The Portrait Process

In this article I will take you through all the steps needed to paint a portrait that you will be happy to display in your home or office.

Initial Meeting

Generally speaking, I will not just sit you down, look at you and start painting. If it was my habit to paint the first thing that I see, then my pictures would reflect your mundane commonplace surroundings.

I do a lot of preparation in designing a painting before I even pick up a paintbrush. This is what separates art from an ordinary snapshot.

I’ll start by asking you about your general preferences. This may include the type of setting, clothing, facial expression, family pets, et cetera. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a child’s toy, a favorite room, or a preferred color.

A surprising number of people voice no personal preference at all, though many others do, and a few even have strict guidelines.

I really don’t mind having you give me some direction to start with. In fact, it can help cut down on the daunting number of possibilities involved in creating your portrait.

Photo Sessions

The next step is scheduling an appointment to take photographs. The photo shoot takes roughly an hour.

It will be done on location and rarely in my studio, unless you want a simple “head and shoulders” portrait. Looking at my paintings, you will know why. I would prefer to paint you either in specific settings or with things that are important in your life.

Actually, I consider this the most important part of the process, and I will take time to explain why.

In short, the photo shoot is where I explore ideas for the portrait painting. Once I have a good idea, the actual process of painting is not difficult (albeit time consuming) since I have mastered my technical skills long ago.

During the photo shoot I may open shades, block window light, rearrange furniture, ask you to change clothes, rummage through your closets to pick clothing (I’ve even convinced a couple of people to go and buy clothing items), you name it.

If we are taking photographs outdoors I will scout the site ahead of time for the best time of day or the best position of the sun. Sometimes I use props to cast strategic shadows from the sun.

All this may be likened to a stage director who is in charge of setting the dramatic scene for maximum effect.

If I do not find what I am looking for in the first sitting, I will do additional photo shoots until I find what I am looking for. Sometimes I will schedule more sessions just to refine an originally rough idea.

On average I do two to three photo sittings of a single person, though I have done as many as six or seven.


When I am satisfied with the photos, I paint a small full-color sketch of the idea I have in mind for your portrait. If I have more than one good idea then I will paint more sketches and let you chose the one you like best.

I usually end up painting a couple of sketches, but I have done as many as seven.

Each sketch is normally a compilation of many different photographs since I rarely capture every detail perfectly in one photo. Not even counting the background items, I may use a separate shot for each hand, the hair, the legs, even parts of the face may be better in one shot than another.

The sketch allows me to work out design concepts quickly on a small scale, whereas on a large painting, major corrections could take weeks.

Your Approval

Next, I show the sketches to you for approval.

I do this whole process with only a small upfront payment. I want to retain the freedom to experiment and express different ideas at the preliminary sketch phase, without the pressure that money brings.

If for some reason you are unhappy with the sketches, you are under no obligation to proceed with the project.

After you select and approve a sketch, the exact size of the final painting is determined, sometimes by painting an extremely rough full-sized sketch on a big piece of cardboard.

The large sketch is then held up to the wall where the final painting will hang to determine if the size looks correct.

Once you’re happy with everything up to this point, then I’ll ask you to sign a contract and provide a down payment of one-third.

Painting the Portrait

I begin the final painting in my studio using the preliminary sketch and the photographs for reference.

During the course of the painting I will usually ask you to sit for some live painting sessions. The duration of these live sittings can vary due to the different specific needs of each portrait painting.

The longest sitting times I have ever required were somewhere in the vicinity of 15 or 20 hours. Of course, not all at once but over many sessions. Normally it is less than half of that time.

Sometimes all I need is a half hour or so just to touch it up, and sometimes I don’t need any live sittings at all. Usually I can give you a reasonable estimate of the sitting time needed after the sketch is completed.

After a lot of possibly laborious and painstaking work by me, your portrait painting is finally completed.

I will show you the portrait. This is the moment of truth. I want you to be honest in your appraisal of the portrait.

I am flexible about making changes but I am not afraid to tell you if I think your suggested changes will harm the picture.

You will now pay the final two-thirds and walk away happy (at least that’s what my other clients tell me). I am usually sorry to see the painting go, but I have to make a living.

Final Varnish

An oil painting needs a final coat of varnish. For technical reasons, it can only be applied after the paint has cured for several months.

I will make arrangements to pick up your painting at the appropriate time (usually six months) and I varnish it free of charge.

At this time I also professionally photograph the painting and provide free prints for family members and law-enforcement authorities (if needed).


If you’d like to talk to me about painting a portrait, please use the Contact Form.