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How to Paint a Portrait in Black & White Tones

Updated February 21, 2017

Portrait painting presents many challenges for an artist. Some artists even consider the human form to be one of the most difficult subjects to tackle. Although it can be challenging, the practice of portrait painting can help you grow as an artist. To start out with, try painting in black and white tones. Black and white portraits are sometimes considered ideal for a beginning portrait painter, as shadows and highlights can be better identified and represented through this neutral colour palette.

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  1. Select a black and white photo of the person whose portrait you wish to paint. It helps if the photo is as large as possible, as this will make it easier to better identify the highlights and shadows.

  2. Look at your photo carefully. Try to identify the darkest and lightest parts of the photos and then look for the tones in between.

  3. Draw a rough sketch of the portrait you are painting onto your canvas, using your charcoal. It is not necessary to include details in this rough sketch. Simple outlines and shapes are fine.

  4. Mix your black and white paint together, until you are left with a medium-tone grey. Using your photo for reference, paint the darkest shadows you can see in the photo onto your canvas. The darkest areas usually include the neckline, the hairline, under the nose and under the eyes.

  5. Mix a slightly lighter shade of grey. Look for the medium-toned areas of the photo and paint these onto your canvas. The medium-toned areas usually include the hair, the shadows created by the bridge of the nose, the lips and the shadows created by the cheekbones.

  6. Mix a light shade of grey. It should be darker than pure white, but lighter than the medium-tone grey you had been using. Identify the lightest areas of the photo, and paint them onto your canvas with your light grey paint. These lightest areas usually include the whites of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the cheekbones and the chin. You may want to paint your background this shade as well.

  7. Mix some pure white paint with only a small touch of grey. The resulting mixed colour should be close to pure white. Observe your photo, and identify the bright highlights. Paint these onto the canvas sparingly, as it is easy to overdo this bright white colour, which could wash out the tonal variations of the painting. The brightest highlights of the face usually include the teeth, the reflections in the eyes and any reflections that may be seen in the hair.

  8. Mix more shades of grey if you desire to blend the painted tones together more. Paint these onto the canvas, blending the different greys together as much as possible. Continue adding paint until you feel that all the tonal variations are well represented.

  9. Tip

    Sometimes, the blank canvas can make an artist nervous. Try to not be afraid of messing up your painting. If you are unhappy with your portrait, you can always paint over it and begin again. Over time, you will likely develop a preference for paintbrushes of different sizes and shapes. Try beginning with a basic, small paintbrush as this will work well for most portrait painting.

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Things You'll Need

  • Charcoal stick
  • Small paintbrushs
  • Glass of water
  • Paper towel
  • Canvas
  • Tube of black paint
  • Tube of white paint
  • Black and white photo for reference

About the Author

Melissa Busse

Melissa Busse is a freelance writer covering a variety of topics, including natural health and beauty, budget balancing and parenting. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art from Maryville University in St. Louis.

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