How to draw celebrities, actors and singers: 8 tips from leading illustrators

Leading illustrators reveal the techniques behind their favourite portraits of the famous - from composition, drawing and painting to how to capture their likeness

Paloma Faith

by Miss Led (UK) 

“I’m attracted to the theatrical and playful side of Paloma, which I kept in mind while creating the portrait. With the eyelashes being the heaviest area of the piece, they were to act as the pivotal part of the image. Eyes are so important in my portraits – they have to be the hook to entice the viewer in and also engage the gaze. 

“Embellishing her cheeks with white dots over abundant soft blush creates a good balance and acknowledgement of these dramatic fanlike lashes. With this particular portrait, it was more what I chose to eliminate rather than add. And what I did include, how I could accentuate.

“My usual face shading is avoided here, in favour of a clean, almost porcelain poster girl complexion. Using the texture – brown envelope – I could bring in further marks, incorporating white highlights that lift the piece.”

Brad Pitt

by Joe Wilson (UK) 

“This piece [for film magazine Little White Lies] had very tight criteria: an image of Brad Pitt’s face made of leaves.

“Restricted to one colour on black, this became about capturing Pitt’s essence as simply as possible, with no space for fancy stuff. Building onto a background of black, my focus was on the negative shapes of his eyes, nose and mouth. The face-on pose is important, as it needed to be clear and immediately connect with the viewer. Once these key areas were drawn correctly, I could sculpt the rest of the face with leaves, giving the gold foil maximum impact.”

Joey Barton 

by Tim McDonagh (UK)

“[When creating portraits, you need to work out] what features you can accentuate with different marks. If someone has quite prominent stubble, for example, find which kind of a mark is going to work best, something that’s really going to draw attention to that feature. Pay close attention to the eyes too; the skin and folds around the eyes is a really important thing to get down accurately.” 

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Peaches Geldof

by Elisabeth Moss (USA) 

Commissioned by Nylon magazine [this piece] was for a column on ‘It Girls’, written by the late Peaches Geldof. The brief was to feature fashion items to accompany the portrait. Since the text wasn’t written until I’d started the job, I had to come up with ‘It Girl-inspired stuff’ myself. 

Without knowing too much about Peaches’ taste, I was a bit nervous the editors would laugh about my picks – Spice Girls, Gwen Stefani, Berlin 90s Love Parade... but fortunately they didn’t complain. 

“When I draw pencil portraits, I always start with the light spots in the eyes. I then build the pupils around it, the eyes and the rest of the face, this way I make sure the portrait will seem to look at the spectator. Also, I don’t try to make people look perfect, but rather focus on something strange in their faces.”

Marc Jacobs

by Stuart Wilson (UK) 

“The crux of my tip is practice and research. Learn about your subject matter – having background information will allow you to have a clearer idea of what pose and the areas that can be highlighted. 

“With my Marc Jacobs piece, I pictured him looking at a garment or at a crucial stage in his design process, which led me to include glasses and have him looking off the page with an expression that came across as deep in thought. The more practice [you] undertake, the quicker these decisions can be made, leaving more time to create the piece.”

Virginia Woolf

by Jack Hughes (UK) 

“Colour and eyes are of top priority when it comes to illustrating a portrait. Although an overused expression, eyes truly are the windows of the soul. I work closely with photographic references, collaging my work together and then working on top [of this].

The eyes are the focal point, they have to be perfect before I progress, couple that with a carefully considered palette and you’re on your way.”

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Michael Fassbender

by Paul Willoughby (UK)

“My concept for the portrait was to make Fassbender’s face out of the dirty materials his character was obsessed with in the film [Shame]. I broke the face down into three skin tones – light medium and dark – then used the random variation in skin surfaces to describe his face. I also added some cuttings from vintage Playboys for that touch of class.”