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Drawing Portraits: an effective technique

Updated on November 15, 2009

Drawing portraits is a tough art. That's why you need a bit of guidance and today I am here exactly for this reason. We are going today to focus on drawing (and eventually painting) portraits from a picture.

So we will learn how to grid the picture to sample proportions and how to scale the proportions to the final size we want to render the portrait. Finally we will venture briefly into a technique to digitally paint the portrait to render it up to a semi finished state.

You should know, drawing a portrait it's not just about getting the proportions of the face of the subject right but, believe me, that alone helps a lot. That's why we'll focus in this tutorial on capturing the essential proportions or elements of the face that will, at least deliver resemblance to the subject. That's the easy part, believe me. More difficult is capturing the soul of your subject, but we'll leave this argument to another tutorial.

Let's get our hands dirty with portrait drawing now! I have chosen an old picture of Sean Connery as a subject, definitely one of my favorite actors. The reason is, he has an interesting expression here, the face is at a nice angle and it's in black and white so we can concentrate on forms and not being distracted by colors.

What we are going to do now is to trace a few lines on the picture to define with precision the salient landmarks of the face in order to subsequently be able to reproduce them at the size we want.

The first grid lines are going to define the contour of the face. In this case three lines are sufficient. As you can see, chin, forehead and jaw position are captured by these lines.

You know that the face must remain within this square, an essential guide for drawing it later.

The next step will be defining the position of the eyes. In capturing the resemblance to a subject it is crucial to reproduce with fidelity certain facial features. Two of these are the relative position/distance of the eyes from each other and the positioning of the eyes on the face.

There are many ways of drawing a series of grid lines to do this however I think that the most effective consists in marking with four points the position of the corners of the eyes, exactly as I have done in the picture above.

The points give you precise geometrical info on where the eyes are. Obviously each pont needs two coordinates to have its position defined within the red rectangle, and the blue lines are there for this reason. With two coordinates you'll be able to reproduce exactly the position of these points when you scale your grid up or down.

By continuing this process you can go on marking the nose and the mouth as shown above.

You will end up eventually with something like the picture above. A perfect grid giving you the precise position of the fundamental facial features.

 If at his point you want to scale up or down the size of the grid or simply transfer the grid from the picture to a sheet of paper to start drawing the portrait you need to measure with a ruler a few things.

You need to measure each side of the rectangle and all the distances between the various points formed by the intersection of the grid lines with the rectangle sides. That's it. This is all you have to do.

Once it is done, you simply take these measurements and reconstruct the rectangle and its points on a white sheet of paper.

If you want to scale the rectangle to make the picture bigger or smaller you just multiply/divide all of these measurements by the number you want your portrait to be compared to the original picture.

Let's say you want to double it. Than you multiply the measurements by two. Do you want the portrait to be half the size of the original? Divide all the measurements by 1/2. It's that simple.

With your grid in place you have a solid foundation to start drawing the portrait. I would start from the face and go on with the rest of the features.

After defining the contour of the face you can go on with the eyes and eyebrows. I have not set points specifically for the eyebrows for two reasons. The first is that as I told you before you have the grid lines you can use as a reference and second because eyebrows are less determinant for recreating the resemblance than eyes, nose and mouth.

You want to balance ideally the intricacy of the grid and the fidelity of the drawing. A very intricate grid will warrant higher fidelity and control but the drawing will look less natural. It's really up to you.

Once you are done with the drawing you can start painting your portrait! And that's what I have got after a bit of work!!

Hope you enjoyed this tutorial!!

If you are interested to read the full version of this tutorial please visit my website here

If you also want to read more drawing tutorial browse my hub pages or visit my website The Drawing Factory and have fun drawing and painting!


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    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 

      5 years ago from Malaysia

      Another very interesting article... another UAIB! Looks like I ought to follow you, before I miss out anything! I just subscribe to The Drawing Factory newsletter.

    • rvsource profile image


      8 years ago

      Nice description using a grid. Personally I've never used a grid like this, although I like it. I have used a conventional grid using basic squares to make sure eyes and important features are exactly where they need to be.

      For me placement is a must, but shading or adding value is the second part of the masterpiece.

      Thanks again. One more tool for my chest.

      You might want to check out some of my art instructional blogs



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