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7 Tips on How to Capture Likeness in Portrait Art ✨✏️

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

One of the most common questions I hear about portrait art is, "How to capture the likeness of the model?". Here are some tips based on my experience.

1. Focus on the distinctive features.

Instead of trying to capture everything, concentrate on the key elements that make a face unique. It could be large eyes, an oblong face, or a specific mouth shape. If you're unsure, take notes. The more detailed, the better! Observation skills are key when aiming to capture likeness in a portrait, and this is a great way to practice them.

2. Emphasize the correct features.

If you want to capture the likeness while adding your artistic style, focus on the characteristic features and exaggerate them. If the subject has a small nose, make it even smaller. If they have big ears, emphasize their size.

In these examples, you can see how exaggerating the specific features of the face maintains its character. However, if you change only one feature inappropriately, such as altering the shape and enlarging a tiny nose, you will lose the resemblance.

3. Capture the vibe and decide what you want to convey.

Some faces may not have obvious distinctive features, but they exude a particular vibe. Try to capture the overall feeling of the face and reflect it in your artwork. For example, if you want to depict a romantic expression and delicacy, use delicate and soft lines. For a masculine look, opt for stronger and more geometric lines. These features can be challenging to capture, but once you succeed, your portrait will feel more authentic.

Here are a few examples...

In this portrait, I focused on the softness of the face while highlighting the intense gaze. That's why the focal point is the eyes, with the rest being more symbolic, like the hair:

In this drawing, I wanted to emphasize the masculine and strong geometric features, hence the choice of lines:

This photo has a seemingly strong appearance due to the colors and contrasts, but the facial expression is delicate and carefree. I highlighted this by using soft lines and smooth shading:

4. Refer to multiple sources, including videos.

Recently, I commissioned a portrait of the author of the book I was illustrating. I was provided with a specific reference photo. I tried two approaches initially, but the feedback I received indicated that the likeness could be improved. That's when I decided to explore the author's other photos and videos available on the Internet. To my surprise, I realized that my perspective had been too limited. Observing the portrayed person's facial expressions, I discovered that her features were much softer than they appeared in the photo I had received earlier. On my third attempt, I finally achieved success!

I encountered a similar challenge when drawing Aurora for the first time. Having only seen her in photos, I had solely focused on the easily recognizable features. However, when I watched her in a video, I realized that her facial expressions played a significant role in how she was perceived. Sometimes, people don't resemble themselves in photos, so if possible, it's beneficial to watch them in videos before attempting to draw their portraits.

Take a look at this screenshot from Aurora's video (top right). If I had drawn her based on this image alone, she wouldn't resemble herself at all. Certain photos capture someone's nature better than others, while some may not capture it accurately at all. Therefore, the best approach is to draw from real-life observations. But if that's not feasible, remember to watch videos or at least examine photos from different angles and with varying expressions.

Pencil Portrait of Aurora singer made by Gabriela Niko - Doodle Traffic
My portrait of Aurora

5. Pay attention to the shapes and angles.

While proportions are important in achieving a likeness, I believe that specific shapes and angles are equally crucial, if not more. Repeating these shapes, such as the nose, mouth, and ears, even when adjusting their proportions in a stylized drawing, helps maintain the resemblance.

6. Utilize key colors.

If you work with color, consider using tones that are characteristic of the individuals you are portraying. For a spooky vibe, use cool shades. For a joyful and kind feel, incorporate warm tones. The choice depends on the effect you want to achieve.

In this drawing, I wanted to emphasize the cool shade of Billie's hair, so I made it even more silvery than in reality. This choice enhanced her bold character and balanced the sweet face in my stylized drawing.

7. What if you can't pinpoint what's wrong?

  • Take a break: Sometimes, when you've been drawing for too long, it's hard to see what's incorrect. Step away from your drawing, have a coffee, and come back the next day. I personally prefer not to publish my drawings on the same day I create them, as I always notice my mistakes the following day.

  • Take a photo: It's interesting how taking a photo often reveals mistakes that are not apparent in the original drawing. Perhaps the camera lens enhances them? If you're still unsure, try flipping the image horizontally to view it with fresh eyes. This trick often helps me identify my mistakes.

  • Seek someone's opinion: Ask a trusted person for their feedback. Even if they don't draw portraits themselves, they may notice something off, such as an unusual eyes or the proportions that are off. You can also share your drawing with our group on Discord for constructive feedback.

  • Use transparent layers (for realistic portraits only): Load a photo or reference image into your digital art program and place it on top of your drawing with transparency. This allows you to compare the images and pinpoint where you made mistakes.

  • Tracing photos: Tracing can be a helpful tool, especially for beginners. By tracing pictures, you can develop muscle memory and understand the true shapes, contours, and distances, rather than relying on appearances. However, keep in mind that this exercise should complement your freehand drawing practice, which is essential as a foundation.

That's all for now! I hope my answer provides a broader perspective than just focusing on proportions. I hope these tips will be helpful to you!


If you would like to learn more, I invite you to subscribe to my Patreon, where you can gain access to exclusive content. Additionally, you can check out my Domestika courses on Portrait Sketchbooking and Drawing Portraits with Colored Pencils. Don't forget to follow me on Instagram and TikTok for regular updates!


Happy doodling!


1 Comment

thank you gaby niko this is very helpful.

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