Drawing Basics: How to Capture a Likeness When You Draw People

Legend has it that John Singer Sargent would tell people who complimented him on his drawing ability to capture a likeness of someone that likeness is more in the shape of the person's skull, the way a person "holds" his or her body, and the basic location of the features than in the details. That's why you can recognize someone far down the street. For Sargent, the placement of the eye sockets and the shape of the head are the crucial aspects in drawing people. "Do not concentrate so much on the features," he was quoted as saying. "Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple." A good example of Sargent's theory at work appears on the cover of our Fall 2006 issue of Drawing, a sketch of the writer William Butler Yeats.

Many people throughout history have asserted that likeness is in the eyes. They are the "windows on the soul," the feature people often comment on (perhaps also because comments about the eyes are almost always either netural or positive, as opposed to possible comments about someone's nose or chin). Hair, in contrast, can change in both color and shape depending on fashion and whim.

Drawing magazine

Many artists begin a drawing or painting with one of the sitter's eyes. Some artists start with an ovoid shape and place the line going down the middle of the face, intent on the gesture and posture of the head. Others think strictly in terms of value or color temperature, using light and dark or warm and cool to situate the head and to suggest the features.

What facial feature do you find to be the best indicator of a sitter's likeness?


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Bob Bahr

About Bob Bahr

Hi. I'm the managing editor of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. Drawing magazine is primarily my responsibility so I spend a lot of time looking at drawings, talking with draftsmen, and drawing ... but I love to paint, too.

14 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: How to Capture a Likeness When You Draw People

  1. I generally will start with a quick shape for the face and neck, deciding the width and length. Then deciding placement of brow, eye, nose length, mouth and chin are the best indicators of the sitter’s likness. I will then look in a mirror to see if placements are correct. Once satisfied that I’m close to a likeness, I will place the cheek bone and then begin the eyes with the socket and ball shape and I will draw eye lids around the ball shape. It is so true that if I have the eyes then the rest of the drawing flows but if I do not have the placement correct on the face it won’t matter how well I have rendered them.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Sharon.

    I follow a similar procedure. I do a lot of erasing in that early phase. Getting the neckline from the most prominent ear to the shoulder is a problem for me, as is placing the chin correctly in relation to the neck. If that silhouette of the neck into the ear is right compared to the body, then the proportions are going to be OK–the ear is as good of a landmark as anything. I suppose each of us has a different trouble spot, and mine is that particular silhouette. After that, I remember what Jon deMartin and Dan Gheno (and Anthony Panzera, and Leonardo!) have taught me through Drawing mag—divide the face into the tried-and-true proportions to get a rough guideline of the head’s structure and facial-feature placement, then adjust for the individual’s idiosyncratic differences from the norm.

  3. I do lots of portraits and I find that getting the length of the nose to be the most difficult. If it’s too long you lose and if it’s too short you lose. It defys most rules of proportions of the face and has to be just right to get a good likeness. Where the nose ends determines the placement of the lips and of course this affects the height of the face. But it is all so much fun to do.

  4. I have to agree with Phil. It is all so much fun to do! I think because when we meet someone we look into their eyes first so there fore when we look at a portrait we look into the eyes first. I try to get the eyes first then work on that pesky nose.

  5. When trying to capture a likeness I look at the structure of the head and the size and shape of the features and their relationship to each other. Then I do a number of quick sketches which helps me to “get” the person and to come to know their features. Sometimes I also try to “think like a caricaturist” meaning I think about what features seem to stand out. For instance are the ears slightly pointy? is the nose flat? does the bottom lip protrude? If I slightly exaggerate the more unique features of a person I sometimes can get a better likeness. And I find that sometimes a slightly “off” drawing looks more like the person I’m drawing than a drawing that has everything perfectly sized.

  6. That is pretty interesting, Carolyn. Most instructors seem to advise going the other way–drawing the typical or ideal proportions, then adjusting for the idiosyncratic proportions of the particular sitter–but I can see how your approach would work.

    lasotman and Phil, agreed….no matter what feature you start with, it’s fun! Even if I start with an eye, i usually end up adjusting it significantly anyway, soon enough. Maybe someday I will be a good enough draftsman to just put it down right the first time, but for now, I rough it in, erase, rough it in, develop it, erase…moving around the whole face.

  7. I’m pretty much self-taught when it comes to portrait work, Bob, so I’m not surprised my approach seems unorthodox. And I’m continually learning, so these discussions are great. Thanks!

  8. My favorite feature is the eyes, because a dark pupil with a highlight makes the portrait come alive. But I save the eyes for dessert, even though I am drawn to draw them first.

    First, a light arabesque to get the shape of the head, and some light center lines for the features. I will erase those as soon as I am done with them, so that I can see a more natural context.

    Don’t forget the shoulders and neck! The way a person’s shoulder’s sit play a major role in recognizing them even from a distance. Where do the shoulders intersect the head? What angles are they? How far out do they come (use some triangulation from head and face features).

    Then the spacing for the major features — eyes, lips, nose, nostrils, chin shape. If the spacing is wrong, you won’t have a likeness. If the eye spacing is wrong, it might not even look human.

    Now some details:

    The shapes of the eyes — their relative size, where their corners are, eyelid folds, eyebrows relative to the eyes and the edges of the head, position and size of the irises.

    The shape and size of the lips — how the corners turn up or down, how full, hint of modeling, where the corners line up relative to the eyes.

    The nose — shape, curve and thickness relative to the eyebrows, the shape of the bulb and position of the nostrils, some modeling (one side of the nose might blend into the cheeks while the other may be contrasted), gentle skin folds around the nose and mouth.

    As I go, I will erase and adjust relative positionings as needed.

    Then I will develop the details is a sequence that gives me the best context for developing humanness — the pupils with highlights, the hair and hairline.

    Then I focus on the values and hues.

    – David D.

  9. When I’m drawing I usually start with getting the eyes in place (size proportion shape) and the I usually work outward with light pencil lines for the other parts and then evaluate “likeness”. Then I go back and add shading and other gestural line (usually lots of erasing too). I haven’t painted a portrait yet, but I just read a book by David Lefel and his approach is much like what Bob describes. This seems to make sense to me in oils but I’ve been drawing like I described since I was a kid, I’m not sure if I’ll change.
    It’s really wonderful to see everyones approach — great discussion.

  10. I like to start with the large shape of the head and a space and outline of the hair. While i am looking intently at the eyes, nose flares, and corner of mouth because this also is much of the expression of the person but without the shadow shapes will never look like them for me if i start there so only looking for placement with small lines, then I start blocking in base color, the dark shapes, dark sockets for the eyes and along the nose and corner of mouth along my measurement dashes,side of the face Once my dark tones are satisfying, I start blocking more of the eyes, nose and mouth in trying to get back to the original expression that caught my eye, then after l lay in the actual features which are nearly there if I got the tonal color and my darks correctly, then I start with the pizzaz of hightlights to being it all together. Makes people really easy. When I first started drawing people, I started with one eye and then connected the other, nose, etc. Had an o.k picture but lacked the 3D dimension to where they seem to be more real and natural. Still, still learning though- who know what more I can learn if you ask me next year! isn’t it amazing how we all have the same features and all look different – that still is awesome to me.

  11. I also begin with a gesture to familiarize myself with the person’s face, general placement of features, the way they hold their head, etc. And of course, make many corrections and erasures in the process.

    But what truly makes a portrait for me is the mouth. I know it is said that the “eyes are the window to the soul”, but I find often the soul is expressed very subtlely in the mouth.

    I looked again at the Singer portrait and on my screen at least, I see very little in the eyes. But the mouth, ah, that’s another matter…

  12. Great comments and helpful sharing.

    JanetK, are you familiar with the Sargent quote “a portrait is a likeness in which there’s something not quite right about the mouth”? (or similar).
    I think he was both commenting on the demands of commissions and clients and the difficulty, subtlety, and expressiveness of the mouth.

    Anybody have any advice on building/drawing the actual structure of the eye? I find myself drawing the socket, then placing the inside corner, then my process goes to heck–sometimes i even place the eyebrow next. How do you tackle the lids? Do you draw the orb and then cover it? Also, how do you address the slight bulging of the eye at the pupil? Does everyone wait until last to put in the iris and pupil?