Want to Paint Realistic Portraits?

4 Pro Tricks for Painting Accurate Portraits

How to Make Realistic Portraits When Drawing or Painting | Artist Daily | Oil Painting | Portrait Painting
Queen Vashti by Ann Manry Kenyon, oil on linen, 30 x 24.

An agreement among top painters of portraits is 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.

The proof of this assumption can be found when you compare pictures of someone at different times of his or her life. He or she may have lost hair, gained more wrinkles around the eyes, added a second chin, or started wearing glasses, but you will still recognize him or her as being the same person. This is because the proportions have remained largely unchanged.

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 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 method utilizes big painted shapes which 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 larger shapes designating 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 artist John Howard Sanden begins evaluating those relationships to paint portraits, 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 when painting portraits, 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. This 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.

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 pigments 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.

Ryder gradually moves 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.

*Information featured in this article was written by former Artist Daily editor, M. Stephen Doherty

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Are Abstract Portraits More Your Speed?

That’s perfectly OK! Sometimes, you just need to let loose, have some fun and not get bogged down in the details or worry about capturing the likeness of your subject.

Watch the preview trailer (below) for a sneak peek into painting techniques for creating abstract portraits featured in Abstract Painting Techniques: Portraits in Pastel with Debora Stewart.

In her video workshop, explore what types of photo references are best used for painting portraits, learn how to apply pastel ground over charcoal to create value in an underpainting and pick up pastel painting techniques for exciting color ideas.

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9 thoughts on “Want to Paint Realistic 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.

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