How to paint a digital portrait - B&W

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Final Result:

What you will need

  • Krita (FREE Download here) This is the software I have been using the most recently, It functions a lot like Adobe Photoshop it but seems more geared towards painting rather than photo manipulation, though both programs do them well!

  • Drawing tablet. I use an XP-Pen artist 15.6 currently, a little pricier but worth the investment if you're serious about digital painting (Link here). I started on a smaller, screen-less tablet however, the Wacom Intuos S which is still perfect once you get used to looking at your monitor while drawing, which if you're anything like me you're already doing (Link here).

  • A reference photograph. Generally I will use photographs I have bought from a large set made by an artist or photographer when I am working on longer, concept pieces. My favourite so far have been the sets produced by Proko, a Youtube artist and teacher, as they cover a wide range of poses, are very well lit (Very important for reference photos!), and are generally of a very high quality. You can view their packages here they're not the cheapest as you'd expect from quality, though they are on sale fairly often. If you're looking for free reference then there are a number of other sites you can use, such as: Pexels, Canva, Google images, Quickposes, Line of action, some times I'll save images I like from Instagram, pinterest or while browsing the web and keep a folder on my PC for later. If you do this however it's good practice and courteous to ask for permission or reference the source of the image.

Before you start:

Once you've started Krita, go on to the File tab at the top and press the 'New' button. Now you'll need to define the properties for the canvas you're about to open! The settings I currently use are in the image below;

Width and Height at 3500 Pixels (This is a good size and aspect ratio to upload to social media, particularly Instagram),

Resolution (350ppi , I used to use a higher res than this, but its really just a waste of quality as most websites and social media platforms downscale resolution to limit their load times)

Unless you're printing your work you shouldn't need to worry about the colour models at the bottom. Once you've entered these settings, and saved them as a default for ease next time, press create.


The only two brushes I use at the moment are BASIC_CIRCLE brush and the BRISTLES_HAIRY brush. I will experiment with others occasionally, but these two take the brunt of my work process.

The Basic circle brush is great for the initial blocking in phase of the portrait (covered below), I recommend turning the pen pressure off for this or your colours will be slightly transparent, something we don't want at this stage of the process.

Once I've blocked in the basic tone I'll switch to the Bristles hairy brush. This brush uses a more painterly approach, something I'm more accustomed to started out using traditional media. Make sure you turn the pen pressure back on for this part and begin painting!

Until the last part of the portrait I only use these two basic Krita brushes with their Opacity set to 100%. Lowering the opacity however can be useful for fine tuning areas tonally, and smoothing the 'paint' into a fresh gradient.

Part 1: Sketching

Contrary to popular belief the hardest part of drawing isn’t the details It’s the initial blocking in and sketching. This is something that is often rushed or overlooked by beginner artists, but without a decent foundation for your drawing your end painting will look off no matter the amount of details you add or how well you add them. This of course can be rectified at a later stage (something I will be discussing with you next week as I just had the same problem myself :') it's not the best idea to start a painting at 3am when you have work the next day!) it will eat a lot of your time repainting areas and moving pieces around to fix the composition or anatomical issues.

It's important to keep fluid movements while doing these preliminary stages of your painting, scribble the shapes that you see in on one layer, you can always go over this first sketch again with another layer to refine things out later.

This video shows the first hour of painting. Notice how I have started with my clean line art, this was the third layer of sketches I had made to clean up the lines and get everything in its right place. I have also mapped the shadow areas of the face on the left-hand side, this will make the blocking in phase a lot quicker and more accurate later on. At this stage you should focus entirely on getting those shapes placed as accurately as you can. For this first step I used the Basic circle brush at 100% opacity, you'll find it easier to paint details later if you use a smaller brush. I usually use between a 5 and 10 pixel size brush, though you may want to start with a large brush for the first sketch and reduce the size for the subsequent sketch layers if you need them.

Part 2: Blocking in

I then started to block in the major tones of the piece using the circle and bristles hairy brushes and a 5-tone grey-scale palette, as seen in the bottom right of the video above. You'll want to match the tones you paint down with the tones seen in your reference to the best of your ability, this is when the shadow mapping we did earlier comes in handy!

Don't worry too much about keeping precisely within the lines as you will be painting over this later, this phase is purely a way to plan out the piece, you should be able to see a resemblance to the reference you are using if you squint your eyes, we don't want detail at this point!

You will then want to start to blend those tones in using a lighter pressure on the pen. Something not many people talk about is the direction you brush in, it is as a guide important to keep a consistent approach when using brush strokes to paint otherwise your end result will look incoherent.

Some common approaches to this are:

To brush in the same direction as the form of the body, much like the late, great Leonardo Da vinci did with his studies (below) using soft pen pressure to blend as you go. This is the method I use for the majority of my work.

Leonardo Da vinci in-utero study

Cross hatching is also another common approach, also seen in Da Vinci's sketch above. I have also seen a lot of other artists using a circle motion to blend colour in while using the colour picker again to pick new colours in between the local colours to slowly blend in. Of course, you dont need to blend everything to a fine gradient, this is a purely stylistic choice, though the more you do the more realistic your end piece will look. You'll need to re add some texture to the skin and hair later of course, this will be done in the details phase.

You will need to make sure your value range is as accurate to the reference to end up with a decent likeness. This can be done using the 5 colour palette mentioned above, just make sure to reserve the darkest and lightest colours on the pallets for the deepest shadows and the highlights, I will add these at the end of the blocking in phase.

After you have finished in your blocking, bring your sketch above the piece and clean up any lines using an eraser with the pen pressure turned off for clean lines.

Part Three: Details!

At this stage you should already have your painting refined to a decent standard. Many would finish here, though the more time you put in at this stage the better your end product will look! This is the time to add your details. This includes individual strands of hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, details around the eye, lips and clothing. The details of the eyes and lips are of more importance as they are two of the most viewed focal points on the face.

At this stage you can also add texture to the skin, hair and clothes, the quickest and simplest way of doing this is with predefined brushes. David Revoy's brushes are Free to download and can be found here, you will need to install this kit instructions can be found at underneath the download button on David's page.

10-Minute version of my painting process. No sounds, supply your own beats :)

The Result:

I like to add a red background to my portraits to give a little life and contrast though the option is up to your own personal taste.

I then added some finishing details and touch ups, duplicated the background layer and applied a layer effect to get the desired effect above and then signed the piece ready to be shipped out to the socials!


The theory behind this process is very simple, but putting theory into practice is always another story. This is the most efficient method I have come across, but this may not work for you. It is important that you continue to experiment and try new approaches every so often to find out what will work best for you.

You will learn something new every single portrait you paint, its hard not to after hours of struggling!

If you followed this far, I would love to see your work! You can reach me @ophanap on my social media accounts, or by email at I also welcome any questions you may have and critique requests and will do my best to get back to you as soon as possible.

You can also comment on the bottom of this post and I, or someone else will get back to you!

I hope you found this tutorial helpful, If you have any suggestions about future tutorials or improvements I could make please let me know! I love hearing your feedback.

Thanks for reading,

Watch my latest video below:

#Digitalart #digitalpainting #tutorial #digitaltutorial

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