20 Portrait Painting and Drawing Tips

Learn digital and craft techniques for drawn and painted portraits from leading illustrators and artists.


For the final piece, the first thing I do is to draw the eyes and I work around them until I have the basic layout of the subject. For shading, I go back to the eyes. I do this because for me, they are the most expressive part of the face.

Also, you can generally find the brightest and the darkest shades in a relative small area, so solving the eyes helps me to better calibrate the rest of the shadows.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)

Sketching allows me to explore new ideas, trying to find how to make them work. It’s tricky to translate thoughts into an interesting portrait.

I generally work quickly, producing numerous sketches, trying different approaches to resolve the idea in my mind. Once I’m happy with it, I move to the digital domain, trying colours and textures before beginning the final work.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)


I think I have a blend of styles, the subjects (the girls faces in particular) are generally quite realistic but I also try to add some imaginative elements in the composition.

Although most of the shading is made with black pencil, I add colour with markers, gouache, watercolours - whatever I feel like using. Sometimes I digitally enhance the contrast or tones to produce a more intense piece.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)

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Photography can produce similar things, but has a more instantaneous feel, while an illustration carries the time the artist took to produce the piece.

An illustration reveals more about the artist than about the subject. If a client commissions a portrait they want to see themselves inside the artist's view of the world.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)


I usually don’t colour the skin – I only add some colour to the cheeks, lips and eyes. This helps bringing the subject to life, so it doesn’t look like a statue.

Depending on the style and mood of the piece, the cheeks can be well contoured and colourful for a playful look, or subtle and more realistic for a solemn appearance. Watercolours or blend markers are great for doing this - you can add colour without covering the pencil shading.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)


I create pieces that are both beautiful and bring some newness, either by creating a scene you wouldn't expect or by a using a new technique. Having said that, I was told most of the girls/women I create have a melancholic look.

Being an immigrant myself, always torn between staying in the UK and returning to Argentina, I could put that sentiment in perspective.

I like that the subjects are looking to the viewer so they can connect with them, as if they are quietly trying to communicate something. It’s not only the facial expression, but also the position relative to the viewer: for example, low angles empower the subject, regardless of the expression.

Sofia Bonati (Argentina / UK)

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With my style I like to try and create simple, colourful, playful illustrations whilst taking care to consider the interaction and emotion of the people I'm illustrating. I'm obsessed with colour combinations and and even though the majority of my process is digital I'm always trying to create print like textures.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK) 


Whether abstract or figurative, a portrait should show a figure but more importantly reveal something about their life or personality. 

I think illustrated portraits can sometimes be more playful or more conceptual. It's also probably easier to commission an illustrator to create a more fantastical portrait than a photographer as you aren't constrained by working in a ''real'' environment. 

Naomi Wilkinson (UK) 


My work is simple and flat, so I love adding texture and use Photoshop brushes to layer colour to achieve a bit more dimension to flat areas.

It can be tricky preventing flat shapes looking too blocky and I feel adding texture helps and makes it look a bit more tactile. Colour also is a game changer when evoking atmosphere.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK) 

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I strive to create work that is joyful and playful but that conveys real emotion. This is the reason I love showing humans interacting in my illustrations, it makes them come alive much more. 

Using photography or looking in a mirror helps and then from there you can break the expressions of a certain emotion down to simplistic lines or shapes but you have a start with looking at a real human face which is infinitely more complicated than a couple of lines. I often find myself actually making the same facial expression as I'm drawing!

Naomi Wilkinson (UK) 


I think whatever your visual language sometimes it helps to break it down to the bare bones and then build it back up, with both the visuals and the concept. Being sure to remain playful, reflective and experimental whilst you work on a portrait helps too. 

Also sometimes taking a break from the image, even if it's just leaving the room for 10 minutes. I often find if I take a break and come back to the image I can instantly see what needs to be done to improve it.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK) 


Whilst drawing faces I experiment each time with a different approach, technique and digital brush. I start my workday selecting faces around the web; I steal features, facial expressions, hairstyles and clothes.

This 'ritual' is really important for my commissioned portraits: it gives me the chance to evolve my style every day, finding always new solutions and adding new skills.

Lorenzo Gritti (Milan, Italy)

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I always try to do commissioned portraits with as few lines as possible, summarising their features and avoiding useless details. I tend to keep a few strong strokes and a level of shadow to define the characters. I choose carefully the lines colours, often matching it with hair or clothes detail. 

I use as little colour as possible too: often two pure and one obtained overlapping levels, adding contrast and a kind of harmony in the same time. I generally keep the same palette for the entire series of portraits.

Lorenzo Gritti (Milan, Italy)


I would describe my style as bubblegum ice cream with dark feelings – mostly using bright colors and combining them with moody portraits. Rather than being about the techniques or the beauty, for me a portrait is all about emotions – and how you get to express them through an image of a person. 

Illustrations let the artist go beyond the physical characteristics of the subject and therefore we are able to create beautiful images that express the essence of the portrayed person. Maybe the biggest difference between an illustrated portrait from a photograph is that you don't depend on the mood of the subject, you can always give it your own feel.

Polilovi (Costa Rica)


When I'm making digital artworks I tend to use very few brushes, usually just two, or three tops. I do this because it gives a different character to the illustrations through rougher brushstrokes that generate an important difference from hyper-realistic portraits.

Additionally I like to use high contrasts in order to make important features stand out from the composition. That helps me to attract more attention to the eyes of the subject, which for me is the most important feature.

I'm really attracted to work with bright and pastel colors and my color pallet is usually composed by duotones which help me giving it a specific mood to the portrait, mostly to evoke femininity. 

Polilovi (Costa Rica)

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I like my illustrations to have deep expressions, that each portray a personality, a glance can tell a whole story and I really enjoy when spectators can see this in my illustrations. Therefore, as I stated, I like using high contrasts to generate a more dramatic environment in my work, just as film noir used to do. 

My recommendation would be to find your own style, your voice, your own way to express what it is you want to communicate and this often goes side by side with finding the technic the you feel the most confortable using.

It is important to keep in mind that this is a long, yet very enriching process. It is also important to always keep exploring and renewing yourself in order to keep getting great results.

Polilovi (Costa Rica)


I think one of the biggest challenges you can get on a commissioned portrait is to work with the images of reference you get, which sometimes don't have the desired quality and that causes you to spend more time reinterpreting the image. This also pushes you to keep creative and to get the most out of the material you have to do your work.

Eyes are the way to the soul, and that's why I like to start my illustrations by making the eyes first, which is the key part in generating an interesting mood in the portrait. Once that's done, the rest of the illustration is easier to create.

Polilovi (Costa Rica)


Don't get too caught up trying to achieve perfection; in many occasions we think everything needs to be flawless, but art and illustration is way too far from being perfect. You might loose a lot of time trying to get that. I do recommend to get your hands dirty; experiment and get out of your comfort zone in order to find your voice.

Polilovi (Costa Rica)

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