Updated: Apr 15, 2021
There is no secret or talent to getting a likeness of a person when drawing a portrait. When painting a portrait, you can easily block in features that hide detail, but less so with drawing. The problem is that most people are drawing from preconceived ideals. You must first know that no face is symmetrical. So, if you are drawing both sides of the face, you are actually drawing two faces. The following tips are intended to help you see what you are drawing towards getting a good likeness:
1. Tilt of the head. Use a plumb line to see how the head is tilting for full view, three-quarter view, side view, etc. And carry that angle onto the drawing surface. Perspective is important here. Is the sitter tossing his/her head back (lines will curve up), forward (lines will curve down), or sitting pretty much straight (lines will be straight…at an angle if the head is tilted to the side).
2. Forehead and hair. Is the forehead wide or narrow; or does it just look wide or narrow owing to the placement of the hairline? I included hair in this part, because the hair interacts with the forehead giving significant personality to the portrait. Keep the hair in proportion to the face.
3. Personality of each eye socket. This includes eyes, lashes, lids, eyebrows, wrinkles...or lack of wrinkles. Visually draw a line through the middle of the head. Where do the eyes appear near this line? One eye is always larger than the other. This is significant on some faces. Are there bags under the eyes, do their lashes obscure their eyes, or is one eyebrow is a full half inch or higher than the other eyebrow?
4. Bridge of nose. Does it exist? Is it the face’s defining feature? Does the tip of nose dip below the philtrum (the midline groove in the upper lip that runs from the top of the lip to the nose bordered by a pillar on each side)? Or does it lift significantly above creating a snub nose being slightly turned up at the tip? Be aware of the bumps on the nose.
5. Mustache and other facial hair. Try to capture the character of the mustache, etc. Look hard at its shapes without just pasting on any mustache. How does it interact with the facial features around it and how does its shape change when the sitter smiles or frowns? Maybe the way the sitter touches his moustache or beard adds to the character of the portrait.
6. Lips. It is most important to notice how the lips interact with its neighboring parts. There often is not a distinct line around the lips…look at what gives the lips their personality…do they smoothly transition out of the mouth, or is there a very distinct line between the teeth and lips? Do the teeth add personality to the portrait…show them or not? Do the lips curl up or down at their corners? Be sure to create the correct tone. Red lipstick creates a dark tone. A man’s pale lips are a lighter tone. Tones vary greatly around most lips…otherwise they would have a cut out look.
7. Chin. Most chins have a small amount of space between the bottom lip and beginning of the chin…get that correct. Does the chin have a dimple? Does the chin connect with a massive jaw?
8. Jaw. Capture the unique angles of both sides and bottom of the jaw. Or is the jaw round. Is there any jaw to be seen…only see a chin? Does the jaw melt into the neck? All visuals that give likeness to the portrait.
9. Cheeks. There are usually large highlights here...depending on the lighting, placement of hair, and thinness of the model. Are the cheeks full, sunken, with high cheek bones? How do they fold into the rest of the face?
10. Ears. Are they completely hidden? If so, maybe there are earrings that require correct placement. Formulas exist for where the ears should appear. But I find that the best way to deal with them is to look at the face and features and position the ears based on a sight/size method of drawing an imagery line from where the ears start and end…to the part of the face with which they are level. After you place the ears horizontally, you must place them in relationship to the full head. There is significant space between the tip of the nose and beginning of each ear. The ears come up right behind the jaw. Pay less attention to all the folds in the ear and more to their placement, angle, height, width and how they are shaped.
11. Neck. (This is a bonus tip because the neck may not be part of the portrait.) The length of neck can greatly impact likeness. Many necks are covered up; however, you can give an impression of the neck length with correctly placed shoulders, if shoulders are to be part of your painting. And if so, remember not to make the clavicle too wide or narrow, even if covered up, if you do not get this part of the body right the result will look like the sitter is too thin or too wide.
12. Distortions. (Another bonus tip if you are using a photo.) Watch that the nose is not too large and the torso too small (or the reverse) if using a photograph as a reference.
There are many other things to consider when drawing a portrait (for instance, tone and texture), and a serious portrait artist should study these elements too. But getting the features right are going to get you the most mileage.
Cautionary Note: You may wish to soften some facial features (out of kindness) or exaggerate some features (if creating a caricature). These tips are enough to get you through most portrait jobs without hearing those dreaded words, “That doesn’t look like me.”