32 Portrait Painting and Drawing Tips

Techniques for drawing and painting portraits – whether digital or with pens, pencils or paints – from leading illustrators and artists.


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)

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)


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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I like to use exaggerated and expressive line work to set the tone with a subjects facial expression. Studying the face and recognising their key features is a good place to start and from there I will see how far I can push the features without it looking weird. Commonly I will use exaggerated line work in areas like the jaw line, check bones and eye sockets and these areas worked wonders for setting the tone in A Scanner Darkly.

Andrew Archer (NZ)


Atmosphere only really comes into play once the colour drops. I usually know in my head how I want a piece to look from a colour standpoints before I even start, but the difficult task is executing it. I often use gradients, in either a softer or stronger value to create a mood and then from there will use lightning to create focal points for the eye within the work. Sometimes using a shadow or lack of one can create totally different mood and it's really just a matter of push and pull with the piece until it feels right. I don't rely on traditional colours for my work which I think I use to my advantage to create mood and atmosphere which is unrecognisable but is rich and full with mood.

Andrew Archer (NZ)


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) 

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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) 


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) 

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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) 


I believe that the most important thing about a portrait illustration is that it has a presence. It is difficult to know which elements produce this effect however what is clear is that technique does not matter. I think that a good composition, clear-cut proportions and a good rhythm are all essential in helping produce a striking image to captivate the audience.

Roser Miquel (Spain)


(a) Study the character. If you get lost in any part of the process and you no longer see the resemblance, relax, take a breath and go back to it. If it doesn’t look like anyone, you can get inspiration from faces in random photographs that you like.

(b) Sketches by hand, by tablet, it doesn’t matter. Save everything as you go and any discards can be solutions in future portraits.

(c) Portraits are often easier if the character is famous, especially if they have an iconic look. However if they aren’t that famous and have no specific look, we can study their features and gestures more closely and include those elements to make them more unique. It’s the details which characterise you, from eyes being a tad close together or having one lip thicker than the other.

Roser Miquel (Spain)

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Our portraits are solemn, as we wish to convey a simplistic design with strong geometric features like an carcass. A lot of the time we find essential features for recognising the person and we must find the most effective means of executing these elements into our style, and characterising them into our language. If characteristics are found which make them unique, we will focus on these and make them the central focal point.

Roser Miquel (Spain)


Search for portraits of which you have admired your whole life, those which have impacted you, regardless of the technique and era. Consider why they have left an impression on you. Was it because of the composition? Colour? Did they have a disturbing element?

Try to make it your own and find a unique way to express it. Sometimes it is useful to balance portraits with other projects to rest your gaze for a while and come back to it with a fresh mindset in the next session. This will enable us to solve problems that didn’t even realise were there and appreciate the process in a whole new light.

Roser Miquel (Spain)


An interesting aspect which allows us to bring us closer to the portrait, is studying the essence of the person. This is something different which only this discipline brings, and often brings you closer to the character. Look at many photos of the person - watching videos it is even better as it helps to capture their appearance, essence, gesture / movement and mannerisms much more effectively.

Roser Miquel (Spain)

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I was asked to create an illustration for Variety magazine to accompany the film review of The Dark Tower. The piece needed to depict the main stars, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. I really needed to dig deep into the story of the movie to find out about the relationship between the two characters; a hero and a villain with the Dark Tower itself being the driving force for both their stories; as well as an understanding the physical appearance of both actors.

Using quick thumbnail sketches, I ran with a few ideas of using the tower to separate the characters, playing around with compositions. I then moved onto a more polished rough, the story is quite gritty and dark so use of colour and lighting, especially bold shadows was very important. Surrounding myself with reference material for both actors, I found working with a variety of different angles helped to capture their likeness.

Luke Brookes (UK)


Getting each feature right is key to making the portrait work. If one of the eyes is not quite right it can throw the whole image out. Start quite loose to get the overall face shape and features in the right place, then work over that initial sketch to refine your line work, adjusting as you go.

Strong lighting puts a lot of emphasis on where shadows fall on the face, which in turn, can drastically change how close to likeness you can get. I often take a photos of my own face at the same angle using a lamp to create similar shadows, giving a bit of a guide as to what parts would be in total shadow and which parts are highlighted.

Luke Brookes (UK)


If you have the opportunity take some time to really research the subject/sitter. Learning about the character or story behind the portrait can help inform all the visual elements you'll use to create the piece such as composition, colour etc. There's also an old art school trick of turning your artwork upside down and working on it that way. This way you'll draw what you see, rather than improvising features or drawing elements what you think they should look like, rather than what they actually do look like.

Luke Brookes (UK)

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Make it look silly, make it look fun, but make sure it’s the idea that you have in mind - not just an imitation or a copy of another person’s interpretation.

Find a method of working that works for you, something that makes the task more enjoyable.
I tend to start a portrait with the eyes and work my way outward, so the details of the face aren’t immediately confined to a space.


Raj Dhunna (UK)


I try to mask identity in my other works because I feel as though once a face is introduced, the rest of the illustration becomes less of a focal point. So work that involves portraits takes the pressure away from making it conceptual, but I then start to think about what colours are to be introduced to make it different to a photograph.


Raj Dhunna (UK)


A huge thing to be weary of all the time is that the portrait can no longer look like the subject if it is overworked or underworked.

I’ve always been attracted to drawing people and faces, and have practiced this alot in comparison to other parts of my drawing portfolio, but I still struggle at times to nail it down on my first attempt. But more often than not I have to do the hair and the hair tones more than once to get it down to a level that I am happy with.

I tend to stay away from things like details in teeth or ears. I like to give an impression of them being there, sometimes stripping back the detail is the hardest thing, and it’s something I’m still learning to do.


Raj Dhunna (UK)

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I like to draw out ideas and compositions in my sketchbook before anything reaches my screen. I’d research the person(s) and try and to get a portrait that has some nice angles/ lighting that lends itself well to a graphic image. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, I’d just create that myself by looking at several portraits to figure out the subjects face shape to determine points of shade. This also adds to the ‘abstract’ look that I might sometimes want to get across.

I’d then scan in my drawing, upload it into my photoshop and start colouring and refining my piece.


Raj Dhunna (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)


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)

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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)


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)

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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)