15 fantasy portrait tips

Learn how to achieve realistic fantasy portrait paintings that stand out from the crowd.

Fantasy portraiture is my favourite subject. Bringing an original character to life is exciting, but can be difficult to achieve. To avoid mistakes and save time I try to follow a few rules. But they're really just guidelines, so feel free to adapt, change and test other techniques that might better suit your painting process.

The most important thing to bear in mind is to take your time. This is the best advice I can give, because nothing good comes from rushing a painting.

Take your time – nothing good comes from rushing a painting.

Melanie Delon

There's more to portraits than knowing how to draw a face. It's worth spending time and effort trying to understand how a face 'works', such as under a particular lighting setup. Such a skill won't be grasped overnight. Spend time experimenting with several techniques, and don't be afraid to fail. I've learned – and still learn – a lot more when I struggle on a painting, and when I'm stuck (on a mouth or nose, for example), I don't hesitate to redo everything… and have a coffee break!

The main challenge in a portrait painting is to make the character stand out. Usually there's no surrounding decor in the environment to help you achieve this goal, and a finished, polished portrait can often end up looking flat and boring. Thankfully, there are several simple and effective ways to achieve a striking portrait that will be remembered.

01. Preparatory sketch

Rough sketches will get your portrait headed in the right direction

Before starting an illustration, I always do some quick pencil drawings to lay down my ideas. This helps me to see more clearly what I want to do and express, and be more confident about the direction I want to take. I use these sketches to build the composition, reworking them slightly in Photoshop CC if necessary. Usually I like to keep them rough, because this gives me more freedom during the colouring process. I feel restricted by perfectly clean line-art.

02. Proportions of the head and face

Practise getting your facial proportions right

It's important to be aware of the proportions of a human face. Of course, they're only guides – everyone has a different face shape that doesn't necessarily meet the beauty standard – but it's essential to know these rules, if you're going to play by them and break them. I recommend practising with facial proportions, until it almost becomes instinctual to apply them to a portrait piece. I always start with a basic oval and then slowly add the facial features, steadily building up the character's face.

03. Ensure your colour scheme is harmonious

Skin consists of a multitude of colours

Usually the biggest mistake in a portrait painting is the skin's colour: it's never either beige or black. Skin comprises a multitude of colours, from pale blue around the eye, pink, to hints of yellow for the mouth's corners. I start painting with very few colours, and progressively add more hues. I save my colour palette in a corner of the illustration so that  they're always on hand. To avoid a muddy look, I avoid using pure black or white. Instead, I increase the saturation to the colour I using for the shadows.

04. Develop a dynamic composition

Composition and placement can make things more dynamic

The composition and placement of the character in the illustration is essential for introducing dynamism to the painting. I always try to imply a slight torso movement, which avoids a straight and boring posture. Placing the character's face in the centre is a classic approach and works well, but I also like to nudge the character towards a corner of the image to add a little originality, and free up space in the scene. I find that slightly tilting the character's head helps to add visual interest and life to an image.

05. Working the background

A relatively plain background helps avoid distractions

The background can also help give more impact to the portrait. I don't like to overload it with details, preferring instead to leave it relatively plain to avoid any unnecessary visual distractions. I usually add subtle texture and a gradient to avoid a flat, lifeless look. Another alternative is to add blurred elements, such as a forest or a building, to give the character context and hint at their story.

06. Introduce realistic details

Little details can add realism and help tell your story

Small details such as veins or beauty dots won't be immediately apparent, but will give the last touches of texture and realism to portraits. These can also tell a story: for example, exposed veins can be useful for depicting a vampire or a person who's ill. I generally use the same brush to create these details: a very fine brush that allows for precise work. I slightly blur the brushstrokes' extremities, to unify and soften the details.

07. Emphasise key facial elements

Concentrate on detailing the areas you want to draw attention to

It's easy to get lost in the details, even in an intimate portrait piece. To avoid this and save time I don't detail the entire illustration, instead only working up the areas that I want to draw attention to. For a portrait the most obvious area are the eyes, but depending on the lighting and the story I want to tell I can add a second focal point, usually a key costume element.

08. Eye contact

Eye contact will always grab the viewer's attention

Even in the busiest of compositions, a face will always catch the viewer's attention. And to make the face even more powerful and striking, ensuring strong eye contact remains the most effective trick. The viewer is instantly connected with the character. It's an effect that I use a lot in my portraits… perhaps a little too much! But I also love to play with more subtle glances, which are less direct and help to develop a sense of mystery, raising questions in the viewer's mind.

09. Paint appealing lips

Dots of bright light can make lips come to life

Lips are an important facial feature. They draw attention as much as the eyes do, and help the character to express emotion. To get them right it's just a matter of texture. Lips aren't a flat, plain element: I paint the little wrinkles with a very thin brush, which gives them texture and a lot of volume. Indeed, volume is the key to bring life to the lips, so I always add some intense dots of light to make them more realistic and attract even more attention.

10. Take the profile approach

Emphasise details in profile, to make up for the lack of facial features

Developing a character's profile is tricky because there's no eye contact to play with and only half of the face to show. I use light and contrast to compensate for the lack of interaction with the character, and enhance the costume design to hold the viewer's attention. Here, the figure's hair does almost everything: it defines her head shape and contrasts well with the bright, empty background.

11. Captivating eyes

Use light and saturation to help eyes stand out

The eyes are usually the main part of a portrait, and are my favourite element. They can look sad, sparkling, mysterious or dangerous… and done well, can bring any character to life. I like to give them a lot of intensity with unusual colours such as purple or yellow. The trick to make them stand out is to play with the light and saturation. I use a precise brush to create some colours variations in the eye and finish it a bright dot of light that will give volume to the eyeball.

12. Storytelling

There are plenty of ways to sow a portrait with hints of a story

A portrait leaves very little space to tell a story, so the general style of the character is important and can give a lot of indications and information about their life. I try to pay special care to their clothing, even if the viewer can only see a small part of it. I also spend time on their hair and details like a crown, to give the maximum amount of visual information. Their story can also be told by elements on the skin, like a tattoo, a scar or tribal markings.

13. Good lighting

Get your lighting right and you'll add life and atmosphere to your work

The light is crucial in a portrait. If you get this right, it adds to the atmosphere of the piece, and brings life and volume to the face. I always start a portrait with neutral mid-tones and gradually add shadows and light. I love to accentuate the light in a chiaroscuro style; I think it brings a classic feeling to my fantasy theme. However, I keep my shadows very soft, and my gradients are usually very smoothed, because the face is made of curves and not sharp angles.

14. Skin texture

Flawless skin looks fake; work in some blemishes and irregularities

The skin is obviously an important element in a portrait painting, and a common mistake is to make it look flawless. It's relatively simple to paint clean, soft-looking skin, but if you're not careful your character will end up looking like a plastic doll, and besides nobody has perfect skin. To avoid this, I start with a textured base and use a soft brush with a little grain texture to recreate the skin's irregularities. I also add some dots of light to create pores, particularly on the nose and around the eyes.

15. Play with contrast

Contrast helps to draw your character out from the background

Another trick that works very well is to add contrast to the composition. I achieve this by adjusting the lighting, playing with complementary colours, or using warm and cold hues. The trick is to separate the character from the background. My favourite approach is to use a very dark background and an unusual light source to illuminate the character. The light captures the viewer's initial attention, who then moves on to my character portrait.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 138; buy it here!


Mélanie Delon is a freelance illustrator who specialises in fantasy. She divides her time between working for different publishing houses and creating her own artworks.