The Portrait Drawing Secret that Every Art Teacher Should Know

Capturing a likeness when drawing portraits is one of the most difficult challenges students face in the art classroom. This one secret will make you a hero for teaching students how to make accurate portraits. Every. Single. Time.

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Learning from Forensic Illustration

First off, I would like to give credit to the incredible work of the forensic illustrator, Karen T. Taylor, for being the first art instructor to introduce me to the significance of the concept I am about to share with you. Although I had glossed over it in my atelier training, in her book Forensic Art and Illustration she proved beyond a doubt that this one overlooked concept is THE KEY to accurate portraits.

I strongly encourage you to read her fascinating (but somewhat morbid) book on forensic illustration. She is a world expert on creating likenesses of people when it matters most for catching heinous criminals, and identifying missing persons.

The Portrait Drawing Secret

So, are you ready for the portrait drawing secret that will change your drawing life forever?

It’s simple, really. The one portrait drawing secret you simply must know is this:

Likenesses come from accurately representing the relationship of the features to each other.

What does this mean, exactly?

The key word here is relationship.

When people draw portraits, they tend to obsess on what color the eyes are or what shape the mouth is. And while these things have some importance, they are insignificant compared to the relationship of the features to each other.

Let’s say you draw a mouth that is EXACTLY the accurate shape of your subject, and eyes that are EXACTLY the right color. Both of these things can be perfect, but the drawing won’t have a likeness unless the distance between your mouth and eyes is accurate. Getting the correct relationship between the mouth and eyes is far more important for capturing a likeness than the shapes or colors of those features.

Consider this simple illustration that uses the exact same shapes for eyes, nose, and mouth but changes the relationship of these features to each other. Notice how the likeness completely changes?

(Enjoying this article? Download our Yay! Portraits Teaching Guide for even MORE tips and tricks for drawing portraits.)

Why Is This So?

Have you ever spotted a friend really, really far away, and immediately knew it was them? You couldn’t possibly see the color of their eyes, so how did you know it was them?

The answer might surprise you.

It turns out that humans rely heavily on contrast for intaking visual information. When your very-far-away friend is first spotted, what you are seeing is a light and shadow pattern on their face created by their facial features.

When the sun is overhead, the eye sockets cast a shadow on the face. The nose casts a shadow on the face. The upper and lower lips cast a shadow on the face. It is the relationship of these dark shadows to each other that create a pattern. This pattern in turn tells your human brain “That’s my friend!”

The reason the relationship of features to each other matters so much is because humans simplify visual intake and rely heavily on patterns. It is simply too much information to take in the color of someone’s eyes, when the only information we really need to identify someone is the pattern of lights and darks created by shadows of the features onto the face.


Getting a true likeness in portraiture is a challenging task. By spending time correctly considering the relationship of the features to each other, and recreating these relationships in their drawings, students will makes portraits with better likenesses.

Did you find this article helpful? Download our Yay! Portraits Teaching Guide for even MORE tips and tricks for drawing portraits.

What is your portrait drawing secret? Let me know in the comments below.

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