glossy finish that different oil mediums such as linseed oil leaves. Having said this, there are is array of alkyd mediums on the market. What are they all for?

How to Use Alkyd Mediums

Although alkyds mediums can be added to traditional oil paints that possess linseed as its carrier, I personally would never use both alkyd medium with an oily medium in a painting. This is because of the two conflicting drying rates of alkyd (fast) and oil (slow). If one area of the painting has more alkyd medium and another has a lot of linseed oil, then conflicting drying rates will be set up and cracking of the paint layer could result. Another no-no is mixing varnish with an alkyd or an oil medium, as some artists do. Varnish is designed for just that, a varnish, not a medium. With this, let’s take look at the different types of alkyd mediums that are available on the market.

Liquin Also Known as Liquin Original

Liquin is a general-purpose alkyd medium that offers a semi-gloss finish to the oil paint. Of course, it will accelerate the paint’s drying time. It is ideal for glazing techniques and detailed work as it improves flow and reduces brushstrokes. It also doesn’t yellow as some oils tend to do.  Although it dries to a pleasing, hard enamel, don’t be tempted to use it as a varnish.

Liquin Fine Detail Medium

Also known as ‘alkyd flow medium,’ this is the most fluid of the alkyds. This medium is designed for the application of high detail and fine glazes as it is lighter in consistency and promotes more flow in the paint. It is non-yellowing and dries to a hard, enamel-like, even surface, ideal for smooth effects.

Liquin Light Gel Medium

This alkyd medium is similar to Liquin fine detail medium, but leaves a gloss finish, like linseed oil. Again, this medium would be ideal for detail, glazing, and adding flow. A very durable alkyd that is a little heavier and durable than Liquin fine detail medium.

Liquin Impasto Medium

Again, a quick drying alkyd medium that leaves a semi-gloss finish. This paint adds body to the oil paint, making it go further and is ideal for impasto effects. Another impasto medium, oleopasto medium offers a more matt finish. Both impasto mediums have a brownish appearance that does not affect the color of the oil paint once mixed in. Add about 1 part medium to 4 parts oil color to thicken the paint. Too much and the pigment in the paint will lose too much of its tinting strength.

Liquin Oleopasto Medium

Alkyds and Impasto Mediums
Similar to impasto medium described above but leaves a more matt finish. Both these painting mediums are great for impasto effects such as cutting through the paint with a palette knife or creating textures in the paint layer. It is non yellowing and dries quickly

What Alkyd Mediums are For

All alky mediums have characteristics in common in that they are non-yellowing and fast-drying, unlike the oil mediums. They also leave a hard, durable finish. Alkyd paints comprise ground pigments suspended in alkyd, not to be confused with oil paints. However, the alkyd medium can be used with oil paints, hence ‘alky oils.’ Alkyd paints are designed for glazing techniques, but some alkyd mediums such as oleopasto will bulk up the paint for impasto techniques. By their nature, alkyds offer less gloss than oily mediums and accelerate the drying time of the oil paint. Never use an alkyd medium and an oil medium in the same painting, as their differing drying rates could set up pressures in the paint layer, causing cracking. Similarly, never mix alkyd medium with a varnish to be used as a medium or indeed as a varnish.

More Advice about Using Oil Mediums and Other Matters

What different oil mediums are used for
Alkyd versus oil mediums
Guide to alkyd mediums
Water mixable oil mediums for oil painting
How to glaze an oil painting
How to use impasto medium
My science of color website
Ideas on what to paint

Sunday, 20 January 2013

I’m Confused about Oil Painting Mediums, What are they For?

Cold pressed oil, thickened oil, drying oil, refined oil, stand oil, poppy oil, linseed oil, safflower oil. What are they all for? It would appear that an array of oil mediums is needed for oil painting, not to mention alkyds (covered in another article). Does the artist really need all these oil mediums? Find a list of oil mediums and what they are for below.

What Oil Mediums are For

Oil Mediums in Art Techniques
Although great oil paintings are possible without such oils, it helps to know what they are for. The artist can then make informed decisions on what medium to use to attain certain effects. Separate articles have been dedicated to alkyd mediums and watermixable mediums for oils.

Simple Guide to Oil Painting Mediums for Oils

Oils and solvents alter the properties of oil paint to serve a particular purpose. Linseed oil is the carrier of oil paint anyway, and by adding more will make the paint more translucent and runny, a bit like adding water to watercolor. This is why linseed oil is the most commonly-used medium that artists use for oil colors. Linseed oil has been extracted from the linseed (or flaxseed) for its excellent binding powers to the ground pigment.

Solvents such as artist’s spirits or turpenoid serve to clean the brushes and add flow. But unlike linseed oil, will not add gloss. In fact, the paint will dry more rapidly to a ‘chalky’ consistency if mixed with too much solvent. Linseed oil can be mixed with artist solvent to counter this problem and create a good, all purpose thinning agent for oil paint. But for informative purposes, beginning with the drying oils, here is a rundown of all the oil mediums on the market and how they alter the properties of the oil paint.

What Drying Oils do For Oil Painting

All drying oils have various things in common. Firstly, they accelerate the normal drying time of the oil paint. They also add gloss, flow and transparency, ideal for glazing techniques and detailed work. Find more detailed explanations below.

Drying Linseed Oil

This drying oil has the most rapid drying rate of all the drying oils. Extracted from the linseed, this oil increases transparency and flow to the paint as well as add gloss. It dries a little darker in color than ordinary linseed oil and therefore is unsuitable for pale colors.

Thickened Linseed Oil

Again, this oil speeds drying time of the oil paint. It improves flow and adds gloss but is paler in color and syrupy in consistency, probably not ideal for intricate detail. It improves durability of the paint film. It behaves similar to ‘linseed stand oil’ (see further down this article) but dries quicker and a little darker.

Drying Poppy Oil

A fast drying, pale oil from the poppy seed. This oil increases gloss and transparency. As it is non-yellowing, it can be used with pale colors. Poppy oil is often used as the carrier for pale colors such as titanium white as it is non-yellowing.

Art Mediums with Fast Drying Rates

The artist can purchase art mediums with a faster drying rate than the ‘drying oils’ just mentioned, in the form of alkyd mediums (in another article). Alkyd mediums or ‘liquins’ are oils treated with alcohol and an acid (hence, ‘alkyd’) which is rather like a resin. Alkyds will half the drying time of traditional oils, so an oil painting that normally dries in 6 – 12 days will become touch-dry in 3 – 6 days with the addition of an alkyd medium - much faster than with a drying oil.

Art Mediums with Slow Drying Rates

The following oil mediums will retard the drying rate of an oil painting, which will keep the paint workable for longer. This is ideal for blending and deliberating over an oil painting for a period of days. Again, these oils will increase transparency, gloss and flow to the paint.

Cold Pressed Linseed Oil

This oil is extracted from the linseed without the use of heat, making it higher quality. It retards the drying time of oil paint, but dries a little faster than refined linseed oil (extracted by the use of heat.) This paint increases flow and gloss. An ideal oil in which to grind pigments, it has a slightly yellowy appearance.

Refined Linseed Oil

This is the most popular oil medium that artists use. This oil dries more slowly than its cold pressed counterpart, as it has been extracted from the seed by the use of heat. It is paler in color due to being bleached and is lighter in texture, but still tends to yellow slightly with age. When added to the paint, it adds gloss, transparency and flow. But as it has low viscosity, it would be ideal for high detail.

Linseed Stand Oil

This is a pale, viscous oil that slows the drying time of oil and resists yellowing. It leaves a tough, smooth enamel finish and reduces brushmarks. But this oil would not be ideal for use with pale colors, as it dries slightly yellowish.

Safflower Oil

A slow drying, pale oil from the safflower seed. It increases gloss and transparency and resists yellowing. This oil is the carrier for white pigments such as titanium and flake white and is therefore ideal for pale colors in a painting.

Walnut Oil for Oil Painting

Less often used that linseed oil, walnut oil has similar properties to linseed oil in that it can be used to thin the paint, add translucency and gloss, but dries a little more slowly and is more resistant to yellowing. The oil paint manufacturers, M Graham use walnut oil to bind the pigments instead of linseed oil. This makes the paint more free-flowing and slower to dry, ideal for glazing and blending techniques.

Oil Spike of Lavender

Oil spike of lavender is an oily medium that has been distilled from the male lavender plant, but with a strong solvent for applying glazes with a runny consistency. This oil has a strong lavender smell that some might find too much, but its solvency power exceeds artist’s solvent. Use in moderation.

Artist Painting Medium

A slow-drying gloss medium for fine detail, glazing and for eliminating brushmarks during painting. Painting medium is resistant to yellowing and is mostly used for oiling out (explained below). A good all purpose medium.

How Oiling Out Helps an Oil Painting

Any artist oil can be used for oiling out, but most often it will be refined linseed oil or painting medium. Oiling out is a means of renourishing the oil in the paint that has dried dull. This might be due to using too much solvent in the paint, or the oil content being sucked into an absorbent art surface beneath. The most likely culprit is an art surface that has not been sealed properly, or if a cheap primer has been used.

Once the oil paint has dried (allow at least three months if the paint layer is thick), apply a little of the oil via a clean rag onto the dull patches. This will eliminate dry, dull patches. Varnishing the painting will further bring out the colors’ saturation. Incidentally, never use varnish as a painting medium. And never mix varnish with an oil medium. The varnish has been designed for varnishing only, not an oil medium.

Which Oil Medium Should I Use for My Painting?

Different Art Mediums for Oils
There is an array of oil mediums to confuse the artist. ‘drying oils’ will speed up the oil paints’ drying time; the other oils will slow it down. Some oils have a yellowy appearance and others are syrupy.  Safflower oil, poppy oil and walnut oil are resistant to yellowing and are therefore suitable for pale colors. All oils will add gloss, transpaceny and flow and any can be blended with an artist solvent. The artist could get by with just linseed oil and an art solvent, but it is worth experimenting with other mediums to discover preferences.

Tips on Using Art Materials for Oil Painting

Oil medium versus alkyds
What different alkyd mediums are for
Water mixable oil mediums
Glazing technique with oil mediums
Impasto medium for textured painting
My site, science of color
Tips on portrait photography
My oil painting shop

Friday, 18 January 2013

How do I Paint Reflections in the Eyes of my Portrait?

Illustrating the eyes of a portrait will make or break the oil painting; but the highlights in the eyes are equally crucial. The portraitist might take great pains to achieve great skin tones and suggestion of hair with a good likeness to the subject and then with the finishing touches applies highlights to the eyes as two white pinpricks. Whilst this might be acceptable, why leave it there when a more sensitive depiction of reflections in eyes could make a good portrait brilliant?

Painting Highlights in Eyes

Painting Reflections in Eyes (Rachel Shirley)
I have written a separate article offering tips on painting eyes in portraits. Issues such as painting the pupil, the iris and the area around the eyes are essential for a successful portrait. But eye-highlights are such a vital element that improper application could ruin the whole portrait painting. This is because very often, the highlights give the eyes light and life.

How Not to Paint Eyes in Oils

The following issues with painting moisture in eyes could let the portrait down.

  • Applying a blob of white paint into the eye with opaque paint.
  • Placing both highlights in exactly the same position in each eye.
  • Expressing the highlights as consistent in color and tone throughout, creating the impression of white specks or dandruff within each eye.
  • Idealizing the shape of the highlight so that they are overly regular in shape, whether round or square.
  • Not taking note of the other colors within the highlights.
  • Inaccurate placement, size or position of the highlights could cause an unintended facial expression.

Simple Painting of Reflections in Eyes

If working from an image that has been taken through flash photography or if the face is small on the photo, then white pinpricks will often be the only reflections that can be seen within the eyes. With such little visible information, the artist can do little but use flecks of titanium white to express highlights. Even so, watch out for overgeneralizing the appearance of highlights, for often both highlights will differ slightly in shape, size and location within each eye. One highlight might be located dead-centre in the pupil, while the other might skirt the outer edge.

Why Paint Realistic Reflections in Eyes

Rather than settle for second-best, try taking a close-up photo of the face for the painting. Place light-sources as various locations around the room to create interesting highlights in the eyes. This will provide great opportunities for exploring interesting effects in eyes and a fantastic focal point. Place the subject near a window and provide a fill-in light (a lamp or similar) adjacent to the window to create secondary highlights to the eyes. This will create warm and cool highlights. Also try placing an object in front of the light source to create unusual shapes to the highlights. Set the camera to high resolution and use a slow shutter speed to pick up as much detail as possible. A tripod will be essential for this purpose. Take several photos in case some don’t work out, and take a few close-ups of the eyes themselves.

How to Paint Highlights in Eyes in Detail

If intricate reflections can be seen around the eyes, it is time to get indulgent. Take every opportunity to bring out these highlights. This will enhance the entire portrait painting. If you are fortunate to work from a good close up, then the eyes are likely to reveal interesting highlights anyway. Make a conscious note of the following:

The shape of the highlights. Some will be elliptical, others comet-shaped, perpendicular or simply irregular. Note how the shapes differ in each eye and how much they obscure the pupil and/or iris.

Blues and crimsons will often be seen in highlights. The color is rarely just white. Notice how this color shifts at the edges. Does the color/shade shift gradually or abruptly? Is the reflection translucent in nature or intense?

Can other reflections be seen in the same eye? Look for other highlights on the eye rims and the tear-duct.

Notice the color temperature of these reflections. Some are warmer than others. Cool highlights will often be seen on the ‘whites’ of the eyeball. Warm hues might be seen on the fleshy area around the eye.

Must-have Art Materials for Painting Eyes

The details around the eyes require the finest sables; not the cheap variety. Firm yet soft brushes that are springy to the touch are ideal. Kolinsky sable or those made from Daler Rowney or Winsor Newton. Size 00 and 6 ‘rounds’ should meet the demands of painting intricate detail around the eyes.

Synthetic brushes are fine, as some bristles possess a blend of sable and synthetic hair. Art brushes for acrylic paint would be equally suitable as those for oils, as they have a certain level of robustness for stiff paint. The addition of a little linseed oil will help the paint flow for intricate highlights. The pigments: white, ultramarine, pthalo blue, permanent rose, viridian, burnt sienna and burnt umber should provide color mixes for most highlights that can be found in eyes. Additional others to try might be cerulean blue, cobalt and alizarin crimson.

Excellent quality photos are essential for working from such small detail. Get large prints rather than small. Allow plenty of time before embarking upon eye section of the painting. A smooth art surface might be preferable, such as panel primed with gesso or fine-grain canvas.

How to Add Life to a Portrait Painting

Adding highlights to the eyes will really bring vitality and life to the portrait painting. It is almost like switching a light on within the subject. I would paint the highlights last, after painting the eyes, and the surrounding area. Make sure you are completely satisfied with the pupil, iris, eyeball, eyelid, the tear-duct and surrounding area before embarking upon the highlights. I would also allow the paint to dry before adding these essential pale colors.

Tips to Make Eyes Look Realistic

Once you are happy with how the eyes look (see my other article on painting eyes), embark upon the highlights.

Remember that highlights themselves will possess ‘highlights’ and ‘lowlights. Work thinly at first and begin with the lowlights. Look from the ‘darkest’ highlights, which might be pale blue or violet in color. Lots of highlights will appear grey, warm or cool. The following color mixes will produce the following colors for highlights; with various amounts of titanium white and each pigment in small amounts.

  • Cool grey: ultramarine and burnt umber and white.
  • Warm grey: ultramarine, burnt sienna and white.
  • Silver: pthalo blue, burnt sienna and white.
  • Violet: ultramarine, a little permanent rose and white.
  • Greenish-blue: ultramarine, a little viridian and white.
  • Subtle green: pthalo blue, burnt umber and white.
  • Warm white: white and a little burnt sienna.
  • Cool white: white and a little ultramarine.
  • Crimson (as seen on the fleshy areas around the eye): permanent rose, a little burnt sienna and white

Art Techniques for Eyes
(Rachel Shirley)


Art Techniques for Painting Eyes with Highlights

Work the paint thinly, but not runny. Dab the bristle ends only into the paint mixture. Only the most minute color mixes should be used. Gently stroke the paint over the areas concerned with a fine sable to represent the highlights in the eyes. Work progressively paler as you work over the more intense highlights. Keep looking at the photo to take note of the shape of the highlights and the color blends. Wipe excess paint build-up from the bristles to prevent the paint from inadvertently splodging onto the surrounding areas. Don’t worry if you go wrong, gently ‘lift’ the paint from the eye with a clean, dry bristle. Keep lifting until most of the paint is removed. You might have to wait for the paint to dry before working over it again.

Finish with the brightest highlights with the most opaque paint, which will usually be neat white. Drag the paint over selected areas to bring the eyes to life. Stand back from the painting to ensure the highlights make sense with the rest of the painting.

More Articles about Portrait Painting in Oils

Preview of demo on painting Oath of the Horatii
Advice on painting eyes in oil