Painting Realistic Acrylic Portraits

Painting Realistic Acrylic Portraits

Hi folks!
As you may know, I began to experiment with portrait painting mid January by trying to paint my mom. This was my first time painting a person and I really wanted to be able to paint a realistic portrait in my chosen medium – acrylic. Because I had no knowledge, I did a lot of research. I read books, magazines and I Googled! I also watched so many portrait painting tutorials on Youtube that I thought it was going to be a piece of cake! Boy was I wrong! To say it was challenging is an understatement!

Reference photo and sketch

I didn’t do too bad with my first sketch. Right! I was so proud ha ha!

It was after that part that I got into trouble. Oh BOY! My poor mom, so angelic could have played a part in the Walking Dead at some points! After more than a month of trial and error, I did manage to paint her so that at least she was human although not quite herself 🙂

The many versions of my first portrait


It was such a struggle! After that experience with portraits, I kind of felt like giving up on the whole idea! But, I am not a quitter, so I tied again! I painted myself and then two other family members. After these, I felt I might be getting the hang of it! I was so excited when I painted my dad. I felt I did a great job of capturing him 🙂 Check out the video below to see how I painted him 🙂


Although I was proud of my dad’s portrait, I knew I was missing some very important knowledge. I felt some ‘realism’ pieces were missing and I didn’t want to paint ‘cartoonish’. I knew I was making mistakes and I knew someone out there could help me fix them. So I began searching. That’s when I found Matt Philleo! What a blessing that was! He is an amazing, awesome talent and wonderful human! Matt has an online portrait school and I really felt in my heart that he was the perfect teacher for me! So I began my next portrait of my grandson and became a student of Matt’s portrait school. With Matt’s help I created an unbelievable (to me) rendition of my grandson as you can see in my next video!

Loaves of Love

My next portrait was of my grandmother! She appears in my Loaves of Love painting which you can learn more about in an earlier blog titled Art of the Heart! You can read about it here –>

Matt’s style, his attention to detail, his teaching methods and his patience have helped me learn so much about creating a realistic portrait. His personal video critiques were especially helpful! I know I have a long way to go to master the portrait but I feel more confident about painting people now as a result of his guidance!

Even though I know I have a better handle on portraits, I know there is so much more I can learn from him especially regarding my problem areas. So, now I am registered for his next course which is on how to paint wrinkles 🙂

Since Matt is so awesome, I asked him if he would mind contributing to this blog by sharing some of his best tips for painting realistic acrylic portraits. What follows is his wonderful article. I hope you enjoy learning from him! If you do please comment and let him know what you liked! And Matt, I want to say thanks a bunch for sharing your talent with my readers! You are made of awesome!

10 Tips for Painting Realistic Acrylic Portraits

What does it take to create a realistic portrait in acrylic?

You may have asked that, especially if you’re first starting out in portrait painting.

And let’s face it: acrylic, in many ways, is a challenging medium to work with. It dries quickly and is difficult to blend with. But it is very versatile.

Your goal is to paint a portrait that you don’t have to throw in your closet or under your bed. A portrait you can be proud to show. I get that. Let me help.

Today, I’m going to give you 10 tips (“dos and “don’ts”) on painting a fantastic, lifelike portrait, based on my 25 years of portrait painting experience.

  1. Start with a solid sketch.

Just like a contractor wouldn’t think of building a home without a good foundation, you need a strong foundation as well. Now there are some artists who can just dive in with paint, cut in here and there, and before you know it, they’ve created a pretty good likeness in their portrait.

But not many artists can do that. And even if they can, I bet they still “cut their teeth” on hours and hours of drawing exercises.

Matt Phillio – Leah Portrait

You need to sketch first—getting accurate proportions on your facial features. Should you draw freehand, grid, or even trace?

For artists just starting out, I recommend to use the grid method. It’s what I teach in all my courses. The grid method allows you to get accurate proportions, but you still have to create the shapes of features yourself. It’s a good bridge between tracing and freehand. Any artist with even just a little experience can create a decent sketch using the grid method.

Unsure of how to do it? I have a video that you can watch for free that shows you how…

  1. Start light.

Many beginning artists make the mistake of going in way too heavy with their paint. Now, if you’re a very experienced artist, and if you paint in a more impressionistic/ gestural style, going heavy can work for you. But for most artists, it leads to frustration!

Matt Phillio – Leah Portrait

Instead, just start off light, using the glazing technique. With that, you use a clear medium called matte medium (you can purchase it at your art supply store or for a discount at NovaColor paints— ) and you mix it with your paint. Then you apply several thin translucent layers that the light shines through. Not only does it make your painting look amazing, but it also gives you the ability to correct any problems on the fly. It’s much easier to adjust something that’s faint than something that’s really bold. The painting will develop much like a polaroid camera print—remember them? Just block in the major value structure—those prominent shadows and highlights and then build on that, and little by little, your painting will come to life.

  1. Forget about skin tones—for now.

The number one thing that artists want help on is skin tones. People have emailed me asking me, “What is your recipe for skin tones?” Sometimes I want to reply, “two teaspoons of yellow ochre, one teaspoon of napthol red, and a pinch of titanium white. Mix it and put it in the oven at 425 degrees for 30 minutes and out will pop a beautiful portrait.” 🙂

I’m being silly here of course, but I have to say, “there is no perfect skin tone recipe.” There are as many shades of skin on this earth as there are rocks and flowers. And with so many different light sources from incandescent to fluorescent to daylight, skin tones can change for each setting.

Skin tones just aren’t that important.

What is way, way more important is this: getting your proportions and facial features correct, and values (shades of light and dark.) Once you get these elements down, then start to dial in your skin tones. Skin tones are like frosting. Proportions and values are like the real part of the cake.

  1. Paint your background with muted tones.

 In your portrait, the most important thing is the subject. Make sure the person you’re painting stands out, by using muted colors like earth tones, browns and greys in your background, rather than bold, bright colors that compete. Or, if the setting is outside and there’s greenery, that’s fine, go ahead and paint it. But I would suggest to make it look out of focus and blurry so that again, the subject doesn’t get lost within it.

 It is not a good idea to use skin tones within your background (except maybe in small accented areas) or the face will just not come forward in space against it.

  1. Don’t exaggerate or simplify the features.

 I’ve been teaching portrait painting for a little over two years now, and during that time, I’ve noticed beginning artists have made two mistakes: The first is that they see a certain feature—let’s say, the nose for example. It has a slight crookedness to it. Then they so want to capture that aspect, that they make it way, way too crooked. (The client would not appreciate this. : )

 On the flip side, they be trying to paint the eyelid shape. Instead of noticing the slight angles that compose it, they paint it oval, like a football. Failing to notice the complexity they simplify it. Instead, train yourself to carefully observe those shapes and capture them. Which leads me into my next point. 

  1. Always be looking at your reference photo.

 You can only paint what you see. Get into the habit of looking at your reference photo at least 50% of the time as you paint, especially as you get into the details.

Matt Phillio – Leah Portrait

Get close in. Put on the bifocals if need be. 🙂

 Notice all those little details, and don’t try to be smarter than the reference photo. I did that once in a portrait, because the photo was blurry. I tried to paint what I thought should be there. The client didn’t approve the proof when I sent it in. I didn’t capture the likeness.

 Back to the drawing board.

 I prayed, and asked God to help me see what was missing. Then I really went in and painted just what I saw in the photo, even though it didn’t make sense. And guess what? The client approved it! It became one of my best portraits ever. 

  1. Don’t paint the eyes white.

 The number one mistake I see in beginners’ portraits is that they paint the white of the eyes with…white.

 Of course, that makes sense.

 But in reality the white of eyes are rarely white in value. There are shadows cast from the eyebrow ridge, eyelids and eyelashes that will cause the white of the eye to actually be dark grey in value. And then if that side of the eye is turned from the main light source, even more so.

 Not sure how dark to make the eyes (or any other areas in your painting?) Use my Value Checker Tool for that. You can download it for free and print it off at


  1. Don’t use just white to lighten a skin tone area for highlight.

 It’s easy to assume that to go lighter in a highlighted area on the face—let’s say a cheek, forehead, or nose for example—that you should just add white. That’s how you do it in house painting, so why not for painting a portrait? However, it doesn’t work that way for a portrait.


Instead, I recommend that you add a little warmth to the mid-tones (transitions from the darkest values to highlights) with colors like red and yellow. Just a little bit is all you need. In general, shadows should be cooler in color and lighter values, warmer.

  1. Use your finger for blending.

 I’m not saying to do finger painting here. But in my painting technique, more than half of the smooth gradations I achieve are by using my finger to soften up the harsh edge of a layer application.

 It’s just one of the several ways of blending I offer in my painting course, “Paint Your First Amazing Acrylic Portrait,” by it is by far the most unorthodox! It works well, though.

 The way to do it is, apply a light glaze in a certain area—let’s say the shadow on the edge of the cheek. Now as the light is hitting it on the illuminated side, you want that part to slowly transition to a lighter value. You paint that layer in the predominantly dark area, but then you touch the edge of that layer with the side of your index or middle finger and lift it off the canvas, which pulls back a bit of the paint, just enough to mute its harshness. With practice, this can become a really effective technique for creating super-smooth shading. 

  1. Go easy on the detail.

 It’s natural to think that more detail=a more realistic portrait.

 That’s not always true. In fact, sometimes, too much detail can kill the realism.

 Instead of painting every hair for example, or every eyelash, just get the major shapes of values blocked in, and then add a few stray hairs here and there. Your mind’s eye will create the rest.

 The reason this works is because it’s they way we look at people in the real world. When you look at a person’s face, do you notice all of their 10,000 hairs? No, you see their eyes, their mouth and nose, and the hair is just a frame for the face.

 So, just put in enough to detail to “sell the portrait.” The most important thing is having the right values and colors in the right place. That is what will ultimately create a realistic portrait.

Matt Phillio – Leah Portrait Final

And there you have it: 10 tips to help you paint realistic portraits. I want to thank Margie Lewis for giving me the opportunity to contribute to her blog today. She is one of my students who has really grown in her portrait painting skills just in a couple months! She recently finished a painting, “Loaves of Love” and sold the prints to several collectors already. Congratulations, Margie!

 I really enjoy helping beginner and advanced portrait artists paint an acrylic portrait they can be proud of. If you would like more help in portrait painting or have a specific question, visit my online school that teaches only acrylic portrait painting: Realistic Acrylic Portrait School ( You can contact me there as well, and I’ll be happy to help. Be blessed in your painting! –Matt

 About the Artist and Instructor

Matt Phillio and his finished Leah Portrait

Since 1991, Matt Philleo has been painting portraits on commission, starting with a drawing at age 14. Matt learned the glazing technique adapted for acrylics from a university instructor during a high school summer art camp. That traditional Old Master’s method of painting has been the cornerstone of his style, and for the last few years he has been painting and teaching portrait painting courses online and in his studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and three children.

I invite you all to follow me on Social Media and to keep in touch by subscribing to my blog! Leave a comment to offer feedback, feel free to suggest ideas on things you might want to see here and if you have any questions I’ll be glad to help! I will respond to you as soon as I am able – usually within a day of receiving.

If you have questions related to purchases etc. please email them, as any posted comments are meant to focus on the content of the blog articles.

Artfully yours,





  1. Another great blog Margie! Anyone who paints know how hard it can be to do a portrait (if that’s not what they already do). I admire your hard work and success in doing so many already!!

    Margaret Haren
    July 11, 2018 Reply
    1. Ah Maggie! You are very kind! Thanks so much!

      July 12, 2018 Reply
  2. Love your blogs Margie, they are very informative. Thanks for sharing.

    Elaine Waterman
    July 11, 2018 Reply
    1. Thank you Elaine!

      July 12, 2018 Reply
  3. Nice site, Margie! You’re off to a great start. I’m looking forward to seeing your future accomplishments as an artist and thank you for giving me an opportunity to share on your blog! Blessings to you. 🙂

    Matt Philleo
    July 12, 2018 Reply
    1. Thank you so much Matt! Wouldn’t be here without you! xox

      July 12, 2018 Reply
  4. What a wonderfully honest and uplifting blog. I look forward to read more and seeing your painting journey.

    Brooke Young
    July 14, 2018 Reply
    1. Thanks Brooke! 🙂

      July 14, 2018 Reply
  5. Thank you for this info! I too am learning to paint portraits in Acrylic and came across Matt on YouTube.
    You are obviously making great progress! Keep on going and enjoy the ride!

    July 14, 2018 Reply
    1. It sure is a journey! Totally! Good luck with yours Mark!

      July 14, 2018 Reply
  6. Hi Margie

    I am also one of Matt’s new students, thinking I would like to paint portaits,it certainly is not as easy as I thought it could be , but this 81 year old brain is still working and so far with Matt’s guidance I am learning, and happy with my efforts.
    unfortunely I didn’t start from the begining putting my efforts on video, I didn’t know I would enyoy painting so much , thanks to Matt.

    July 15, 2018 Reply
    1. Beryl, I admire anyone who attempts to paint portraits! It is a scary adventure – at least that is what I felt. I imagined creating strange creatures instead of human beings. I had a rough start trying to learn on my own. With Matt’s help I have achieved more than I ever imagined. Painting is truly magical medicine. Good luck!

      September 11, 2018 Reply
  7. Hi Margie,
    I think your portraits are fantastic. I am also a student of Matt’s so I really enjoyed hearing how much you have liked learning how to paint portraits with him. I am doing the wrinkle course too! I am really struggling to get a website sorted out but I think yours is great! Thanks for sharing your journey.
    Judy from New Zealand

    Judy Carey
    July 16, 2018 Reply
    1. Hi Judy! Sorry I am just seeing this. I guess I missed it in my email notifications while I was away most of the summer. Matt truly is a great instructor and his glazing technique really works better for me than using opaque painting. I still have a lot to learn. I signed up for his wrinkle course but have not been working on portraiture over the summer. It is a good thing I can go back and do it when things settle down for me. I don’t know much about setting up websites. I hired Brad at Rogue Freelance to set up mine so that it is simple to use. He did great and I love it. I highly recommend him if you need help. Good luck and take care!

      September 11, 2018 Reply

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