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!

  • 1
    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. Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 21:56
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 0:34
  • shorten and narrow the jaw line also the ear should be a little smaller
    – user21301
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 14:19

5 Answers 5


Just want to add a more general point about your approach. (tldr: sketch out the frame of the face and get that right before adding any detail)

It looks like you're closely copying each detail of the source photo, 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, trust me, 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, get the key things right and achieve 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 - otherwise, it's usually a case of reaching for a harder pencil.

The steps vary, but it might be something like:

  • "Block out" or sketch a wireframe of 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. Don't hope for it to emerge as you add detail to wonky foundations, get the foundations right before building on them.

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 one or more source images of the same person and tried to draw that person at a slightly different angle and/or pulling a different expression. It's harder, but I found it forced me to focus on the essential features of the face, and the vital intangibles like personality and mood, and helped me weed out the incidental details of one particular photo.


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.

  • 1
    I agree with the jawline. The eyebrows seem to be a different shape as well, giving him a different facial expression. Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 22:20
  • 3
    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
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 3:45
  • yes, @BillyNair! You could probably make a whole answer on caricature.
    – naught101
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 0:37

Some portraiture artists skip over any attempts to contain the face inside the more dominant geometric structures of the skull too early on. Instead they concentrate on five or six points of reference that are key to identifying what it is that's subtly different about that person, and map them out immediately within a barely discernible 3 dimensional box having vertical and horizontal center lines and opposing diagonals. They use these lines to locate their key points and start building upon a few smaller more easily recognizable shapes and patches until they can feel the paper coming alive.

The external corners of the eyes are two key areas to locate. The nose and then the mouth follow and right away we can see in your rendering the mouth is too narrow in width while the nose is too broad. The corners of the mouth should be close to the width of the pupils of the eyes. The line defining where the lips part is too straight, two dimensional, and lacks the shadowing that gives the upper lip character and overhang. Thin lips need all the help they can get. Also the mouth is slightly off center. It's okay, even laudable to be asymmetrical but not off-center

Another key element in portraits can be seen wherever dark and bright areas collide. They immediately draw the eye of the viewer, so darkest areas should be highlighted last and precisely illustrate the separate hairs along the edges of eyebrows and the baseline of the hair. Yours are too edgy and too linearly defined in the wrong direction, and it makes him look like he's wearing a toupee. The missing shadows on the nose give the nose the appearance of being pushed in and flattened. You might want to work on defining transitions between light and dark without using any hard lines whatsoever.

I thought overall, your picture was quite good and I think you're very close. Don't be afraid to explore some fine detail at various stages of development. You don't have to wait until you're nearly done. It will breathe life into your work and encourage you to grow your art organically instead of drawing it out linearly. You'll soon find whatever balance fits your style and personality.

  • Thanks for the contribution and welcome to GraphicDesign! Let us know if you have any questions about how the site works Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 12:42

The way to capture likeness is not only is the jawline and the shape, but even more in the subtle imperfections that every human has. Amazingly, some asymmetric features are what makes people beautiful too.

In other words, your drawing is "too perfect"!

I can see in your example that there's some differences in the shapes but even if you would get this perfectly, your example on the left would still look "fake" and digital.

To add more realism to anything you draw, you need to add imperfections and some asymmetry:

  • pores on the skin; some deeper, some smaller, some wider
  • wrinkles and muscles lines
  • scars
  • hairs; not perfect hairs, beard and eyebrows
  • pimples and acne scars
  • beauty spot
  • freckles
  • tan
  • different skin coloration and shadows
  • fat
  • etc.

You can also look at 3D skin tutorials to learn some tricks that you can apply to your drawings as well.

Examples here:



Sample drawing

Sample lips sample face sample portrait

If I can give you one personal tip for pencil drawing is:

Don't "brush/smudge" the pigment/graphite to spread it and create your smooth shading too much at the start.

Instead, try using other types of sketch lines to create this. When you brush your lines to make them smoother, you also darken a lot your drawing and it's then harder to add subtle details. It's better to do that shading later or with very small sketch lines, this way you don't lose all the contrast that will help you add details.

Drawing techniques drawing techniques sketch lines

Using Photoshop

If you're working with Adobe Photoshop, it's even easier!

There's lot of brushes available and textures you can use and that can help you create some asymmetry in the skin texture. There's brushes specifically created for hairs and skin pores, but you can always create your own or browse the default ones.

You can also import your pencil drawing in Photoshop and add the details you want using the software. You can get results by mixing your drawings with digital manipulation.

Hair brushes in Photoshop

Skin brushes in Photoshop


Besides the excellent contributions I've read above, specially those considering proportions (crucial), volumes, depths, textures, asymmetry and so on, all of them surely fundamental, I suggest, adding it to your observations and exercises, a "counter-approach" facing a "basic challenge": "- How to make a face recognizable with the very very few visual cues?"…

The question, to the great masters of facial resembling (specially great caricature artists) is: - Can you teach me the very few, "most minimum", lines (and angles) whose "set", whose "gestalt", can describe a face, with no doubt to the people who know the person?

Forensic artists, as well as caricaturists, try to answer, and I suggest you, besides studying them, some steps:

  1. Get an app where you can "work in layers" on a tablet screen.
  2. Take three pictures from yourself, or a known person: (i) one profile, (ii) one frontal, and (iii) one at 3/4, all of them taken with the "base of the nose" as your "horizontal plan" (it means "not too high, nor too low" but at the plan we "normally see each other")
  3. Make this picture, in the tablet app, as your "guide, basic, layer" and, if your app has this possibility, make this basic layer more "transparent" than the original.
  4. Create a new layer, and begin to mark on it the points and lines (very few) you consider "will tell" the "minimum information" to describe that face. You can do that, points and lines, and try to "erase, for a second, the guide picture" (the app has the way), to observe, and ask yourself "- is it enough?"… and go ahead…

Doing many times, with different faces, you can show your "minimum facial descriptions" to other people and ask them "- Who is this one?"

Mastering "the minimum", you will finish "the most"!

PS - another cue is to remind and old teaching rule: - when you feel your drawing is not going well, try modeling clay a little beat. Modeling helps to improve your drawings because the brain "gets" the lines in "rotondo and profiles", during the practice.

It explains why sculptors draw so well and fluently. (see Rodin's)

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