Alla Prima Portrait Sketch

Hi Gang,

Welcome to DG Paints. In this video I am painting myself by looking at a mirror set beside, and slightly behind, my easel. I have also hung a gray piece of fabric behind me to simplify the background.

In the first ten minutes I try to block out a fairly accurate drawing. Note these first marks are made with a soft filbert brush. I’m laying the paint on very thinly. You can see once I lay down a ghosty image I reinforce and correct it with a second darker pass.

This painting took me 160 minutes. I think it’s important to note that in the first hour I used nothing but a no. 10 filbert hog bristle brush. This is something I’ve had to learn with lots of practice. Many of you know I often favor small brushes in my usual work. But for alla prima I’m learning to use something larger. I can cover more real estate more quickly. I do as much as I possibly can with this one brush. I don’t switch to a smaller brush until I can’t go any further with the big one.

Each brush stroke is loaded. I’m laying down opaque paint. In the beginning you can see me “patching around”. What I’m doing is finding my value and color key. I’m also making sure my drawing is working out, correcting as needed as I go. So each stroke includes three decisions: value, color, and position.

Smaller brushes aren’t employed until the larger, simpler form is established. Smaller brushes are used to refine and create form nuances within the larger structure. Very small, softer brushes are used toward the end to tackle some critical areas of detail, mostly around the features.

Ninety-five percent of this sketch was done using hog bristle filberts. I employed some softer red sable brushes for subtlety and key detail.


Brushes: hog bristle filberts, red sable filberts

Palette: titanium white, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, terra rosa, transparent red oxide, raw umber, ivory black, quinacridone violet, ultramarine blue, viridian

Canvas: Centurion LX (oil primed)

Medium: a mixture of half walnut oil and half mineral spirits (only as needed)

I will be teaching this method in Brattleboro, Vermont at the end of this month. We have a couple of spots left. Please consider joining us. You can find out more by emailing Andrea Scheidler at

Happy Painting!


17 thoughts on “Alla Prima Portrait Sketch”

  1. David,
    Loved the self portrait. You are always such an inspiration! This video reviewed the steps of painting a portrait from the drawing to locating the values, color map, keying the painting and finish. I have wanted to do a self portrait but just haven’t had the push to start one. Now I am am inspired to take the next step 🙂 Thanks!



  2. Thank you so much David for sharing this video, you have such a good understanding of the color, I have difficulties knowing if I put cool or warm color in the shadow side (for the portrait). I wish you a lot of success with your paintings.
    Francine L.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing what you did with a BIG brush! That’s not easy. I like that as good as you are, you are still growing, experimenting, seeking. Beautiful!
    P.S. I got a palette like yours at Daniel Smith. I love it because I can get the paints up closer to these old eyes when I’m mixing. Just another thing I got from you. Best wishes for the New Year from the Dinasaur!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mr, Gray, what an inspiration! At 57, thanks to you, I have found direction. I’ve been dabbling for years with this & that. Drawing, watercolour, pastel, abstract, still life, landscape, portrait. I’m painting your way and loving every moment of it. Current project a portrait of my friend, the famous Bolton artist, James Naughton. What an honour that he agreed that I could do it. Too far away to get to any of your workshops but you’ve given me a he’ll of a lot online for which I’m very grateful.
    Simon Bond, Bolton, Lancashire, England


  5. Hi David, I’m a painter in London UK and new to your site. So helpful and clear, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience. I’m keen to start my first self portrait and wonder if you would write (or show us on youtube) about how you set up the mirror and lighting and to what degree you control natural light, (if you only use natural light) . it would be enormously helpful. Thanks so much.


    1. Thanks for your message. I normally just use artificial light. I buy fluorescent bulbs from the hardware store. They are 5000K, which is just a touch warmer than diffused natural light. You’ll just have to play around with your setup until everything looks right. I have the luxury of being able to control the light in my work area. I think that is probably too overlooked by people starting out. Good luck!


  6. Hi David,
    You might have answered on your old blog, but I don’t remember; do you pre-mix your flesh values or do you free palette?


  7. Hi David! Thank’s for all those nice videos that you share with us. How I wish I could see this one here in a slower mode! This painting is so beautiful! Congratulations! 🙂
    Have a nice day!



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