Learn to draw and paint portraits

The hallmark of great portrait paintings is their sense of life. They feel alive! Brimming with emotion! As if they had painted themselves. Effortlessly.

Well, that seemingly effortless result emerges from a painting process that begins very loose and flexible and step-by-step is pulled together into a unified whole.

Here's the rub: you can go from loose to resolved, but not from beginning with a tightly resolved drawing and hoping to loosen up later. It doesn't work that way.

The oft-taught academic practice of beginning with a highly resolved drawing too often results in an illustrative painting that lacks a life-force. It's nigh impossible to describe but you feel it when you see it. Sure you can be dazzled with the technique, but that's the craft not the art. You need both.

Herein lays a major pitfall for the realist painter. In the pursuit of achieving a high level of craft one risks becoming more of a technician than an artist.

That said, as an artist you should be able to do both highly resolved drawings and also be able to loosen up with a bravura approach.

learn to draw portraits
Michael Britton, Verna, 2003

Yes, you must know how to draw and how to render form, that is implicit. That is your foundation. And like any foundation it should be innate, its presence more felt than seen.

The language of painting is distinct from the language of photography. Painting has its own evolved syntax and grammar. The insiduous language of the photograph is a major obstacle when learning how to draw and paint. Most beginning artists, and very advanced ones too, strive to emulate the photograph. This is even true when students are working from life. It is like studying French by reading German. It cannot be done. The result is often a pale imitation of a photograph.

Why you must copy master artists

For centuries artists have learned how to paint by copying master artists. Rembrandt copied Titian, so too did his contemporary Rubens. Copying is the surest and most efficient way to learn both how to paint and the language of painting.

Copying is much more than creating an exact copy, it is learning the creative process of painting and it is through copying that you peel away your preconceptions of what painting is and train yourself to see through the painters' eye.

Think of it as reverse engineering. As you acquire deeper insights into both the technical and creative process of how and why great paintings evolved your painting becomes deeper and more meaningful.

Alla Prima! Painting emotion filled portraits that breath Life!

Workshop 1: Rembrandt Laughing by Michael Britton

Rembrandt Laughing is the first of five workshops that teaches you how to paint alla prima portraits in oil. Alla prima is painting wet-into-wet in a single sitting. Although the sitting may be from three hours to far into the night. That doesn't matter; what matters is that your painting be as fresh as home-baked cookies.

The focus of Rembrandt Laughing is value spotting. This is laying small pieces of color next to another to effect three-dimensional form. Think of it as like modeling a portrait in clay where instead of building up the head with clay you are building it up with color. This is painting with a sculptural sensibility.


'I've learnt more from your video workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney, Australia

Art class online Learn how to paint portraits alla prima Rembrandt

Rembrandt Laughing is more, much more, than just the 2 1/2 hours of video instruction.

The video workshop is presented in fifteen segments; each a chapter and a very manageable download.

Let's be honest here, video instruction is great at teaching the direct application of painting but it falls short of indepth theory discussion. That's why I am including the instructional step-by-step E-book.

This E-book tells tells you of the pros and cons of oil painting and exactly what colors you need. Rembrandt's palette was only eight colors. That's all you need. Sure, you will need a few other colors now and then, like Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Orange, but very rarely will you ever have to buy a Green.

Frankly it is much more efficient to master a small range of colors than to constantly struggle with too many. The vast majority of which can be readily mixed.

Learn to paint portraits in oil

Large step-by-step images of the entire painting process. From the initial striking of the large shapes, blocking-in, the Ebauche (the dead coloring-in), and the refinements of value spotting to bringing the portrait to life! Check and measure your progress at each stage of the painting!

This is important! Print out each step-by-step image to compare with your painting.

My approach with Alla Prima is to begin very loose and general and with each progressive step refine and articulate the forms.

Shown here is the 'knitting' stage. I much prefer to use the term 'knitting' rather than blending. Knitting is constructive of form; blending destructive. Terminology implies intent.

Anatomy for portrait artists

Anatomy! Every master artist has their knowledge of anatomy down pat. I believe that understanding the anatomy of the head is absolutely critical to bringing your painting to a high level.

That's why I am including both my Atlas of Facial Anatomy and the 90 minute video FREE!

Admittedly reading or watching anatomy is not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The best approach is to go step-by-step beginning with the basic shape of the skull and gradually build-up the skeletal and facial structures thru drawing. Think of Anatomy as a writer would a dictionary or thesauras.

AND included in the video is my Planes of the Head ... indispensable for achieving three-dimensional form.

portrait painting pochade thumbnail sketch

Also included is my 30 minute video of how to paint the pochade of Rembrandt Laughing.

Before embarking on any painting, other than a quick sketch, you should first do a Pochade. A pochade is a small thumbnail sketch, roughly 6x8", which is your first draft of the overall color scheme, composition and a quick analysis of the dark/light pattern (this is the Notan) that sculpts the planes of the head.

Pochades are great for rehearsing and loosening up! They are also an excellent vehicle for developing your brush handling skills. There's nothing to lose with a pochade and everything to gain!


Dear Michael,

I completed the download last night and watched every video. I am hugely impressed with both the content and presentation. You succeeded in entertaining as well as educating me.

I purchased your portrait drawing course some time ago and realized I needed the Fundamentals of Drawing first. So you have not only taught me how to draw portraits, you have taught me how to draw anything, how to develop good working habits and how to stay motivated. Thank you so much!

Best Wishes

Bridget Becker, USA

Let's take a moment to talk about how to get a painting started.

You never want to begin a painting on a white canvas, it should first be toned with an imprimatura. For Rembrandt Laughing I have used a streaked imprimatura; this activates the surface and immediately conveys energy. And it is both Unity (Harmony) and energy that attracts a viewer to your paintings.

Begin loose! It is much easier to go from loose to specific and practically impossible to go from tight to loose.

Beginning a portrait painting
Rembrandt Man Laughing

Take a close look at Rembrandt's Man Laughing. This surprising painting is amazingly loose and roughly executed. Yet it fully expresses the spontaneity of laughter!

Whenever I troop through a major museum such as the Louvre or Hermitage or the Metropolitan, assiduously avoiding the madding crowds and cursing the selfie-takers, I always seek out the unfinished paintings. Unfinished works are a treasure-trove of lessons on how the greatest masters began a painting.

Consider the expression of laughter: it is spontaneous and free. Your initial approach should be the same, a very loose and gestural strike. There is time enough to close-in on the drawing. And yes! you should always be working from General-to-Specific!

If you embark on rendering laughter, or for that matter any joyful expression, with a resolved, academic drawing I can guarantee that the final result will be stiff and unnatural. Even creepy.

You should learn how to draw with the brush. Draw with confidence! Attack the canvas and take no prisoners. And, very importantly, let the paint be paint, don't force it into being something that it isn't. Like a photograph.


YES! I'm ready to begin!

Regularly priced at $139.95 I am going to seriously discount Rembrandt Laughing and offer you this comprehensive portrait painting workshop, with all of the above bonuses ... for ONLY $97!

If you have trouble ordering write me at michael-britton-workshops@artacademy.com and we will process it manually for you!

Michael Britton

About Michael Britton

Michael Britton is a New York City trained artist (New York Academy of Art) who has taught several thousand artists (some of whom have gone on to full-time art careers as painters and teachers) in his several decades long career. He was the Artistic Director of the Vancouver Academy of Art, Canada for six years and has also taught drawing for Walt Disney Studios, amongst numerous other appointments throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He is also the author of several art-training videos including Painting Clara Serena.