Here are three suggestions for those beginners out there looking to start painting portraits. Most of these can apply for gouache or acrylics as well.
1. Always use a good reference photo and take a few minutes to really observe it. Try to find one that has a good image resolution and interesting lighting. Even if your goal is not to create a painting or a drawing that looks like a specific person, it is always going to be helpful to have an image to look at throughout the process. This will help you establish realistic values and proportions.
2. It is ESSENTIAL for you to have a good amount of practice drawing realistic faces before attempting to paint a portrait. The only reason why I did a semi-decent job in my first portrait oil painting is because I have studied facial proportions for years and have a relatively good amount of practice drawing them. Only through time spent observing and practicing will one start developing an eye for what looks good and what is off. I once read that, since we humans look at faces probably more than anything else on a daily basis, anyone would be able to tell if something is slightly off with a portrait when they see it, even if they can't exactly pinpoint what it is. You NEED an effective sketch to start a painting off with. Or be such a pro that you have realistic proportions/angles engrained in your head so well that you can go in with your paintbrush right away. I wish to get to this point someday!
3. Once you feel ready to try your luck at your first portrait painting, do it in grayscale. This takes away the need to create realistic skin tones if you are not yet at this point. It is better to take the learning process step-by-step! Keep in mind that, aside from facial proportions, the other important element behind creating realistic art is the effective use of color values. I recommend focusing on setting up a palette with a variety of gray values, from lightest or darkest, and then making sure to place the different tonal values in appropriate places. I used odorless mineral spirits and Gamsol to thin out my paints and do blending. I really recommend this grayscale exercise. Once you succeed at this, go ahead and go for the color!
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