6 Tips for Getting a Portrait Likeness

written by Sophie | Beginners, Materials & Technique

Here are some tips and tricks for beginning portrait painters to get a likeness in your portrait work. I hope you will find these 6 tips useful. I’ve added some images from the history of art for inspiration. They include some of my favourite portrait artists such as Gunn, and Van Dyck. Wasn’t it Sargent who described a portrait as “a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth.”  Getting a likeness has always been tricky. Some artists seem to be able to get it with a few brush strokes, while others battle on until they get it right. And what about the artists’ interpretation? We all see ourselves and perhaps each other in a different way. A ‘likeness’ is an elusive thing.

Anyway, enough musing on the subject. Here are 6 tips to get you started towards the holy grail of portrait likeness.


Before your start look at your model and make some mental notes of the unique characteristics you that you feel stand out. A particularly long face, a pouty mouth, sad eyes, raven black hair, a crooked nose.  Look carefully and explore the face in front of you (without making the sitter feel uncomfortable if you are working from life).

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Thomas Howard, 1585


Consider a painted portrait in the same way as you would consider a landscape or a still life: shape, form, value, colour. It’s not a nose you’re painting, it’s a shape, it has planes, form, values and chroma. (learn more about colour and chroma in this article)

Velazquez, Portrait of Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain, 1651–54


Check Angles with a brush or stick. Consider that jawline as if it is the hand of clock (10 o’clock) and compare the angle in your painting with your model. A small adjustment in angles can make a big difference.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Vernon Lee, 1881


Practice fast sketches in oils, pencil or any medium you like. Quick works force you to look for big forms. They might not be perfect but they sure train your skills.

Miriam Escofet, An Angel at my Table, 2018. BP Portrait Award winner 2018 (detail).


Take your time. A likeness can sometimes depend on that particular turn of the mouth, that eyebrow raised, that twinkle in the eye. Take your time and those little details will get there too.(read also: Slow Down Perfectionist)

Julian Merrow-Smith, Self Portrait (detail), oil on linen, 26x22cm. BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2017


Get into fine details only in the last painting stages: that perfect fold of the eye, the eye colour, the curve of the lip, the nostril; leave it till last. Leave it till when you know for sure that they are in the right place. A sculptor would never start with the eyes – she needs a structure first.

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Featured image top: Sir Herbert James Gunn, R.A., PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST’S WIFE

Published: September 29, 2019

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