How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait
Portrait painting from photos has become increasingly popular with contemporary artists. With the continued growth and development of technology and the abundance of digital photos, many artists are now turning to photography as their source of inspiration for painting portraits.
Painting portraits from photos are often more affordable and faster to execute than traditional portrait painting techniques where a sitter comes into the artist’s studio and sits for sessions at a time. Before, the painting is completed.
In this post, I will walk you through the process of how I painted this commissioned portrait of the President of Guyana, Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, in less than 24 hours.
Let’s dive right in!
- How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait
- Consider the Portrait Composition
- Draw the Outline of the Portrait
- Choose the Right Medium
- Apply the First Layer of Paint
- Applying the Local Color
- Adding Details and Highlights
- How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait by Adding Details for Realism
- How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait-Finishing Up
- How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait-the Finished Composition
Why a Portrait Painting of the President of Guyana?
The Guyana Police Force commissioned this portrait on the 41st birthday of the President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, His Excellency, Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali.
This portrait was not only unique because of the subject of the portrait but it was to be completed in less than 24 hours and this is where my first challenge came.
My second challenge was would I be able to capture the likeness in such a short time frame and finally how will I overcome the negative self-talk and voices in my head that will question and doubt my ability to complete this project satisfactorily.
The Crucial Timeline of this Portrait Painting:
- Thursday morning, 21st of April – the piece commissioned.
- Thursday evening – agreement finalized.
- Thursday evening – stretched canvas on plywood and primed with flat emulsion (three coasts on a rainy evening delayed drying time). The blow dryer was my best friend here. [2 hours counting drying time]
- Thursday night – layout the composition using a projector. [15 minutes of work]
- Friday morning, the 22nd of April didn’t work in the morning because of classes with my intermediate drawing students.
- Friday afternoon – 1:00 P.M. starts applying color to the canvas, focusing on the head, face, and hands. Worked until 6:00 p.m. [5 hours of work]
- Friday night, 8:00-9:00 p.m. – worked on the jacket. [1 hour of work]
- Saturday morning, 23rd of April – 7:00-8:00 a.m. build the stretcher and remove the canvas from plywood, and place it on the stretcher. [1 hour of work]
- Saturday morning, from 8:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. worked on adding final details to the face and getting some critical feedback from a few of my painting students (this was very helpful as the pressure of time will cause you to miss some important details) [4 hours of work]
- Saturday morning, 12:00 P.M. stopped working to allow the painting to dry so I can apply the acrylic varnish. [1 hour of work]
- Saturday afternoon,1:00 p.m. apply the first coat of Liquitex gloss varnish and let it dry for one hour.[1 hour of work]
- Saturday afternoon, 2:00 p.m. apply a second coat and let it dry for another hour. [1 hour of work]
- Saturday afternoon, 3:00 p.m. apply the final coat of varnish and use a hair blow dryer to help speed up the drying process. [1 hour of work]
- Saturday afternoon, 3:30 p.m. prepare the painting for delivery. [10 minutes of work]
- Total time spent working on the painting: 17 hours and 25 minutes
- Saturday afternoon, at minutes to 4:00 p.m. I delivered and unveiled the finished portrait painting to a smiling and satisfied police officer along with several of her curious colleagues who wanted to see what I produced in such a short time span.
Choose the Right Photo is Important
It’s difficult to choose the right photo to paint a portrait. The photo should accurately portray the person’s personality and appearance. It’s important to consider the background, clothes, and accessories. You also need to consider the painting’s purpose.
In my case, because this was a commissioned piece, the client would have made the choice of which picture to use. I had to ensure it was a high-quality digital photo. This will allow me to zoom in and out to study important details and features in the photograph without the image getting pixilated.
Consider the Portrait Composition
When painting a portrait, it is important to consider the composition of the painting. The placement of the subject within the picture space.
Cropping and Adjusting the Composition
For this piece, I cropped out small bits from the right and left sides of the photo and shifted the cacique crown directly over the President’s head as was requested by the client. Compare the original photo with the finished portrait below to see what slight difference this made.
Draw the Outline of the Portrait
This step is critical because it is the foundation upon which you will build as the painting progress. If this stage is weak it will show up later on in the painting and make the process hell. Thus the reason for using a projector to minimize such errors.
How to Outline the Portrait Faster
When you are pressed for time to complete a realistic acrylic portrait, there are several approaches you can use to quickly get the outline of your image on the canvas.
- use the grid system
- trace the image using carbon paper
- use a projector
This was critical in order to capture the features and proportion of the subject. Once the outline is drawn, I started to fill in the details.
For more information on how to lay out your composition on the canvas faster, see the video below by a contemporary portrait artist, Alpay Efe. Listen to his thoughts on using a projector from around the 3 minutes to the 4-minute mark in the video timeline:
Choose the Right Medium
When painting a realistic acrylic portrait that has such a tight deadline line, working with a fast-drying painting medium is often your best choice. Acrylic paint to the rescue!
Sargent Art Acrylic Paints
I choose the Sargent brand of acrylic paintings because of its non-fading properties, its rich vivid pigments, the brilliant matte finish it gives, the fast dry formula that helps the speed of the process, and that it is non-toxic.
Apply the First Layer of Paint
This stage gets you off and running. The first brushstroke on the canvas is the best way to calm the butterflies and silence the inner critique.
How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait: Applying the Local Color
I started with the background and the flag first because I wanted to get rid of all the white space which messes with you psychologically. The aim here is just to use flat colors to fill in various parts of the composition, or as one of my art tutors used to say, ‘the local color of the object.’
Adding Details and Highlights
At this stage, I was focused on capturing the light and dark areas of the subject while striving to get the basic skin tones.
I wasn’t in love with the initial tones I got, but I pressed on to save time. The clock was ticking, and I wasn’t seeing any sign of a convincing likeness. This is the goal of these kinds of commissioned pieces. The likeness is key!
How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait by Adding Details for Realism
The likeness was much better at this stage, but the skin tone was way off and this was at the end of the Friday afternoon session I was mentally taxed and went to bed with lots of questions and lingering doubts. I was dissatisfied at this stage and worried, to be honest.
How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait-Finishing Up
The Importance of Positive Self Talk
I woke up Saturday morning early and analyse the painting, dig deeper, and shouted to myself come on, Abu, you got this!’ All the while thinking if I flop on this one my painting students will roast me mercilessly I won’t hear the end of it (smiling…that was the motivation I needed).
Know and Trust Your Artistic Abilities
I reminded myself that I did this before I went back to the fundamentals of portrait painting. I opened the windows, let in the daylight, and started the last phase of adding details and finishing touches.
Solisticing Constructive Art Critique
I sent photos of the portrait painting to some of my painting students and asked them for constructive critique because I knew I would have missed simple things.
The Importance of Having Good People in Your Artistic Corner
My students gave me some very good feedback which allowed me to correct, adjust and complete this task in a satisfactory stage.
A painting is never finished, you just stop painting and in this case, the deadline forced me to stop.
The skin tone was better, and the likeness was there, and I felt confident signing my name on this one. What a journey!
How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait-the Finished Composition
This post on How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait was written with my painting students in mind. I demand a lot from them and they don’t always get to see my work, but I hope that by sharing the journey in creating this portrait, they will find some teachable moments that will serve them well.
As my students prepare for their final year exams, I know they will face some of the same challenges I faced both technically and mentally, but I urge them to dig deeper and produce their best every time.
This 45″ X 32″ portrait painting was no cakewalk, but I learned a lot about myself during the process. In the end, my client was pleased. And I always say to my students that your client’s satisfaction is more important than non-constructive criticism and critics.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please leave a comment or constructive criticism below.
16 thoughts on “How to Paint a Realistic Acrylic Portrait in Less Than 24 Hours (President Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali)”
Amazing work as usual, Abu. Your eye for detail is remarkable!!! Imagine that part was completed in four hours.
Thanks for sharing "how to" but our result may not be as excellent as yours. Keep soaring with your talent. One love!
Thank you Shaundell.
I admire your bravery and committed in taking up the task first of all and second, getting it done. Bravo! keep shining bro, you have my support near and far.
Thank you, Dawne. This really means a lot to me.
Good morning sir Bentinck, while you had a limited time to produce your painting of our president and you did a great job at capturing his resemblance there are still a few technicalities. Your background looks patchy, his face need a bit more reflective highlights on both sides but more so on the right side and on his cheeks, your jacket doesn't look that solid. The dark areas of the jacket and the lights are still missing a graduated value which would've blended in to make it look solid. The fingers looks a bit cartoonist too. However great job in completing that size of portrait in within a 24 hour period
Thank you for your detailed and insightful comment, Abigail.
Good afternoon sir Randy Abubakar Bentinck.
Looking at the reference and the finished portrait the head dress is not in the actually way like how the photos have it and the value on the president his skin tone is different in the different value of brown on the jacket the value to the right the tone of the grey and the light value the line are not deep as in showing the dept to the right and some of the value on the sleve for the jacket is a little bit two darkand the jacket in general is notthe similar to the reference of the photos of the jacket the tie color is not the exact time either and the tie to the right part it show more value as in dept were you could see the jacket more over and the the tie more in to the jacket and by the neck a little bit more darker value there in the reference to the photos but in the paint you not really seeing the actually same as in the photography the highlight on the hair. Either but not bad for 24 hours
Thank you very much for taking the time to read, access, and critique the painting Yonella. Your valuable points have been noted.
The client would have requested changing the position of the cacique crown to directly over the president's head.
Very well done sir , especially given the time constraints :). I really like the vibrant and saturated colour choices , it is something unique to our Caribbean culture that sets it apart from traditional Rembrandt lighting setups more widely used in traditional portraiture . The likeness of the figure is immediately identifiable to me yet manages to maintain a definite sense of style both in its rendering and shape usage. I could not imagine trying to pull this off in a mere 24 hrs ! I enjoyed reading about your process too , very inspiring !
Thank you for the kind words Damien and thanks for taking the time to read as well.
First of all, hats off to you for taking on a project like this in such a limited time frame. That in itself is commendable. Looking at the work, it’s a good piece, and I’m not surprised that the client was satisfied. It meets the needs that most persons would expect from a portrait.
Of course, looking at it from a more critical and artistic point of view, there are areas that could be improved; the treatment of the fabric for instance. Also the tones in the background could have been manipulated more to create a point of focus or some more interest, as opposed to that flat field of colour.
All in all, I’m happy that you can defend the high standard that you expect from your students and I’m grateful that you took the time to make this into a teachable moment. So many valuable points in this post; the importance of self confidence, the importance of using suitable mediums and approaches, the entire psychological aspect of it… I hope that these points really resonate with readers. I know that I will keep them in mind as I continue to grow as an artist.
Once again, kudos to you. 👏🏼
Thank you very much Roberto for your constructive critique, especially the highlighted technical points. I am happy that you found the teachable elements in the blog useful.
After reading of the journey to complete the commissioned piece. It reminded we humans suffer from the same anxiety spell despite being new or season artist in the field.
I echo most of the views shared above and will add a few pointers too sir, the cacique crown looks too small and flat,his teeth appear to be false , his suit jacket looks too silvery in colour and the right sleeve size and shape looks too big(fat) and like if one eye looking a bit cross eye.
Sir the whole composition looks stiff.
Your points would come in for not saying no to the request with such short execution time.
Thanks for the insightful critique Samanta and thank you for taking the time to read the post.
Well done, for taking on such challenge, it is a good attempt, you captured the resemblance, proportions and tones are in place. You need to work on 3 main things; more details, tonal values and manipulate your colours more, so it can have more realistic quality. I guess if you had more time, more work could have be done, some areas look unfinish. Like the clothes, the ears, the hands, eyes and the background too flat. My eyes kept going to the background more than the subject matter. Good job, on such a short time span.
Thanks for the insightful critical points you made Alyce.
Yeah, I had to sacrifice some fundamentals in the interest of time. So the resemblance was the main focus everything else was given parse attention, for the most part, especially the background.