Why are Portraits Difficult? 8 Things you Will Need to Know

Of all the subjects artists decide to draw and paint, the production of a successful portrait perhaps offers the most recognition. For many amateur artists, the drawing of faces, portraits, and capturing a likeness of someone you know provides a difficult hurdle to overcome. Plus, a struggle that many will choose to abandon.

The drawing of portraits is studied in Fine Art schools because it teaches you to draw what you see and considerably advances your drawing skills.

Why are portraits difficult? Portraits drawing is possibly the most recognizable form of drawing that exists. Most laypeople quickly detect portrait drawings that contain even slight errors in proportion, likeness, or feature inaccuracies.

Why Are Portraits Difficult
Why Are Portraits Difficult?

In this post, I will out the various reason why many artists struggle with the drawing and painting of portraits and faces. 

Why are Portraits Hard to Draw?

In absolute contrast to the drawing of the portrait, the illustration of landscapes and still life offers the artists a subject matter that can easily tolerate inaccuracies and imperfections. Both these traditions’ naturalistic irregularity can permit the error of the an out of proportions leaf or flower. 

Now to contrast this with the drawing of a familiar or famous face. Even a minor inaccuracy in detail or proportion or likeness will cause the image to fall apart. Understanding and drawing the face and head in proportion is the first aspect of drawing a portrait that people often find difficult. It can take time to develop a real understanding of how to draw a picture in proportion from various angles.

 The Loomis Method is an excellent way the learn to draw a portrait in proportion correctly and from different angles. Once this method is learned, the student then progresses onto drawing the individual features of the face. The following drawing course provides an excellent insight into how to draw portrait to a high standard. Portrait Drawing Course

What Makes a Good Portrait Drawing? 

An excellent portrait consists of several different elements instantly recognizable to the person who is viewing it. Firstly does it capture the spirit and the character of the sitter or that is trying to portray? If it does then, I would suggest it is a successful portrait.

Successful portraits can be drawn and painted in a variety of methods. Some artist prefers to paint portraits in oils employing a limited palette while others prefer a more expressive medium such as charcoal. For example, the artist Slew, in this video, creates portraits that really capture the character of the individual employing a limited range of colors.

The techniques and medium are secondary as are methods you employ to create your work, the point being that a good portrait has a unique character that evokes the nature of the spirit it is trying to imitate.

Capturing Expressions

Some artists believe that capturing the soul of the character of the portrait you are attempting to draw is the most challenging part of drawing a portrait. They also think that faces are the most recognizable things to recognize in the world. For the portrait artist drawing the individual features of the face is the challenge they need to overcome.

Drawing the Individual Features

Learning to draw separate characteristics by a focus upon them separately. Each section of the face and be drawn using a primary method. Which, when learned, will enable you to draw portraits with confidence.

Another added benefit of drawing the features of the face independently is that you can progress to drawing them at varying angles. This includes the three-quarter viewpoint. 

Proportions of the Head and Face

For some artist proportions, shapes, lines, and forms are integral to the style of art they produce, and if you are looking to create successful portraits, then an understanding of proportion is essential.

No matter how you draw a portrait, if the underlying proportions are not correct, the drawing will not coney the realistic portrait that you are trying to convey. To draw the proportion of the head a face. The simplest to begin is to reduce the shapes of the face and head to its simplest form. For the beginners, this is best achieved through the drawing of a front view.

Begin with a simple, faintly drawn sketch of an oval. Bearing in mind that the head and face are symmetrical, draw a faint center line down the center of the oval. Subdivide the centerline at its central position and draw a horizontal line across the page. This line will establish the eye level in your drawing.

From this point on, the drawing will become more comfortable as you can progress onto drawing the other main features around and in relation to the eye level. Next, subdivide the bottom half of the face in half. To locate the point where the nose can be drawn. Subdivide the area between the nose and the bottom of the oval. This, in turn, will enable you to create a line from which you can draw the lips and mouth. Further information can be found in my detailed post. How to Draw Male Lips Smiling.

Mood and Lighting

Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of drawing a portrait from direct observation is applying shadows to the head and face. An effective way to transform and create an intensity in an image is to alter or change the lighting around the person you are drawing.

Certain aspects of the head a face are more prominent and will catch the light and stand out more quickly. Additionally, areas of the face can typically be in shadows when you render them, usually this the eye sockets under the nose and the cheekbones. To discover more about applying ton to a portrait, read my post: How to Draw Shadows on the face.

Drawing a Challenging Portrait

If you attempt to draw a highly detailed, expressive face, there are several methods you can employ to make the task easier. One of which is drawing from a photographic reference of a face, this could be a family member or a famous celebrity. This has the added benefits of drawing a static image where the lighting conditions and movement of the sitter will not be affected.

There are drawbacks to this method, however. Drawing from a static image will not convey the real character of the person you are attempting to draw, plus you will not have the advantage of being able to view your subject in the round.

Drawing from Photographs

Drawing a portrait from a secondary source image can elevate some of the difficulties of drawing from the first-hand experience.

The grid method is a tried and tested way of drawing flat images using on paper using a step by step process. Taking a photograph, you should draw a uniform grid over the portrait you are drawing. This enables you the simplify the image and draw individual parts of the portrait separately. 

Next, draw a grid onto a separate sheet of paper. This could be a big sheet or a small piece of paper. You can then start to draw the portrait segment by segment, adding detail to the specific squares.

Tracing images is another option that has the added benefit of speeding up the drawing process. Tracings can be produced using the standard method using tracing paper or a more modern light pad. Tracing tends to produce flat-looking graphic images and is regarded by many artists as cheating. For more information, read my post: Is Tracing Cheating in Art?

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Do Portraits Have to Be Realistic?

There are many varied ways in which you can approach the subject of drawing and painting portraits. Here are a few you might like to attempt for yourself:

  • Expressive portraits. Drawing and painting portraits using expressive and unrelated color schemes effectively introduce variety into your portrait drawing and create images that have a visual impact.
  • Black and White Portraits are a simple way to create images using a drastically restrained color scheme. One of the difficulties when producing a black and white portrait is that you have to change a color reproduction into one that’s black and white.  Read how to create a black and white here: How to Draw Portraits in Black and White.
  • Drawing Portraits in Color. Many varied techniques can be used to create a colorful portrait. Some of these methods can be challenging to a beginner. My advice is to experiment and draw without fear or restraint. This will enable you to create a drawing that has a power of their own. 


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of improvedrawing.com and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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Why are Portraits Difficult_ 8 Things you Will Need to Know