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5 Tips for Improving the Likeness in a Portrait

Capturing the resemblance of a face is one of the most challenging skills to learn in portrait drawing that can take years to truly master.

These past few months, I have been trying to overcome my struggles with capturing the likeness of a face by learning basic head construction techniques, including the Loomis Method and Reilly Abstraction, and just practicing drawing lots of faces. So in this post, I share the five tips that I have found really helpful in improving the likeness of my portrait drawings.

How to capture the likeness of a face in a portrait?

Capturing the likeness in a portrait requires the ability to observe and accurately draw the distinct attributes of the face, like basic proportions, the overall shapes of the head, the spacing between the different elements of the face, and other nuances that are unique to a particular face.

Tip 1 Learn the basics of portrait drawing before attempting likeness.

This may sound counterintuitive to beginner artists but allow me to share a bit of my own backstory to provide some context.

About five years ago, I quit drawing because I was so frustrated at myself for not being able to sketch my favorite actors and characters well. And the reason for my frustration that I have now come to understand is that I was attempting to capture the likeness in every portrait I was drawing without knowing or understanding some basic drawing skills like face proportions, perspective, and the Loomis Method. Five years later, I did start drawing again, but I wish I hadn’t quit drawing for so long.

Basically, what I learned from my mistake was to allow myself the time to learn the essential skills that are pre-requisite to drawing a good portrait and only tackle more advanced aspects of portrait drawing, like attempting to draw the resemblance of a face once I’m comfortable with the fundamentals.

And while it’s totally fine to try drawing the resemblance of a face every once in a while, I think it is important for beginner artists to remind themselves not to get too caught up with the likeness of their portraits before they have learned the basics to avoid getting discouraged early on in their art journey.

Here are some fundamental portrait drawing skills that I think are a pre-requisite for anyone who wants to draw a face to its likeness:

Tip 2 Observe the unique attributes of a particular face.

It is fascinating to think that every face in the world has a distinct impression that helps us recognize someone, even in a crowd of thousands. I believe the first step in achieving likeness in a portrait starts with the artist finding those characteristics in a face that make it unique.

One thing I like to do when practicing likeness is to try and observe three to five characteristics in a face that I find interesting and unusual so I can plan on emphasizing those in my drawing. In the earlier stages of your drawings, however, you don’t want to go overboard with this and try to limit your observations to just a few attributes that are the most defining aspects of a face.

I love watching caricature artists draw portraits on Youtube because they are excellent at figuring out what makes a specific face unique.

Tip 3 Define the overall silhouette of the head early in the portrait.

this picture shows how to draw the structure of the face
Blocked in the basic outline of the head before rendering any details.

The overall shape of a person’s head helps us to randomly spot someone we know from a hundred yards, even though we cannot quite make out the details of their face from that sort of distance.

Although relatively straightforward, getting the general shape of the head correct early in the portrait drawing, I think, plays a big part in achieving the overall resemblance. What I like to do during the initial head construction is to block in the outline that defines the overall silhouette of the head around the structure I have already drawn and only finalize the proportions of the face once I’m reasonably satisfied with how the silhouette looks.

Tip 4 The charm lies in the proportions.

Drawing the proportions of the face correctly is, in my experience, more important in achieving the likeness in a portrait than copying the shapes and details of the individual features of a face.

And while basic head construction techniques like the Loomis Method are a great way to learn how to draw a typical average head, we need to be critical in observing our subject and evaluating where we need to depart from the ‘average proportions‘.

Here are some face proportions that I like to check before finalizing the basic outline of the head when I intent to capture a resemblance in the portrait drawing.

  • The eye’s width relative to the nose’s width and the space between the two eyes. Usually, the nose is about one eye-width wide, and so is the gap between both eyes.
  • How these ‘three segments of the face’ measure against one another:
    • The forehead (hairline to brow ridge);
    • The nose (brow ridge to the base of the nose);
    • The mouth and the chin (base of the nose to the chin).
  • The angle of the jawline.
  • The placement of the ears relative to the center of the head’s side planes.
  • The space between the eyes and the brow ridge.
  • The placement of the lips relative to the base of the nose, sides of the nose, the chin bone, and the outer corners of the eyes.

Tip 5 Capture the likeness of the individual features of the face.

Here are some main characteristics of the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears that give personality and expression to a person’s face.


  • The angle between the inner and outer corners of the eyes.
  • The gap between the eyes and the brow ridge.
  • The size of the Iris relative to the eyeball.
  • The shape of creases and folds around the eyes.


  • The size and shape of the nostrils.
  • The nose bridge’s width relative to the nose’s side planes.
  • The shape of the rhythm line separating the base of the nose from its front and side planes.
  • How adjacent the top of the nose is to the brow ridge.


  • How wide the lips are relative to the nose.
  • The overlapping shapes are apparent from the center line that divides the two lips.
  • The shape of the highlight on the lower lip.
  • The shape of the upper corner of the chin ball.


  • How far back do the ears recede into the side planes of the head?
  • Are the ears adjacent to the brow ridge and the base of the nose?
  • The angle at which the ears stick out from the head’s side planes.
  • Tonal shapes of the inner ear.