If you get nothing more down on the canvas than the shape of the nose and follow through to one of the eyebrows, you will be able to see a likeness to your sitter. You can refer to this as the Van Dyck Z – taking the top line of the Z as the eyebrow, the oblique as the angle of the nose and the bottom line being the end of the nose and base.


Use canvas tinted with a bit of ivory black, some yellow ochre and a little turpentine, either brushed on freely and rubbed back lightly with a rag or applied with a rag if preferred. This allows the white of the canvas to show through, rather than adding white to your colour mix, which will make subsequent applied hues sink and appear chalky.

Use an earth palette: Old Holland titanium white, yellow ochre, Chinese red (or Daler-Rowney Georgian cadmium red light which is much cheaper), light red, Venetian red and ivory black. Useful additions are raw umber and burnt umber. Use hog hair round brushes and filberts for initial drawing, or paint direct with sable filberts sizes 10, 8, 6, 4, plus a size 0 round brush and a blending soft flat brush is useful.

For your medium use Michael Harding Oleo resin or linseed oil if preferred. The rule of thumb is fat over lean. Start lay-ins with a paint such as raw umber for your drawing and add a little turpentine. As you build up subsequent layers of paint you can add more painting medium to your paints. The more medium you add the softer the brushwork becomes. You can also move shapes around with unloaded brushes by dragging the brush. Mediums also glaze in terms of making the colours more transparent if desired and this can help produce subtle half tones between your darks and lights.

When working on a portrait you generally place the sitter’s eyes at your eye level. So, if you are standing at an easel you need to place the chair for your model on a platform of about 18in high. Another thing to think about is lighting. It is so much easier to paint a nose if you have a shadow side; easier still if the nose is turned toward the shadow side rather than into the light, which is more difficult.



First establish the angle of your nose. If you are on a three-quarter turn, close one eye and, holding your brush at both ends, align it (use a straight edge if preferred, like a pencil) so that it is parallel to the nose angle. Without moving your arms, twist your waist back to your canvas; the angle of your straight edge is the angle of the nose. 

Draw/paint the line of the angle using slightly thinned brown (you generally paint shadows first as you build light over dark). You can delineate bumps and idiosyncrasies at any time but there is no point doing so if you have not got the direction or angle of the nose correctly right at the outset. You can see in this sequence I am searching for that little bump on the contour of the nose and trying to place it in the right position whilst always maintaining the first established direction of the nose. I generally start with the nose for a portrait painting and then work my way out by angle finding the bridge of the nose to brow which leads up to the eyebrow.

When painting the eyes first, as here, you are building a portrait from the centre outwards, and visually using nothing but your eye to judge distance from the eyebrow to the forehead hairline or from the base of the nose to the top lip, for example. Whatever scale you make the nose determines the scale of the portrait, as all elements and features of the face will be relative to each other. You can also use comparative measurement but that can be fiddly, especially when measuring a small area or you are simply standing a bit further away from your sitter.


Look for the wings of the nose and do a plumb line to see how wide a wing is in comparison to some other feature like the eye or how far the wing comes out from the ridge of the nose. Initially just mark it. Later you can describe the wing more fully including painting the skin around the wing, which will often be lighter in value. On a three-quarter turn the shadow-side wing may not be too visible but there will be shadows to paint and often the cast shadow will travel across the face a little as well as under the base of the nose. A tip is to keep the edges of the cast shadows soft – use your finger or a soft clean brush, especially if it’s loaded with a little medium or simple linseed oil. Use a smaller filbert in a fairly dark value, perhaps using an ivory black and Venetian red mix to demarcate the nostrils. Keep your Venetian mixes to the shadow side or you’ll end up with red brick-like hues if painted on the light side of the face. A safer mix is cadmium red light and ivory black, which can be used on both dark and light sides of the face, whilst light red (equivalent of burnt sienna) mixes are generally kept to the light side, but are also useful for halftones next to the dark value of the shadow sides of facial features. Nostril shapes are seldom splodges and often retain a comma-like shape postured on its side.


Now look at lighter skin tones using mixes of red, white and yellow ochre in various ratios, and adjusting the brightness with either a spot of grey to knock back the hue, or modifying it with one of your browns. You can mix a huge range of greens from ivory black and yellow ochre in different ratios and then another range by tinting up with white. The side plane of the light side of the nose will be a little darker in value but it can be very similar to the bridge of the nose; the hue may be slightly different and perhaps cooler. A hue based on a yellow ochre will help to describe the slope down to the bridge. Look for your highlights; there will be one on the tip, which you should place correctly as it describes the form of the nose. Sometimes you see highlights running down the length of the nose, more often there is a lighter patch on the ridge level with the eyes. If you place highlights on the nose quite close to the bridge the nose will look skinny; wide placement describes a broad nose, so do really study what you see, as the more correct you are the better the likeness will be.


Look for the darker halftone that meets the shadow side of the nose ridge. Then go for the lighter value that runs down the top plane of the nose. Not only does this give the initial scale as in book-ending the length but makes the nose turn under. The more you soften or lend the bridge to the shadow side of the nose the more you will get a three-dimensional feel. Sharp edges will make features harsher but that could be exactly what you want to achieve.

Nose into the light
Use exactly the same process for painting a nose facing into the light, except the bridge of the nose often carries the same value as the face and is often of a similar hue. In the third image, below, note how a pink-based colour was used for the ridge and it is subtly juxtaposed with the yellow-ochre based hue of the face.

Cool colour and front view
Here you can see clearly how the hue used under the tip (or bulb) of the nose adds three-dimensionality as it contrasts with the warm pink colour that describes the top side of the bulb.

Slightly tilted down
Note the cool colour used here on the side planes of the nose and the highlight running down the length of the nose.

Different skin tones
Exactly the same colour palette has been used here. Light red and yellow ochre make those warm lighter colours. Transparent layers can be done using paint thinned with a painting medium. Note the flared wings. Every nose is different.

Nose profile
The main thing with a profile nose is to get the outline shape absolutely right.

Sarah McWatters, oil on linen, 19¾x15¾ (50x40cm).
As you work from life it’s natural for your model to slowly droop or shift position and, before you know it, you have a different pose. To keep control of this regularly check and direct your sitter to the angle of the nose you have on your canvas. The nose as a centrepiece not only characterises someone, it is also essential as the most useful reference point.

See Kathy's demonstration on how to paint eyes by clicking here.

See Kathy's demonstration to draw portraits in charcoal by clicking here.

See Kathy's demonstration to paint portraits with character by clicking here.

See Kathy's demonstration for painting lips for portraiture by clicking here.

See Kathy's demonstration on how to paint ears by clicking here.

See a demonstration on how to paint hair by Ann Witheridge by clicking here.