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Tips On Drawing Portraits From An Amateur Artist

Updated on April 5, 2012

Detail Is King

One of the strengths of a drawn portrait is its likeness to the subject. Even though this is actually rather basic, there is a great deal of detail to pay attention to in the process of rendering. Shape and position of individual features of the face, shape of the face itself, to say nothing of the style, texture, and shade of the hair can be critical to achieving a good likeness. Success here makes a successful portrait.

Now, naturally, the more detail you include in your portrait, the greater and stronger the likeness. In the case of many portraits, likeness alone can be particularly powerful to the viewer. But, there is a point where, once likeness is achieved, there is still more to capture. Continuing beyond the shape and position of the features and hair will further increase the strength of the portrait and serve to enthrall the viewer. After you've captured the features, further details like the individual strands in the eye brows, individual eye lashes, the lines and highlights in and around the iris and the pupil increases the impact of the portrait. The strength of the impact is limited only by the amount of time, skill, and the type of materials used.

Focus is on the subject only. No background, no emphasis on clothing detail.
Focus is on the subject only. No background, no emphasis on clothing detail.
More comprehensive portraits should include clothing detail to maintain the strength of the portrait.  Some detail of the surrounding back/middle/foreground should be included to frame the subject and strengthen the drawing.
More comprehensive portraits should include clothing detail to maintain the strength of the portrait. Some detail of the surrounding back/middle/foreground should be included to frame the subject and strengthen the drawing.
Sometimes a simple area of shade can serve to bring out the subject better.
Sometimes a simple area of shade can serve to bring out the subject better.

Composition and Focus

As for myself, I like to do all my drawings, portraiture and non-portraiture alike, with as much detail as I can manage. Given the kind of work that I do, when asked to do a portrait, it's pretty much almost always taken from a photograph. (Doing portraiture live, the amount of detail you can include is also limited by the endurance of the model. This is the case as high levels of detail requires time. In many cases the skill of the artist can compensate for that shortcoming. Working from photos, however, eliminates that concern.)

During the time that I've done portraiture, I've split them into two categories.  This is because, most if not all the photos I've been given to work from have fallen into these categories.  Most of the portraits I do fall into what I call the "candid" category, as the photos I'm given to base them on are candid photos.  These are photos personally taken by the person or someone they know, as opposed to a professional or studio photographer.  Photos of this kind are usually generically posed, if at all, taken at a variety of distances, and in a variety of lightings in both indoor and outdoor settings.  (If your doing a portrait of a single individual or perhaps two people close together, it would be a good idea to advise the person requesting the portrait concerning your needs for producing the best possible portrait.)  If I want to keep the portrait simple I focus on the intended subject with no consideration for the background.  This, of course saves time.  If for any reason you're short on it, this would be the way to go.  To further concentrate the focus on the subject, I sometimes omit outstanding clothing detail, especially if I'm dealing with any kind of vibrant design or print.  This can serve to draw attention away from the subject.  When I find that it works well, I leave the space where clothing is indicated white.  This tends to work best when the image is only from top (of head) to collar bone.  Portraits that involve a more comprehensive image of the subject, call for attention to the subject's clothes and the immediate environment.  If I'm going to do a more or fully comprehensive image of the subject, I include all the detail I can in their clothing.  (As the image is more comprehensive, the clothing becomes a part of the focus by default.  Leaving out the detail in the clothing under these circumstances would take away from the portrait as a whole.)  Some quantity of the environment may be necessary to achieve the best results for your portrait.  In some cases, in the course of including the surrounding environment I fade it to white at some point or use an object in the environment (background or otherwise) as a boarder.  In other cases, I use some other kind of creative boarder (not a part of the photo) or simply crop of the environment in a shape that suitably frames the subject.  I personally prefer using a circle.  As I mentioned before, detail adds strength to the drawing.  So, in a comprehensive drawing, I do my best to include all the detail I can from the subject to the cut off point of the environment. 

For professional photos, I use somewhat similar methods in many cases.  If it's an indoor photo I'll either fade the background around the subject to white, or crop it into a shape that frames the subject.  Sometimes, to save time, I simply shade an area around the subject with an even tone that will best bring them out.  With outdoor professional photos I generally go with the given background and contain it within a framing shape.  I sometimes go with the even tone on outdoor photos as well to save time.  Because of the controlled nature of professional photos it's much easier to determine what would be the best course of action.  The appearance and composition of professional photos usually provide reliable guidance on how to proceed.                   


With either candid or professional photos there is the option of rendering a custom embellishment for a background and rendered frame for portrait subjects.  The possibilities are quite extensive and allow for a wider range of consideration which can include communicating qualities about the subject (i.e. personality, charm, energy, etc.), bringing out physical features (like the face, skin tone, eyes, hair), or simply increasing the strength of the portrait as whole.  In some cases, the embellishment can be made to emphasize something that the subject likes or is known for, or perhaps even where they're from or some feature of their home.  In some cases I've used simple shades with borders ranging from simplistic to complex.  In other cases I've used other objects ranging from flowers to the sky to the moon. (Specifically, the daylight moon.  The daylight moon is a personal favorite of mine.)  In other cases I've simply chosen an object (one that I think best suits the subject) and used it to frame the subject.  Adding rendered frame or custom background gives the artist freedom to employ as much of their personal style as they like.  You can even create and employ a signature image and style unique to your portraiture.     


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    • K Kiss profile image

      K Kiss 

      7 years ago from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

      nice..I am impressed...needed some good drawings on hubpages...


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