4 Ways to Get a Likeness in Portraits

11 May 2009

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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on 11 May 2009 10:59 AM

Hi Steve,

Great article.

Linda8 wrote
on 12 May 2009 7:32 AM

Very interesting.  I find these articles very helpful.  My only problem is the type size.  Is there any way to have it larger?

Muna Shabab wrote
on 12 May 2009 8:08 AM

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.

Julia_Ayres wrote
on 12 May 2009 9:35 AM

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.

on 13 May 2009 11:16 AM

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on 8 Jun 2009 6:27 AM

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

on 13 Jun 2012 1:57 AM

Steve Doherty offers his suggestions for ways artists can increase the probability

that their drawings and paintings will express their passion.

ruth moreno wrote
on 4 May 2013 7:45 PM


Topics wrote
on 5 Nov 2014 5:16 PM

Drawing Anatomy Learn how to draw faces with Artists Network's free tutorial. Capturing a person’s