How to Paint a Portrait With Oil | By Marvin Mattelson

Marvin Mattelson’s portraiture combines Albert H. Munsell’s color theory, Frank J. Reilly’s palette arrangement and William McGregor Paxton’s colors—along with an artist’s intuition.

Layers of a Portrait
by Marvin Mattelson

I painted Karen demo (at bottom; oil, 18×14) from life as a workshop demonstration piece. Although I prefer painting from life, due to time restraints, workshop pieces are never as refined as commissioned portraits; however I use the same basic process for both.

oil portrait painting Marvin Mattelson artist
Transparent Underpainting

1. I always start my portraits with a raw umber imprimatura (transparent underpainting). The value of the tone is always equivalent to the shadow value on the model or the subject. For a simple painting, such as this head-and-shoulder piece, I scratch a drawing with a tortillon into the umber tone.


oil portrait painting Marvin Mattelson artist
Remove the Lights
2. Then I remove the lights with a rag and add paint with a brush for the darks. For more complex compositions, I build up the image with very thin paint, using more of a watercolor type of technique. In either case, the point is to establish the drawing, composition, edges and values.


oil portrait painting Marvin Mattelson artist
Add Color
3. The next layer is where I first address color, opaquely blocking in the local colors and modeling the values of the larger forms. At this point, I don’t try to finish anything or put in any detail. My focus is on establishing the big color relationships. I’ll smooth out the patchiness later.

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oil portrait painting Marvin Mattelson artist
Restore the Luster
4. For the ensuing layers, I oil out the area to be painted with Natural Pigments Oleogel. This helps restore the luster and value of wet oil, which often dulls after it dries. Then I scumble (apply a thin layer of translucent paint) into the wet Oleogel, adjusting color to unify each area. I then paint into the wet scumble to modify the subtle hue, value and chroma shifts.


oil portrait painting Marvin Mattelson artist
Building Layers
5. The number of layers depends on the degree of translucency or refinement I desire. Skin is made up of translucent layers, and my scumbling puts translucent layers over what was there before. This technique was used by 19th-century artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In my portraits, a typical finished head will have between four and six layers, while background areas may have just one or two.

Click here to see more of Mattelson’s portraits.
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To read more about Mattelson’s portraits, including his palette for fleshtones, order your copy of the April 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Extra! Our Top Three Resources on Mixing Colors and Color Wheel Know-How

how to paint skin tones in oil by Chris Saper
Free preview

Click here to watch a preview of the video “How to Paint Skin Tones in Oil with Chris Saper.”


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