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Portrait illustration is by far my favourite type of illustration, which is why I specialize in it here at my studio. Why?  Because you get a glimpse into someones soul through the hands of an artist. I have looked at thousands of portraits by other illustrators and artists, as well as do a few myself, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a compelling portrait. The following is a list of the elements I feel must be considered then creating a beautiful and lasting portrait.


If you ask me, the number one thing a portrait illustration needs is to be recognizable. I mean immediately and without a headline, especially if the person portrayed is famous. If they aren’t a celebrity then people close to the subject should be able to look and say “hey that’s John,” without hesitation.

The reason a magazine or book publisher requires this is because they risk confusing their readers when they aren’t sure who they’re looking at.

That means the illustrator need some reference of the person before you commission an illustration. I often ask for six to ten photos before I even start. I can get away with only two or three, but to get a real sense of the person requires different environment with different lighting so I can interpret the different shapes and bone structure of each person.

If I can get a live model that’s even better, but most CEO’s and celebrities aren’t going to stop their busy life so I can draw their picture. I have, on occasion, brought my own camera and set up the shot the way it will look best. It’s a tool and I love to use it as much as possible to helps me get the persons features just right.

Modern and Fashionable

You want something that is modern and fashionable but you need to be careful not to get something that is kitschy. For example, you can order pop art portraits, which are done by computer, to hang in your house as original giclee prints, (Andy Warhol is not around to complain – although I’m not sure if he would since he helped to start the whole mass production of art) and  what  may seem cool and creative now will soon feel trite once everybody else has purchased the same thing.

At the moment, flat vector portraits and inky styled portraits are all the rage. I find the latter more compelling, but you will get a long life out of an interesting flat piece done by the right illustrator.

Which brings me to my next point…

1967 by Andy Warhol - Portrait of Marylin Monroe

“you can order pop art portraits, which are done by computer, to hang in your house as original giclee prints”


Why do some portraits last longer in the publics mind than others? I’m sure critics could argue this point better than I, but I have some thoughts. Has the illustrator taken the time to understand the spirit of the subject being portrayed? Is the article, or product that is attached to the illustration news worthy, or is it just filler in a magazine or on a website?

One thing to remember is that famous people naturally create longevity, so a well done portrait of someone relevant can stick in the publics mind for hundreds of years.

This might be why so many illustrators take a stab at Shakespeare or Einstein. (Maybe I should try too.)

Of course as an art director, this may be your least important concern as you have deadlines and we the public are notoriously fickle.

Unique Style

The artist’s personality needs to come through in the portrait. If your going to get a commission done you should be thinking about the uniqueness of it. If realism is your thing, then you might just be paying for something that could simple be done with a photo.

For myself, it’s important to me that nobody ever confuse my work with a photograph.

Diefenbaker by Cleeve Horne

Look at this amazing Portrait of Prime Minister Diefenbaker by Cleeve Horne. It shows a Unique Style and the narrative is of one of the toughest Prime Ministers Canada ever had.


How can a portrait be narrative? Well the artist needs to adhere to the story, the tone, the moment, the event. If it’s humorous then a caricature is obviously the best bet. If it’s a sad story, or the subject is being honoured, something a little more heartfelt would be the answer.

Sometimes an impression of the person is the best option because you are trying to get the viewer to interact at a higher level. If you do want something impressionistic you may need to include some obvious symbolism so your audience knows who your showing. For example if you were doing an image of Michael Jackson – you may need his pose, glove or hat to get the idea across.

Avoid Decoration

You are a brilliant art director, who gets into the story and directs visuals in the most compelling way possible!

Make sure the artist isn’t just making pretty lines, but is actually getting into the heart of the article or design.

If you are commissioning a printed canvas for your office or home, you’ve already decided to make a statement so don’t settle for decoration!

Decoration is for less personal works. Make sure the portrait you commission speaks to the heart and speak with the voice of the artist as well as your personal vision.

Considering Illustrated portrait for your next project?

Think about this – An art directors recently told me that his free magazine gets a 25% better pick up rate with illustrations versus a photo.

That tells me that portrait illustration is still more compelling to readers in our visually obsessed culture. It provides a break from the barrage of photos we see all over our city streets.

Be more compelling, interesting, artistic and creative. Get a portrait illustration done. If you want to see more illustration done in general, then share this blog post and get the conversation started.


About Michael

Michael Grills Illustration is located in Calgary Alberta Canada. The business was established in 2005 and since then I have been collaborating with design agencies, editorial, publishers, video directors, and game makers from all over the world. As well as doing art for illustration fans.