Take the 2-minute tour ×
Graphic Design Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for Graphic Design professionals, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm having a problem with capturing the likeness of a person I'm trying to draw a portrait of, and I was hoping you could point out where I'm making the mistake and how can I improve.

Basically, the portrait itself looks fine (or at least its not terribly bad), but only as long as you don't know the person I drew. When you compare the original photo and my drawing, you will notice that my drawing only remotely resembles the model from the photo. To illustrate my point, here is a pic I drew from a photo found via Google search:

Likeness drawing

So my question is: what am I doing wrong? How do I capture the "likeness" of a portraited person? How to practice it? Why can you immediately recognize a person on a good caricature, but not on my drawings? Any help will be greatly appreciated!

share|improve this question
You can try printing these out and laying them on one another or using a light box to see where your image is off. Or if you are using software, you can layer these on top of each other at varying opacities for the same effect. This can help you see where your shapes need work. –  OghmaOsiris Feb 23 '13 at 21:56
For what it's worth, I think the likeness is quite good in this image. The main things throwing me are the eyebrows (too dark), and the jaw, which would probably be fixed by shading the beard. The shoulder shapes are also making the head look lower, and more submissive, I think. –  naught101 Jul 15 '13 at 0:34
shorten and narrow the jaw line also the ear should be a little smaller –  user21301 Apr 1 '14 at 14:19

2 Answers 2

There are a few aspects of the human face which will identify anyone.

  • Shape of the head
  • length of jawline
  • Height of forehead (from brow to hairline)
  • distance between eyes
  • depth of eye sockets
  • shape of cheekbones
  • length and width of nose
  • Length of chin (from lower lip to jaw)

The more of these you get accurate, the more likely it is a portrait will bear a good resemblance to someone.

Many of these aspects are used in facial recognition software.

In your sample, the primary issue to me is the incorrect jawline. You've done a good job with the internal facial structure. However, the jawline is much too low and rounded. While men do traditionally have a more squared-off jaw than women, Mr. Fynes doesn't have the "hero" jaw you've given him in the portrait.

share|improve this answer
I agree with the jawline. The eyebrows seem to be a different shape as well, giving him a different facial expression. –  OghmaOsiris Feb 23 '13 at 22:20
Another thing to think of it to focus on what makes his face different than other people. What makes a man look different than his brother? Focus on these details and not so much on the normal human qualities and you have a better chance. This picture is instantly recognizable as Obama: bit.ly/ZriXtR, but looks NOTHING like a real human. –  BillyNair Feb 24 '13 at 3:45
yes, @BillyNair! You could probably make a whole answer on caricature. –  naught101 Jul 15 '13 at 0:37

Just want to add a more general point about your approach.

It looks like you're closely copying the details, and hoping that a likeness will spring out when you add enough accurately copied fine detail. That's not a good approach for getting likenesses (I've made that mistake many times, it doesn't work).

For example, in the forehead, each individual highlight and crease is similar to the photograph - but the overall result is very different. The overall impression in the photo is of a flat forehead; in your image, despite every individual detail being similar, the sum of those parts is very different - a somewhat rounded looking forehead.

It's very very tempting when drawing to get stuck in to an interesting detail too early, and I believe this is the root cause of your problems.

A better approach is to start at a very low level of detail, complete the drawing at that low level of detail getting the key things right and achieving as much of a likeness as possible at that level of detail, then add a layer (if you're working digitally you've got the blessing that it can literally be another layer).

The steps vary, but it might be something like:

  • "block out" the shape of the face and location and approximate shape of key features. It's possible but very difficult to recognise a face from a silhouette, so you're on course if there's a bit of a likeness at the end of this stage.
  • Draw the shape of key features - Scott's answer is a great guide on what to focus on at this stage. You'll finish with a similar level of detail to a cartoon character, so you should finish this step with a strong likeness.
  • Add key shading, and be selective about what you include (unless you're going for perfect photo realism). You should finish this step with an even stronger likeness - but not enormously stronger since key features are already there.
  • Add fine details e.g. eye details, hair, fine shadows and highlights, depending on the style you're going for. You shouldn't expect these to aid recognition so the aim should be to get the stylistic presentation right here without harming the likeness by distorting or distracting from a key feature.

The likeness of a face is like the pose of a full body image - you should get it right early at the 'skeleton' stage of the drawing, then build on it. If you're hoping for it to emerge as you add detail to wonky foundations, instead focus on the foundations.

If you do find yourself losing a likeness and you're not sure why, look at it with less detail. I find unfocusing my eyes helps: looking at your image like this, the bottom right of the jaw (model's right), mouth, distance between eyes, upper nose, skull width at eye level and forehead jump out as not matching.

(I'm not sure if everyone can just unfocus their eyes on demand like this... if you can't, you can probably get the same effect by stepping back, or using Photoshop Gaussian blur or frosted glass)

One other general tip. I found likenesses really hard to learn - they come naturally to some people, and I wasn't one of those people. One thing that helped me in practising was never copying a source image directly - if I copied it directly, I became too fixated on the wrong details.

I found I got better results and learned better when I took a source image and tried to draw that person at a somewhat different angle and/or pulling a different expression - this forced me to focus on the essential features of the face, and the vital intangibles like personality and mood, rather than incidental details of this photo)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.