OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Portrait – Details and Highlights

This project is based on the ‘alla prima’ method which means that the painting is completed all at once. The project is divided into three sections for the sake of clarity but I recommend watching them all and reading through the material before trying your hand at it. This way, you will be able to get everything done in a single sitting, as intended.


  • You can work from life – either a sitter or yourself in a mirror
  • Or from a photo reference


  • Small white canvas or panel (up to 8×10 inches)
  • Palette
  • Oil Paint
    • Titanium White
    • Cadmium Red
    • Cadmium Yellow
    • Burnt Umber
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Ivory Black
  • Easel
  • Palette cup/container for mineral spirits
  • Mineral spirits
  • Brushes
    • Some round, some flat
    • From about 4mm wide to 20mm wide
  • Kitchen towel or rag for cleaning brushes and wiping back


Refining the Smaller Forms

Now that everything is roughly in place you can begin refining the smaller forms. Feel free to work within the both the shadows and lights – try to look for the biggest differences between your painting and the subject and refine these areas first.

Look at the particular forms that make up the nose, eyes and mouth as this is where a likeness will emerge.

Think about the bone structure as well – the jaw, forehead and cheeks will usually give a suggestion of the form of the skull below.

The eyes are essentially a sphere hidden beneath the lids so make sure that the shape of the eyelids and rendering of the eye itself reflects this. It is a common mistake to make the eyes too flat. Look for reflections in the iris as this will give life to the eyes and the whole portrait as a consequence.


Adding Clothing and Refining the Hair

Until this point the clothing and hair will have just been roughed in, so now is the time to give them some character. Don’t refine these sections too much as you want the point of focus to be the face – so this should be the most detailed portion of the painting.

Avoid painting the hair with lots of thin strands as this both impractical and unrealistic. Just use a larger brush and look for masses of light and dark that suggest the shape of the hair. Make sure your brushstrokes follow the direction of the hair. You can add few thinner errant strands at the edges to make it feel sufficiently fuzzy.


Adding Highlights

Highlights are the final details you will add; they enhance the different textures and make sure your painting feels life like. You can add them with a smaller brush dipped in pure white, avoid mixing the highlights with the general colours as they should be discrete from the other forms.

Highlights can occur anywhere but these are the main parts of the portrait you will usually find them:

  • If the eyes are catching the light they will always have a sharp white highlight. The highlights will be in a different place depending on the direction of light so just observe your subject carefully to find them.
  • The top of the lower lid will sometimes have moisture from the tear ducts so it can have a highlight too.
  • The nose is usually a bit oilier than the rest of the face, so it will have a subtle highlight on the tip and sometimes the bridge.
  • If the lips are even slightly wet they will have some small highlights (more often the lower lip than the top).
  • Makeup can sometimes add highlights.

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