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Portraiture Art: Capturing a Person’s Essence

marina chisty art female faces

Although you may be talented at replicating the structure of a figure it can be much trickier to capture their essence – the glint in your subject’s eye. You know you have done it when you feel their 'spark'. Their character and personality shines through the canvas. I can’t explain exactly how this is done, it is something about technique, about feeling a person’s intricate movements and gestures – it’s something elusive. I have put together some tips and tricks that I think work.


For this post I will focus on portraiture art through painting and drawing, with a follow up post looking into other forms of portraiture such as: photography, digital art, printmaking and sculpture.

Portraiture Art Tips, Tricks and Techniques

People familiar with my art will know my portraiture work, especially my series called Female Faces. This isn’t a how to guide but a list of my top five tips for you to experiment with. Some of these will help you to fine tune the likeness of a person but that isn’t really what this post is about. Although photo-realism portraiture is very impressive, I am more interested in helping people capture a person’s character which may come through in the use of materials and considerations such as movements, color palette and textures to reflect the person’s personality or mood in any given moment.

#1 Perspective

The angle and the way in which a person poses for a portrait can be very telling of their character. If a person is shy and reserved don’t try to get them to perform in a way that is totally unnatural to them. Take a moment to gauge their character. You may prefer to do a portrait of a stranger and keep a sense of mystery and distance, or you might want to do a portrait of a close friend that you know well – appreciate that you may either be burdened with too much knowledge of a person or too little. Understand how you work and what you need to capture their ‘spirit’. I find it much easier painting strangers as if it is someone I know I tend to think I know what they look like without truly observing them.

#2 Clothing, Accessories and Setting

As with the previous point, a person who is comfortable in their own style and setting is more likely to offer up a natural representation of themselves which will benefit you as an artist in finding their personality and spark in the portrait.

#3 In-Person Vs Using a Photograph

This depends on your style of working. Some artists like to have at least an initial sitting with the subject and then might work from a photograph. People also fidget a lot – especially children. If you are doing a sketch style portrait in charcoal you can get a lot of character and expression through a quick one hour session in front of the subject. If you wish to achieve an intricate level of detail or are working in oil, you may prefer to work from a photograph, unless you are using a thin wash style of painting. Either way this is something to experiment with and consider.  

#4 Lighting

Lighting can have a big impact on how the subject is perceived. Soft, bleached out, ethereal lighting can bring an elegance, a sense of peace, tranquility and innocence to the subject, whereas the use of strong directional light can have a more dramatic impact. Strong lighting can highlight some areas whilst casting deep shadows in others. It can either create a sense of dominance on the subject or make them seem the domineering entity. Choose lighting based on how you want your subject to be portrayed in your work.  

#5 A Mood-Setting Color Palette

Choosing the right tones and color palette is essential to reflect your subject's character. As mentioned before, you might not be searching for a true color likeness but instead using colors that trigger an emotion or mood. If you want them to be perceived as cold and lonely use grays and blues, whilst using earthy tones will offer a sense of warmth and comfort. The right color palette will create an atmosphere. 


In the next post I will go through some of my favorite portraits and portraiture artists that have inspired me. I will cover their techniques and decipher why they are so special. Do you have any tips? Please share them in the comments below.

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