Creating a Portrait in Water Mixable Oils

I recently discovered water mixable oils. They have all the benefits of oils, such as the longer drying times and the super rich colours but you can wash your brushes in water, making them easier to use and much more home-studio friendly due to not needing to use solvents. 

I thought it would be nice to show you my process of how I produced a portrait from scratch, in just a few hours, with images to show how I built up the colours. Normally, when starting a portrait, I would begin with a pencil sketch so I can check that I’m getting all the dimensions right before going in with paint. However, with this painting I began straightaway with the oil paints, starting with a rough sketch and then building in a coat of red around which would really help to build up the skin tone and feeling of depth.


Portrait painting outline in oil paints, work in progress, Anna Hughes, Anya’s StudioOil painting portrait work in progress, Anna Hughes, Anya’s Studio

On top of the red I started to work in some shadows and highlights. For shadows I always use a very dark blue, instead of black. It’s less harsh and much more in keeping with the tones in skin. Through adding these shadows and highlights I could really start to work into those first marks I put down and start to build the shape of the face and features. 

Oil painting portrait artwork work in progress by Anna Hughes , Anya’s studio

Next I began to work into the details a little more, including the eyes. I think eyes are probably the most important feature of the face as so much of the expression and life comes from there so they deserve extra attention. It’s important to make sure there is a little shadow on the whites of the eyes under the eyelids to make them look less flat and really observe your reference photo. I always request reference photos, for my pet portraits as well, which have a bit of light or reflection in the eyes as this makes it so much easier to work with.


Oil painting portrait water mixable oils, by Anna Hughes of Anya’s studio

I continued to build up the structure using skin tones and added highlights to the eyes, nose etc to really accentuate where the light was coming from in contrast to the super dark blue shadows on the right of the painting. I was very lucky with this reference photo that the subject placed herself right by a window so the shadows were really beautiful. I also started to work into the hair, again using a dark blue to begin with. 

Oil painting portrait, moody painting in oils by Anna Hughes Anya’s studio


At this stage I worked bit by bit, adding in details and observing my reference photo closely. I have always preferred a looser style of painting with visible brush marks and so I concentrate on the marks that are really important to the face, and leave out intricate details that make it more like a photographic style. I love paintings which use the minimal amount of marks to the fullest effect!

The last thing to do was then to choose a background, which can make or break a painting. I was heavily drawn to the contrast of red and blue in this painting so decided to go with more blue in the background to compliment the red tones in the face.


Moody thoughtful oil painting portrait using water mixable oils by Anna Hughes Anya’s studio

And here’s the result! I chose to make the background very loose, so you could still see some of the red through it and also left the bottom as a rough edge rather than painting up to the tape which I’m really happy with. 

For reference this painting used only Cadmium Red Hue, Prussian blue, Primary Magenta, Flesh Tint, Coeruleum Blue Hue and Titanium White, in Daler Rowney Georgian Water Mixable Oils. I think that sometimes keeping the palette really limited makes it much easier to pull your composition together and know which colour to pick for each area. Within the pallette you can then mix those colours together for different shades and tones. 

I hope this was helpful! Please let me know in the comments and thanks so much for taking the time to read it.


Anna x

1 comment

  • Loved reading this Anna really informative…thank you for sharing x


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