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Portrait Oil Painting an ”Old Masters’ Technique

2010 October 4
by buddy

The creation of an oil portrait painting is as individual and distinct as a tune that could be sung by an infinity of voices. There is a school of painting that  has been passed down to us from the European Master Painters of the 1600s that I would like to tell you about—from the perspective of a couple of modern-day painters, including yours truly, and how we have adapted it.

Although I use photography for the references for my oil portraits so that people (especially children and pets ) don’t have to sit around, the following technique is straight from the 1600s:  Looking at my references I draw what I see onto the canvas. After that comes a thin wash of brown and white oil paint to establish the tones (lights and darks) of the composition. Then layers of thicker, opaque paint, but still in the monochrome palette. Sometimes I keep painting in brown and white until all the details  are figured out, which  is consistent with what one can see of Rembrandt’s, Tintoretto’s, and Velasquez’s work . However, other times, I paint my details in color instead of with brown and white paints.  After the composition is fully worked out, I apply very thin, almost transparent—or at least transluscent, coats of colored paint. These seem to have a glow to them because of the way the light is refracted through each layer. Refracted means that the light changes direction as it goes through different substances.

My cousin Norman Rockwell used the idea behind this method in a different way to make his Saturday Evening Post Covers. He sketched out his ideas in charcoal on paper—in great detail— to establish the arrangement and the tonal values (lights and darks). After doing that, he roughed in a small color painting in oil on canvas. Then ultimately he made the final large oil painting on a different canvas.

Jessica Rockwell, cousin to Norman Rockwell, has made her living as an artist all of her adult life. Early on, as a high school student, her talent in art was recognized with a full scholarship from the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program. She subsequently received her BFA and MFA & traveled Europe extensively. She has specialized as a realistic oil portrait artist for the last 20 years. Over 100 of her portraits and an Emmy award-winning video on how she paints a portrait may be seen at You can email her for the price of your special portrait at or call her at 800-729-6084.

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