How I Paint: A look into my process


I’ve written this post to share a bit about the technical side of my painting process – If you’re an artist who enjoys seeing how other artists work (like I do) or maybe are new to oil painting…Or anyone else who might be interested, hopefully this will be useful in some way.

This time I’ve done a retrospective break-down of one of my self-portraits from last year, discussing some of the steps I took to create it.


A lot of my paintings have developed from unplanned photos – In this case, late afternoon sun was coming through the window while sitting at my drawing desk. I caught my reflection in the mirror and thought the bright directional light, strange shadows, and the way they changed my face were worth documenting as possible reference images.

I wanted to play on the strong contrast between light and dark by only painting in the light parts of the face, having them drop off into dark flat empty space, a bit like in the studies further below. The painting eventually evolved and went in a different direction but still incorporated elements of this.


I paint a lot of small studies – They let me get an overview of an entire composition and colour palette quickly before spending time on the fiddly bits. 

Sometimes they are in preparation for a larger planned painting, other times an idea for a more substantial artwork will develop out of them.

The latter is what happened in this case. The following 9x9cm studies were the starting point for my self-portrait.

The study I based my self-portrait on.
An alternative composition.


Support: Stretched canvas

Paint: Oil colours

Mediums: Galkyd Slow Dry for underpainting & Galkyd Lite for glazing 

Solvent: Gamsol

Brushes: Princeton Catalyst, Art Spectrum Definer and Jacksons Art Akoya

Varnish: Gamvar Gloss



Below is the colour palette I used for my self-portrait, and to the best of my recollection what I used each colour for.

I often interchange professional quality brands, depending on what I can get hold of in the colour I’m after when I need it.

Colour Mixing:

I mixed a skin tone base out of Yellow Lake, Napthol Red and Titanium White.
I then toned it down with a complimentary colour - I used Michael Harding's Italian green Umber which has a fairly low tint strength and works really well to take the edge off pink and orange mixes.
This gave me a neutral skin tone base that could be warmed up or cooled down with additional colour for different parts of the face.
After the initial opaque skin base, I built up multiple translucent layers to adjust colour and values, and transparent glazes to add depth and colour.


1. I sketched my composition on a blank canvas using a grid. Usually I would put some sort of coloured ground down first, but needed the white of the canvas in this case as a base for the transparent blue.

I then started by blocking in the background and blue shadows – I built up transparent layers of the blue and added small amounts of Indian Red in the darker areas.

A flat Definer brush was used to put down the blue as it was soft enough to lay transparent colour down smoothly. A stiffer catalyst brush was used to add brush strokes in some areas.

Galkyd Slow Dry was used sparingly as the medium for the entire first layer.

2: I then worked the skin tone under-painting with minimally diluted paint, and using more colour than needed for the final image. I did this since I’d be using translucent glazes in subsequent layers which would only allow some of that colour to show through.

This was done with filbert and flat Catalyst brushes because they are stiff enough to push thick paint and retain some brush strokes.

Size 0 round Akoya brushes were used for the smaller details.

3: After blocking in the hair and the canvas was completely covered, I worked back into the face, adding the first translucent layers of colour over the dry under-painting.

The medium used for this stage was a 60/40 mix of Galkyd Lite and Gamsol.

4. From about the third layer onwards I used only Galkyd Lite as a medium, adjusting my paint to medium ratios to follow the fat over lean principle.

5. I continued to adjust values and colour in the face with more glazing – Also darkening shadows and beginning to add some fine details.

I also began to adjust edge quality at this stage. Since I wasn’t often working wet on wet, rather than blending, I used multiple translucent glazes to soften edges.

Opaque colour was used to sharpen edges where necessary.

6. Here I had worked form and detail into the hair by carving out shadows, adding highlights and flyaway hairs. These became an important part of the painting and also helped to balance the composition.

7. I used a mirror along the way as a reference for details, marks and texture.

The idea was to pick out, refine and highlight a few key areas of detail but hang onto a bit more of a painterly quality in others.


This piece went on to be part of the Black Swan Prize for Portraiture at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2017, and was the peoples choice winner at the Hurford Hardwood Portrait Prize at Lismore Regional Gallery in 2018.

Thanks for reading! I hope some of this info has been useful – Feel free to get in touch or comment and let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see in this kind of post in the future.


Disclaimer – This is not a sponsored article. I’m not endorsing any products, only sharing what I used or equivalent available products.
Some linked products in this post are affiliate links – You will receive a 10% discount for your first purchase made through one of these links and I receive a small credit towards my next tube of paint.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

December 2, 2018 at 10:12 pm

Fantastic article! Loved reading about the whole process, and particularly watching the gifs of you mixing the skin tone 🙂

December 2, 2018 at 10:58 pm
– In reply to: Annie

Thanks! 😀

barry marsdenreply
December 3, 2018 at 1:52 am

Thanks so much- very generous of you to share and I learned a lot. I would be very keen to see more as I am trying to re-establish my art practice after 34 years as a pro photographer. We weren’t taught any technical stuff at art college here in the UK in the 70’s- too uncool man!!! Now I am thirsty for the knowledge

December 3, 2018 at 8:48 am
– In reply to: barry marsden

Thanks very much Barry! I’m glad it was useful and I am planning to do more – I can relate to the learning experience when it comes to the technical stuff – Seeing how other artists work has definitely been helpful for me!

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