4 Ways to Get a Likeness in Portraits

There is agreement among top portrait painters that a person’s likeness is dependent on the proportional relationships between facial features, not the specific shape of the nose, mouth, ears, or eyes. That is, the location of the eyes is more important than the color or shape of the eyes.

Queen Vashti by Ann Manry Kenyon, oil on linen, 30 x 24.

Queen Vashti
by Ann Manry Kenyon, oil on linen, 30 x 24.

The proof of this assumption can be found when you compare photographs of someone at different times of their life. They may have lost hair, gained more wrinkles around the eyes, added a second chin, or started wearing glasses, but you will still recognize them as being the same individual because the proportions have remained largely unchanged.

But although every portrait painter might agree on that general concept, they differ on how to put it into practice. Some advise their students to use straight lines to establish the level of the eyebrows, nose, chin, ears, neck, and shoulders; others insist that the best approach is to draw or paint the large shapes that correspond to the structure of the skull. The first of these two approaches emphasizes the lines defining the outside edges of the features, whereas the other utilizes big painted shapes that indicate the identifying eye socket, angular jaw, protruding nose, etc. There are also those portrait painters who have developed a technique of combining these two approaches, starting with briefly drawn linear markings and then proceeding directly to the big shapes that indicate the framework of the head.

One way or another, all of these artists find ways of taking visual measurements of the proportional relationships down the central axis of the head. They make use of the approximately equal distances between the top of the forehead and the line of eyebrows, the distance from there to the bottom of the nose, and the space from the bottom of the nose to the chin. Another common proportional relationship holds that the length of the ears is equal to the distance between the top of the eyebrows and the bottom of the nose.

Use Neutral Colors to Mark Features

When portraitist John Howard Sanden begins evaluating those relationships, he uses a bristle brush loaded with a thin mixture of a neutral color (titanium white, ivory black, and yellow ochre) to mark the top and bottom of the head, then the left and right sides. He continues indicating the neck and shoulders before he runs a vertical line down the center of the face that follows the curvature of the head if it is turned in one direction or another. Sanden then places a horizontal line in the center of the head where the eyes appear and makes other short horizontal lines to mark the eyebrows, jaw, and the bridge and bottom of the nose.

Prioritize Values First

Everett Raymond Kinstler refers to himself as a value painter, meaning that he is more concerned with the relationship between dark, midtone, and light values than he is with carefully drawn lines or specific color combinations. He finds that any number of different pigment combinations can look like flesh so long as the relative values are correct.

Use ‘Tiles’

Ann Manry Kenyon is a direct, or alla prima painter, which means she likes to complete a portrait while the oil paints are still wet. That allows her to lay down thin patches of color mixtures and then blend them together as she refines the portrait. Some artists refer to those brushstokes of color as tiles—disconnected marks indicating the appropriate shapes, values, and colors that can eventually be brought together to create the appearance of skin, hair, clothing, etc. So although Kenyon does start with a brief indication of the lines establishing the placement of the overall shape of the head and the relationship between the features, she quickly starts to build up the oil colors to capture the personality and likeness of her portrait subjects.

Judge Each Shape in Relation to Nearby Landmarks of the Face

Anthony Ryder is best known for his stunning drawings of posed models, and he frequently demonstrates his procedures for groups of artists. He starts by judging the proportional relationships between the features inside a roughly drawn head, but he spends most of his time judging each shape in relation to the others that have already been put down, gradually moving from one eye to the bridge of the nose to the other eye, and from there to the cheek bone and the mouth, and so on. He doesn’t jump from the nose to the ear or from the forehead to the chin, because he needs to measure all the connected landmarks. For Ryder, a likeness is achieved by accurately judging all the component parts of the face, hair, neck, shoulders, and ears.


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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

9 thoughts on “4 Ways to Get a Likeness in Portraits

  1. Those are all good points, I just finished a portrait of my youngest daughter, and in a way I had to use all four approaches to acheive the likeness.

  2. Steve, how timely this was for me. Just got a request for a special portrait by someone who saw another I had done. It was one I had painted just for fun and by far not my usual subject. These pointers helped me review essential rules to get the likeness they expect. Thank you.

  3. Steve Doherty offers his suggestions for ways artists can increase the probability that their drawings and paintings will express their passion.