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How to Draw Portraits

How to Draw Portraits main article image
Posted on August 5, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby
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Drawing a portrait takes a bit of time, practice, and expanding on your focus to build this skill. With some direction and patience, you can create a portrait using a long-form method that will have you focusing on different areas of the face to make sure you’re as accurate as possible. A longer form of practice requires pacing and planning, going as slow as you can, and sticking to the steps. It is important to focus on different segments at a time than rush through and neglect areas. This article will go through all the steps on how to create a portrait with great care, focus, and detail. 

When you look at a portrait, especially a photo, it is the face and head as a whole. The same idea applies to a drawing, but you’ll be creating the head and face with a pencil on paper. It can seem daunting to keep a drawn portrait looking natural, but when it comes to putting the pencil on paper, avoid hard outlines and erase any lines you have used to help construct the shape and detail of the face. Working with a light touch and adding layers will benefit the entire look of the drawing. What you get in the end is a tight, clean drawing with some creative marks, like detail to hair for an even more realistic style. 

Materials Needed for Portrait Drawing

  • Pencils in various sizes – HB, 2B, 4B, 6B, 7B and 8B
  • Heavyweight drawing paper
  • Kneaded eraser, gum eraser, pink eraser
  • Blending stump, also known as a tortillon

Start Planning Your Portrait With Thumbnails

Just like any first step of a long effort in art, you need to plan. Take a few minutes to sketch out rough ideas of what the portrait will look like. It will help you with the proper placement of features and will relieve some of the stress of trying to get it right when starting the drawing. Try planning out a few thumbnails on a sheet of paper to structure the pose and where to place the head.

Plan Out the Head

When it comes to drawing portraits, consider the space around the head. Use an HB pencil and work with light lines so you can adjust or erase them to fix proportions later on. Refer to the thumbnail sketches to evaluate the overall shape. Make lines on the shape that create the center and spaces marked out for eye, nose, and mouth. This can be done when considering the area below the hairline and splitting the face shape into thirds for the eyebrows, nose, mouth, and chin. 

Start Making the Initial Drawing

When the general form is created as your guideline, meaning you have your lines in place for features, work on the facial details and draw out the general shape of the head. Continue using an HB pencil, which is harder but allows you to work with steady lines and a light hand for easy erasure of unnecessary lines. 

The Introduction of Tone

Once you have the lines and structure down, you can add the first layer of tone to the drawing. Start by drawing the broad shapes for the shadows on the skin behind the head. Hair has depth and darkness apart from skin tone, so it has its own tonal shape. You can use a 2B pencil here, which allows darker lines to be made without pressing hard on the pencil. Always keep a light hand. 

Work on Shadows

Working with graphite pencils is great because depending on your hand pressure and pencil graphite sizes, you can go from light to dark. When working on shadows, use a 4B pencil, which is softer for increased shading and broader marks. 

The softer the pencil, the darker the mark they can make and benefit from being layered and built up from lighter shades of graphite. Even though you are working on shadows now and want to emphasize darkness, hold off on using 7B or 8B pencils until the end. 

Go Back to the Eyes

Time to work on the features. After shadows are worked in, add a layer of directional marks with the tip of the pencil. Use 2B and 4B pencils to build up the shape and form of the eyelids and socket. These are made with very fine lines, so make sure you are drawing with sharp pencils. The darkest areas of the eyes, including the pupil, are made by layering a 6B pencil. 

Shaping and Developing the Nose

The nose is made out of rounded forms and has no hard edges. You don’t need to create any outlines. The bridge of the nose is made up of shadows along the rounded surface. The side of the nose is seen as lighter as it is usually facing a light source. Highlights are made on the nostrils by adding gentle shading and add shading on the shadow side of the nose. 

Working on the Mouth

The mouth is made up of soft and rounded forms. Make pencil marks that follow the direction of the lips curves, including an angled-down upper lip and an angled upward lower lip. Outside of the lips, the edges are soft and the outline of the lips is part of the shadows that are drawn in. 

Drawing Ears

When it comes to drawing the ears, balance simple lines to create an absolute portrayal. There is a middle ground between a messy-looking ear and one that is incredibly detailed that it offsets the entire drawing. The ear is quite a detailed feature as it is so focused on shadow shapes, but also doesn’t make the shadows too dark. 

Adding Hair

Drawing hair requires patience. If the hair is obviously darker than the skin tone, layer up on the pencil. With this, you can use a 4B. Allow marks to follow the direction of the hair and form toned areas rather than drawing individual hairs. For larger dark areas, smudge the graphite with the blending stump, also known as a tortillon into the paper. Then, you can add another layer of the pencil using a 6B. 

Creating Context in the Drawing

Adding a neck or shoulders supports the rest of the portrait. Add enough that there is a shape. Build tone, blend and create a shadow that shows your subject whether it is a bare shoulder or part of the clothing they are wearing. 

Final Details

Use softer pencils to push out the details of the features. Use the stump to blend the lower layers of the eye. Use a 7B pencil to push darker colors. Add a layer of 8B to darken the pupil completely. Darken eyebrows, eyelashes, and nostrils with a 7B pencil. 

Give the portrait a look for any areas that need to be fixed, add extra tones, merge shadows, and add any softness where the hair meets the skin. 

For further instruction and advice, this video will help you with the process. 


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