How Do I Get A Likeness?

One of the common problems and questions I get about portraits is how do I get a likeness?  I discuss this and offer some tips on this challenging area. Of course there are many ways to tackle a portrait, here I give some tips based on how I would develop a portrait but if something else works for you, stick with it!

Shape of the Face 

Faces are made up of different shapes and these shapes vary from face to face, this gives us likeness.  The first thing to notice is the general shape of the face, is it a long face?  a round face? a big or small face?  What is the overall shape?  Then consider the underlying structure of the face, the planes of the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the sides of the nose, cheekbones and so on.  If it helps you could look at a skull to see how the human head is constructed, of course the ‘construction’ will vary from face to face, giving us our unique face.

Capturing likeness is much about the shape of the face

Measure for Accuracy

For realistic likeness every measurement needs to be accurate.  This takes careful observation and measuring.  It is well worth spending the most time on this stage of ‘building’ the face, as if this is not right there is no point developing the face, if you are after likeness.  Look at the relationship between the features such as eyebrows to lips, ear to nose and so on, using plumb and guide lines or ‘boxing in’ (explained in other posts) often helps.  Once you have established a likeness  in the rough drawing, resist the urge to overwork it and move onto the tonal values.

Building Up the Painting

If you are painting, remember a soft underdeveloped base in pencil is ideal, however with all the features mapped out accurately.  The next stage is to use what you  have plotted to develop the painting without moving/adjusting any of the careful measurements of the features you have made.  Once in the paint stage it is about looking at the tones of the flesh (darks and lights) keeping true to the planes of the face, the ‘construction’ we mentioned before.

Careful observation and measurements will achieve better likeness

Photographic References

If you are painting from a real life model, there is a stage where you can finish it off by looking at a photograph of the pose.  It is always best if possible to use a real life model and start off the portrait this way.  Photographs will always be two-dimensional and therefore can’t give you the full picture of the form.  Many portrait painters work only from photographs, this is fine but if you can meet the person you are drawing and painting as it helps you ‘know’ a face.

Being Familiar to the Face 

Likeness is easiest to achieve with faces you know; close friends and family.  One good tip which worked for me was to sketch a family member regularly over a period of time.  This regular looking at the face meant that I could close my eyes and just see the line of the nose etc. Some study sketches before embarking on the portrait can help you get to know even familiar faces.

Do you have any tips for gaining likeness?  Share below!

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