Sketching Portraits

A sketch is not a finished drawing. The purpose of sketching anything is to capture the moment while it's there, or to record a visual idea which might be developed more fully later. The sketching process tends to be rapid, and the speed of drawing brings its own character to the work. Sketches aren't meant to be detailed, accurate studies; they're impressions.

Sketch books come in all shapes and sizes, of course, but I tend to favour the smaller ones as they can be carried in a jacket pocket or shoulder-bag, or they can sit amongst a pile of novels next to a cup of tea where they're within easy reach. All that's required is to find a blank page and something to draw with.

Usually, I use an ink pen. Again, this is partially for convenience. There's no need to sharpen it, unlike with a pencil, and it won't spread sooty fingerprints over the furniture unlike charcoal. Charcoal is a lovely medium to work with in the studio, but in an armchair in front of the TV it can be a menace - and this is where I tend to do most of my sketching these-days.

Self-portrait; charcoal on a watercolour background.
Self-portrait; charcoal on a watercolour background.
Pen and ink.
Pen and ink.
Sketches don't have to be serious. This ink drawing pokes fun at hubby's taste in music.
Sketches don't have to be serious. This ink drawing pokes fun at hubby's taste in music.

Sketchers Check List

Here is a simple list of items which can be used for sketching. Not all these items will be needed - just choose the ones you like to work with.

  • paper
  • sketch pad
  • pencil
  • ink pen
  • charcoal
  • felt tips
  • crayon
  • paint
  • oil pastels
  • chalks

A corner of the painting studio, from my art school days.  Ink on cartridge paper.
A corner of the painting studio, from my art school days. Ink on cartridge paper.
Rapid portrait done with a felt pen.
Rapid portrait done with a felt pen.
Flight of Fantasy.  Ink and watercolour.
Flight of Fantasy. Ink and watercolour.

Learn How to Sketch!

There are countless 'how to' books on the subject of how to draw, and while these can offer useful guides the best teacher is yourself. To learn to draw, draw. Practice then practice some more, and over time you will get better. Take a course if you wish, or join an art club, but real progress will only come from your own sustained effort.

There is no need to spend much money, especially at first. If you are new to sketching, invest in an economical A4-size sketch-pad and a 6B pencil, and that is all. You can easily widen your choice of materials later.

Don't be put off if your first efforts are weak. Everybody's are! You will learn as much, if not more, from mistakes as you will from successes.

What Should I Draw?

Sketch anything! Look around your room as if you've never seen it before, and draw the first thing which catches your attention. If the weather is good, go outside and sketch in the garden or local park. If the weather is against this, take a few items from your fruit bowl or vegetable rack and draw these. Or draw your jacket draped over the back of a chair. Sketch your own face in a mirror. Perhaps you would prefer to let your fantasy take flight, and sketch whatever comes to mind. The subjects you can sketch are limited only by your imagination.

Portrait in ink.
Portrait in ink.

Heavy Tones or Light Lines

A comparison of the sketches immediately above and below show how different sketching techniques give very different results.

The portrait above is heavily shaded, with deep shadows and a highly textured look created by multiple crossing lines.

The portrait below is minimal in detail, and uses only the lightest of rapid lines.

Both sketches were created using the same ink pen, and on similar paper.

Experiment with light and shadow, soft lines and heavy shading, and discover for yourself which you like to use in different contexts.

Minimalist self-portrait in ink.
Minimalist self-portrait in ink.


Self-portrait in ink and graphite.
Self-portrait in ink and graphite.


An art student once asked why so many artists create self-portraits. The tutor replied by saying mirrors don't charge for their services!

If you can't find a model, look in a mirror.

It can be fun to build up a collection of diverse self-portraits, using different materials and approaches to drawing. Feel free to experiment with facial expressions, poses, hair styles and backgrounds. Try adding personal touches which convey a sense of personality rather than just a set of features.

Most important of all, have fun with it.

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© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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Comments & Captions (for the above cartoon) 6 comments

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

Thanks for sharing these, Adele! You are inspiring me to get a sketchbook and have a go!

BTW I well remember a comic sketch you once did of me and you "watching videos" and a speech bubble saying "they don't do much do they?" I think it was at a time I was having problems watching videos because either I didn't have a player or it was broken! lol

AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

AdeleCosgroveBray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England. Author

I'd completely forgotten about that, Steve! That must be twenty years ago, or thereabouts...!

Anyway, I hope you do get yourself a sketch pad and have a go. It's fun!

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

What......Closing Time already? Now where did I put my car keys?

Suggested caption for your cartoon. You are a talented sketcher!

AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

AdeleCosgroveBray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England. Author

A good suggestion, Peggy!

Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 6 years ago from Australia

A nice collection here. I will follow you. You have inspired me to do an art hub soon.

AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

AdeleCosgroveBray 6 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England. Author

I'll look forward to viewing it, Manna.

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