How to capture a likeness in a portrait

How to capture a likeness in a portrait

Question from Noah, Drawing Academy student

Good Day Art Tutor,

My name is Noah, I’m a fashion design student. I’ve been drawing for quite a while, and I particularly love illustrating human subjects. I’m self-taught and would like to learn more about drawing and also to correct my amateur mistakes. I have a problem creating the foundation of my heads (I do not have an art museum that’s conveniently close to me so I use reference photos).

My problem is that I can’t get the proportions right to capture the likeness of the subject I am working on, so I tend to focus on a particular part of the face, which makes the final product look like a caricature instead of a real drawing.

My questions are:

1. How do I adapt proportions to fit the subject that I am drawing?

2. How do I get the correct nose, eyebrow, and mouth levels?

I would like to thank you in advance for teaching and preserving the Masters’ way of drawing, and I look forward to learning more.


Answer from Vladimir London, Drawing Academy Tutor

Hi Noah,

Many thanks for your questions, and welcome to the Drawing Academy!

I’m glad that you have a desire to learn better drawing techniques and the correct proportions of the human body.

Your challenge in portrait drawings is not unique. Many art students find it particularly difficult to get the subject’s likeness right.

Your goal is to learn the necessary drawing techniques and to train your eyes and hand, so you can improve your accuracy and draw proficiently.

The rules of accurate drawing are the same, no matter what part of the body you draw.

Accurate portrait drawing, and therefore capturing the subject’s likeness, is the result of several disciplines:

  • Knowledge of the anatomy of the human head;
  • Knowledge and use of constructive drawing principles;
  • Correct use of perspective and foreshortening;
  • Correct depiction of tonal values using proficient rendering techniques.

There’s no one trick that will turn anyone into a professional draftsman.

Skill with portraiture grows out of smaller tasks, like drawing geometric objects in perspective, learning constructive drawing principles, studying the bones and muscles of the human head, understanding the geometrical shapes of facial features, and so on.

Your accuracy will improve with time and practice. Keep drawing, set meaningful and useful goals, and try to achieve positive results with every task.

I would suggest that you not focus on the most demanding genre – portrait drawing – in the beginning. You have a long journey to go through as you learn what it means to draw what you know rather than what you see.

So far, you have been copying individual facial features trying to get them right. Copying and constructive drawing are worlds apart.

Learn the necessary foundation, start from basics, and then progress to more complex tasks.

You may find this video beneficial:

Although it is intended for complete beginners, and you are considerably more advanced, I would recommend following its instructions before you embark on other video lessons.

I’m here to help you with any art questions you have.

Best regards,

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