The human portrait remains one of the most challenging and rewarding of artistic pursuits. Getting an accurate image down is hard enough, then there’s getting the LIFE into it. To those not privy to the process, a successful finished portrait seems like a miracle, a treasured object full of emotion and magic.

Certainly accurate observational painting is needed for getting the underlying structure right. Then there’s connecting with the sitter and going beyond surface in search of the “true self” of your subject. Finally, a pinch or two of creative daring helps capture life-like freshness and sparkle.

The following four artists take us behind the magic and explain their unique take on these and other skills in their own words.

Oil painter Katie Swatland acknowledges that our own physical construction is one of the purest and most complex problems for the painter modeling three dimensions in two-dimensional space. In The Underlying Structure of Figurative Art, along with step-by-step photos of how she builds the portrait, she breaks down the underlying process into the skill of good observation, the ability to convey the three-dimensionality of form convincingly, and the cultivation of edge, color and value sensitivity. All stem, she writes, from that crucial understanding of the nature of the underlying structure.

Watercolor artist Karisa Keasey believes that knowing the person you paint changes the way you paint them. In “When You Can’t Go Home: Portraits of Refugees in the Pacific Northwest,” she explains how she adjusts composition, color, foreground, and background to go beyond stereotypes and show a more complete picture of one’s story when painting portraits.

And just to change things up, multimedia artist Justin Hopkins writes about how painting portraits with other painters forces you to be more adventurous and ambitious than you may otherwise have been when working for a client or developing a series for a gallery – skills you can draw upon with a bit more confidence when the pressure’s back on. In On Painting and Collaboration, he writes about a project he undertook with two other artists who added and subtracted from the same composition to create a new and unplanned result.

Portrait painter Rose Frantzen in this video breaks down her process in step-by-step detial, detailing how to load brushstrokes with emotion,  how to connect to your sitter, and how to wed likeness to the creative beauty sitters love to see, along with many other aspects of her craft.