top of page

Unleash Your Creativity by Learning the Art of Portraiture

Welcome art enthusiasts and budding creatives! Are you ready to immerse yourself in a world of colors, shapes, and boundless creativity? Look no further than The Joy of Drawing Online Workshops and Classes, where your artistic aspirations come to life!

Explore the World of Portraits

The genre of portraiture has existed as long as the concept of art itself. Throughout history, portraiture artists have created stunning pieces which reflect the prevailing artistic styles of the time. As an example, portraiture in the romantic style differs greatly from that of Impressionist portraits, Expressionist portraiture, Surrealist portraiture.

Portraits have been represented through sculpture, painting, photography, and many other creative mediums. Regardless of the medium, the goal is to capture the likeness, unique charm, and personality of the portrait’s subject.

The oldest known portrait of a human is a 26,000-year-old Moravian sculptural head carved from a wooly mammoth tusk. It was discovered in Moravia, Czech Republic and is believed to depict a woman with her hair up and a fringe. 

Sculpture lasts longer than painting, so it is not surprising that the earliest known portrait paintings date back to at least 5,000 years ago to ancient Egypt, where paintings were done of the dead and buried in tombs.

From this time forward we do see portraits appearing in ancient Greece up through Rome and then forward from there.  This includes mosaic works from Persia and so forth. During the middle ages portraiture was banned by the Church who only allowed depiction of holy faces.  The Renaissance was a rebirth of Greek and Roman art and thus portraiture once again found its feet.

The Seismic Shift in Western Portraiture

Byzantine Mosaics to Van Gogh

Anyone looking at galleries will notice a huge change in portraiture from the early 15th century forwards.  Previously the Byzantine church had dictated that the only face to be depicted was that of God, Jesus and other related deities.  But as society began to change these hard and fast rules were relaxed.  This meant that people with money who donated towards religious paintings could have figures in the religious story represent themselves.  The next leap came with allowing artists to simply paint portraits of ordinary people without any other reason than just to represent them.

David Hockney created a visual chart of portraiture from ca 1150AD byzantine mosaics  up through the 1889 portrait by Vincent Van Gogh a portion of which is shown above.

He pinpointed this seismic shift in portraiture to circa 1430 with the painting Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, by the Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck in 1434.  Working with art historians and scientists, Hockney shows that this shift occurred when artists began to use optical devices to assist them in ensuring they could get a realistic representation of the person. Called the camera obscura, the device allowed the artist to project the image of the subject onto a canvas so they could trace out all the main shapes and locations of the eyes, mouth and so forth.  Then they would use this as the basis for the painting. His research is contained in a book called Secret Knowledge available on Amazon.

The Great Wall, as it has come to be known, is a visual representation of the extensive art historical research Hockney conducted while formulating these theories. It reveals the visible clues that led Hockney to believe that artists used optical devices to aid in creation as early as the 15th century.  

He talks about his theories in the following interview.

The Grid Frame

In addition to the camera obscura, other devices were  broadly used by portrait artists including a screen of wires forming a grid that the artist would look through.  The subject sat on one side of the grid while the artist sat on the other with a canvas or paper containing the same grid which we would use to  copy what he saw.

 Studying the human form:

Use of these devices were not the only tool used.  From the early 15th century artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo made very careful studies of the human skeleton and torso including  bone structure, and muscles in order to gain a full understanding of the human figure including the face and head, and this became a necessary study up through the end of the 1ith early 20th century. This study has returned in the present with the illustration and creation of figures, and many good videos exist that show the basics of how to draw the human figure.  The YouTube video series I recommend are those by Proko.


A view inside the many notebooks of Leonardo shows copious notes and observations on the proportions of the human head and face as well as the body overall.  

All of the above factors and skills enabled artists to create stunning portraits and thus satisfy their clients.  And so it was until the arrival of the photograph in 1840s which would once again change everything.

Portraiture in Japan and China

While painters in the West painted high born, wealthy subjects, Chinese portrait painters depicted people from all walks of life (see above painting in 1756) . Half of the paintings created in China were meant for one's family.  In China, it's important to have a portrait of your parents and grandparents. Your family is part of your identity to a much greater degree than is the case here.The second important category of Chinese portraits are informal portraits of senior officials and literary figures who commissioned paintings, as well as self-portraits painted by the artists themselves.

Japanese portraits were also available to the common man in the form of woodcuts.  These were of different subjects including favorite geishas as well as actors.  These found their way to Europe in mid 1900s and had great influence on young impressionist and post impressionist painters including Monet, Mary Cassatt, Van Gogh, Gauguin\, Lautrec and Bonnard to name just a few.

Modern Portraiture

By the turn of the 20th century, photography had become the most accessible and popular medium for portraiture. As though photography freed them from the burden of producing realistic depictions, many late-19th and early-20th-century artists began exploring new ways to represent people.

Many artists sought to represent the character and psychology of their sitters; similarly, in their self-portraits, they aimed to communicate something of their innermost selves. If they were familiar with their sitter, they might seek to express their relationship to him or her. Their interest in the subjective and emotional, coupled with their desire to break with the traditions of the past, led these artists to make formal innovations that would radically alter the genre of portraiture.

Learning to Draw and Paint Portraits

It can seem fearsome but it doesn’t have to be. 

In truth it all depends on a firm grasp of the basics as covered in our book The Joy of Drawing A Beginner’s Manual available on Amazon

  • First, you will need to learn the fundamental skills covered in the beginning two chapters.  

  • Chapter 3 Shading and Shadows is a super important skill you will need for portraiture, plus you learn how to trace correctly, another skill you will no doubt use.  

  • In Chapter 4: Gridding you learn to be able to use this technique to make your images larger or smaller than the original.  

  • In Chapter 6 Shapes and Forms is super important in order to create any 3-d object and make it look realistic.  So study that one well.

  • Finally, Chapters 8 and 8 teach you how to estimate proportions.  

With all these skills under your belt, learning to draw portraits will be much easier.

The Re-Emergence of a 1952 Classic

Drawing The Head and Hands was written by Andrew Loomis in 1952.  Famous for his mastery of figure drawing and clean, realist style, illustrator Andrew Loomis (1892-1959) is revered amongst classic artists like the great American painter Norman Rockwell and comics and graphic novel artists like Marvel and DC superstar Alex Ross.

This book was a complete surprise for me - I have been drawing portraits for years but learned skills that helped me tremendously.  The book can be pretty hard going due to its 19502 style of writing.  There are numerous YouTube videos demonstrating the Loomis method but I wanted to formulate my own deeper understanding. So I worked out the best way to introduce a beginner to the subject andI held a class using the exercises and it revolutionalized my students’ portrait drawing so I knew it was a winner.

Another thing in its favor: I compared his proportions and how he builds the head form and features to notes from Leonardo, and I laid his proportion grid over one of Leonardo's head drawings and it was an exact match, so I was convinced I had found the modern version of those original observations of Leonardo.

Sonia Brittain, who is sharing her knowledge in her 2-hour workshop Stylized Portraits (live-streaming on July 7 and available as a recorded video on our website) is also a proponent of Loomis (see her painting to the left).  After earning portraiture in the UK she studied his book and swears by it.

The two hour workshop does not give us enough time to cover the fundamentals laid down by Loomis, but our weekly class in July will cover this in some detail 

HINT: Bring an orange to the first class and a sharpie!

Getting Started on Your Journey

Learning to draw and paint portraits including your own can be easy with the following tools and skills:

  • A good photograph to start with - select one that has lots of contrast. NOTE: Color can be deceiving in terms of sufficient contract so often I duplicate the photo and open the duplicate and turn it to black and white to ensure it has good contrast.  Contrast is needed to define the shadows and highlights on the face.

  • Use of tracing or gridding to establish the main shapes of the face, shadows and features. 

  • Understanding of light and form - this is vital if you are drawing from life or from imagination.

  • A good grasp of proportion - again vital if you are drawing from life or from imagination.  If proportions are wrong the whole face will simply look wrong.  

The Final Step: Drawing from Life -

We recommend getting a good mirror and doing self portraits to start with.  You do not need to show them to anyone but all artists do this and were the originators of selfies!

Do hope this is helpful and, as always, leave your comments and questions!

69 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Excellent article. Especially enjoyed David Hockney’s interview.


Appreciate the detail ——enjoy the history !

Thank you for sharing -


I love the Japanese portraits. Great article.

bottom of page