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How to Sketch People II: Child's Face

Updated on August 20, 2009

Portrait of my Granddaughter

Portrait of Sascha, 3" x 4" 9B graphite pencil on Moleskine journal paper by Robert A. Sloan
Portrait of Sascha, 3" x 4" 9B graphite pencil on Moleskine journal paper by Robert A. Sloan

A Difficult Photo Reference

This is the third time I've drawn Sascha from this photo reference. I took it on a sunny afternoon while we lived in Kansas. She was sitting in a velvet armchair in my room and enjoyed posing. She made faces, did different things, knew she was getting her picture taken and mugged for it. The photo came out charming. 

I loved her expression in it and her face was definitely the focal point, large enough to draw from. So naturally when I hosted a Weekend Drawing Event on, I included what I thought was a great shot of my granddaughter. Like some of the other photos I posted, I had used my phone camera.

Children and cats respond better to the phone camera without flash than they do to my regular digital camera and I'm more likely to have it handy when they look good. So the first part of this tutorial is about taking the photo.

Take lots of them. Try to get different expressions. Try to get a 3/4 view or full face without flash. Use side lighting for good modeling shadows that help give depth to the face, that's more flattering than flash. Flash from directly in front of the subject is why your driver's license photo looks so lousy compared to a good one from a photographer.

If you are new to doing portraits, then read this, try taking some reference photos of your own child. Then instead of using those, use one of the kid's school photos taken by a professional. 

Draw from one of the big prints. The bigger it is, the easier it'll be to measure things like nose length and eye width, place features accurately by measuring to the top edge or side of the picture and otherwise get the proportions well. I did portraits in New Orleans sometimes working from driver's license photos -- but that was after I'd done hundreds of life drawings of people. If you're just starting out, cut yourself some slack and use a photo created to look good by a photographer who knows what they're doing.

If the school photo has a look of glassy-eyed terror and isn't cute, then take the kid to Glamour Shots and get that photographer working on doing a flattering photo.

I am not kidding. Most beginner artists aren't great photographers either. If you are, you're halfway there to being a good artist and I don't have to teach you as much about composition, lighting, balance and focal points. I'll put all that stuff in anyway for benefit of those who aren't. 

Make life easy for yourself. I thought this reference was so charming and delightful, but when I posted it for a challenge, professionals who get paid in three or four figures for their portraits were having trouble getting her likeness from it. I'm going to post the photo anyway. Just be warned -- if you try to draw from this, don't be surprised if it takes half a dozen tries and still gives you problems.

The Wickedly Difficult Photo Reference

Author's granddaughter Sascha, being adorably difficult to draw well! Photo by Robert A. Sloan.
Author's granddaughter Sascha, being adorably difficult to draw well! Photo by Robert A. Sloan.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

Some of what makes this reference so tough is that she's leaning on her hand. She's pushing one side of her mouth up, squinching up her eye on that side and puffing out her cheek on that side. That's difficult to convey. The shapes of her eyes don't match, mouth is at an odd slant and everything on that side has a different expression.

Of course since she was comfortable and happy, this doesn't change the charm of the pose. Just makes her very difficult to draw from this reference! Another difficulty is that her head is tilted. Her eyes aren't on a line with each other that's horizontal, the eye line is curved around her head and slanting. Her arm is very foreshortened because it's jutting forward leaning on the arm of the chair. 

Children's heads are very large in relation to their bodies. Their eyes are very large in relation to their faces. They still fall on the midline of the head though, up and down. That's a proportion that isn't intuitive. I was one of most artists who as beginners, shortened foreheads to practically nothing and forgot to put that huge domed head over the facial features.

THat's an emotional proportion. Eyes are really important. Get the eye likeness and you have the likeness and expression, second only to the mouth. A famous painter once defined a portrait as "A picture of a person's face with something wrong with the mouth."

Other than eyebrows, which are close to the eyes, foreheads aren't expressive. Even covered with hair they tend to get shrunk by emotional rendering. So measure accurately from the top of the head in any reference of a person, child or adult. 

That's another way this photo's tricky -- the top of her head is cut off. That works in terms of composition but it makes it hard to follow the curve of her hair to the natural rounded shape of her head. I didn't have as much problems with that on this one but some beginners have.

So follow my steps and use a photo of your own grandchild or kid. Best case, use a school photo so it's done well by a professional photographer.

I showed my previous watercolor attempts to Kitten, her mom. Both times I got "Nice painting of a little girl but that's not my daughter." Ow ow. So we will use the Mom Test on this picture in its pre-final stages to see what can be done to get the likeness right. If you are the mom, then use the Dad Test or Grandparent Test -- get someone who loves the child, knows that little face very well and isn't the person who drew it. 

Even a mom may be too close to her own drawing to tell if something's off, but someone else who loves the child will often be able to see exactly what's wrong.

So let's start with the first stage after choosing a good photo -- decent expression, head not at a tilt, good lighting from the side, large print, not leaning on a hand and mouth closed. Mouth-open smiles are difficult and deserve their own Hub, so for an easy reference get one smiling with the mouth closed.

The first stage is Blocking In. Sketch the basic shapes of your picture and get the proportions right by measuring them.

Blocking In

Sascha's portrait blocked in.
Sascha's portrait blocked in.

Materials Needed

Materials Needed:

1. A good photo of your child. Or of a child you know, like and want to do the portrait.

2. A soft graphite pencil, preferably a 4B or higher number B grade graphite pencil. If not, an HB pencil will do but it'll be harder to scan and harder to get dark values.

3. A kneaded eraser, also called a putty eraser. It's gray and rectangular but squishes like Silly Putty after you open it. This is an artist's best friend and an excuse to play with adult version Silly Putty when you can't think of what to do next. To use it, press gently against the area you want to lighten and peel it off. Don't rub until you've lifted as much as you can by pressing and peeling, the rubbing can abrade the paper or smear graphite around if you don't get most of it off first. 

4. Drawing paper can be any sketchbook or drawing pad. Don't use shiny plate surface Bristol or poster board because pencil doesn't stick to that well. Try the paper and make sure you can shade easily on it. Printer paper actually does work, but unless it's archival printer paper you could wind up doing a beautiful drawing on something that'll yellow and fade instead of a good portrait you can keep forever. Archival cardstock makes good drawing paper too.

I used an unlined 3 1/2" x 5 1/2" Moleskine journal because I love the thin smooth paper and it has so many pages. You can get those in the larger size too. It flattens out well for scanning, unlike other hardbound sketchbooks. If you get a hardback sketchbook, try to get one of the spiral bound ones so it does lay flat for scanning. It helps morale to post your art projects online at and/or on your blog, your MySpace, your Facebook and so on.

Blocking In

Rapidly sketch the basic shapes of the portrait. Pay attention to proportions. Choose something like the width of her wrist where it's narrowest or head width or length as a measure to get the proportions of everything else right. Draw lightly so that you can erase.

Be sure to get the angle of the ovals right, head tilted and hand tilted the opposite direction. Sketch out triangles or rectangles or circles for any area that stands out, including areas of dark shadow like that triangle at the bottom that's a shadow area on her striped shirt. 

The better you get the proportions on the blocking in stage, the more likely you will get the proportions on the portrait right. I placed the eye height correctly on this. The midline of the face is a little off center because she's got her head just a little turned, like a 7/8ths view in my reference -- another thing about the pose that made her difficult to draw for artists used to full face or 3/4 views. 

The eye guideline is halfway down the face unless the person has an unusually low or high forehead. Even then it'll be close to that. The sketch line for the bottom of the nose is halfway from that to the chin unless the nose is long or short. The line for where the lips meet is halfway between the bottom of the nose and underside of the chin. Those are basic human proportions.

How wide or narrow the head is will show up in the blocking-in stage. Faces have general types. I think this comes up in classes on fashion too, I remember a piece of homework a girl did in grade school that had face shapes on it -- round oval, oval, long oval, square, triangular, heart shaped and so on. The overall face shape is an important element of the likeness.

Of course I got it wrong on my previous watercolor attempts because I was working from a tough reference and stupidly didn't block in before I painted because I don't like graphite lines under watercolor. Tip for watercolorists: Block in using a watercolor pencil that's a light version of a color close to your final skin tone. This will seriously help proportions on portraits.

Don't worry if you need to try the blocking-in sketch more than once. It doesn't take long doing one of these and you can keep trying until all the basic shapes have the right proportions. It'll save hours of work doing all the details and then finding out you don't have the likeness because the face is too short and round, like I did. 

Remember, this is the one that worked... always block in if you're having trouble!

Something Wrong with the Mouth

Version subjected to the "Mom Test."
Version subjected to the "Mom Test."

The Mom Test

"This is better, much better," Kitten commented. She looked at it critically. "The mouth is too large."

"Is it too wide or too deep up and down?" I asked.

"A bit of both. It's too large."

"Well, I think it's probably only a line width or so, I'll go up and change it. I didn't use fixative yet because I knew you'd have some good suggestions."

"It's only a line width up and down. To the side it's more. Remember that her lip gets pushed up where her hand is. At that age a kid's mouth is square, lips aren't that deep and full."

These are some of the ten million reasons I love my daughter. She is actually an art editor. She does this to my novels too sometimes and her critique is gold. Once she explained these things, I went back up to my drawing table under my good Daylight lamp, studied the reference and erased the mouth preparing to fix the portrait.

This is why to use a kneaded eraser. It's important when you erase a feature like that to be able to still draw over where it was and not rough up the paper texture to create unwanted darks and weird marks from loose paper fibers.

After Erasing the Mouth

Most of the mouth erased with kneaded eraser before redrawing it.
Most of the mouth erased with kneaded eraser before redrawing it.

Erasing a Feature

Use a kneaded eraser. 

Form part of it into a little pointed cone. Press that down right at the center of the area you want to remove -- in this case the corner of the mouth -- then squish it down hard. Peel it off.

Repeat about a dozen times till it is very light. Then shape it like that again and gently rub till the last of the graphite is gone from the removed area. I left some of the mouth near the hand because I could see that I had gotten the lip pushed up on the side right.

This erased expression created a cute pout that I was tempted to keep for itself. The point of this was to do a portrait of Sascha though, not of some pouting French girl even if that's pretty. I do think it's cute.

If you have removed as much as possible with the kneaded eraser, need to get it back to white and it still isn't, use the corner of a soft white vinyl or plastic eraser to get into the last bits and remove them. The stick erasers that come with a click barrel are good for going into small areas to remove just a detail of a feature. But definitely use the kneaded eraser first since too much graphite on the surface will just be pushed around and worse, ground into the paper so it's harder to remove.

Final Version -- Eyes and Mouth

#24 of 30 in 30 Days

#24 for my 30 Hubs in 30 Days Challenge. I started on July 25th so I now have only six left to do by the end of August 24th.
#24 for my 30 Hubs in 30 Days Challenge. I started on July 25th so I now have only six left to do by the end of August 24th.

Final Changes -- best version so far!

I carefully redrew the mouth, mindful of what she said about its proportions. I carefully measured again on the photo to see where the corner of the mouth fell in relation to her eye. You can do this by laying a ruler vertical against the photo or the screen -- as long as it's true upright you can use the corner of the eye as a reference for where the corner of the mouth falls. It isn't always going to match, but it can show you where along the eye that corner of the mouth goes.

I shaded the mouth a bit too dark and then lightened it by blobbing with the kneaded eraser again, just tapping with a squeezed-small point to lighten it without removing it. I redid the line between the lips to get that stronger than the value of the lips themselves. I redid the corner of her mouth by her hand because it needed to be more obvious that she was pushing it up.

Then Kitten came upstairs and I showed her the corrections while the reference was open on the screen. She looked close.

"Better, much better. There's something else..." 

She studied it for a while. "This eye is more open. The near eye. And her eyebrow is more straight across, not as curved."

"Thank you."

I erased the upper lid of the near eye the same way I did the mouth. I could see the lower lid and the shading under it were accurate and that lifting the upper lid to change the expression is what people actually do when it's a matter of whether your eye is more open or not. Lower lids don't move as much as upper lids.

I moved the upper lid up one line width, removed the eyebrow entirely and redid it after I got the eyelid in. It almost touches the eyelid, the shadow area under the eyebrow does touch the shadowed area where the eyelid is recessed. So getting that right made the portrait snap.

I'd gotten the likeness. I could see that it's Sascha. I'm not 100% sure I captured her expression exactly, but that's my granddaughter and I've finally gotten the Really Hard Reference Photo right in one medium.

Next step is a few more sketches before blocking in and trying it again with watercolor in my watercolor journal. Though I may want to warm up by drawing her from easier photos first!

Try this at home -- with your own most loved child and an easy photo. School pictures are absolutely the best to work from because photographers work hard to make them flattering and you can get nice large prints. Try doing it in charcoal as well as soft pencil, the same processes apply and kneaded erasers remove charcoal as easily as pencil. 



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    • susansisk profile image

      Susan Sisk 

      5 years ago from Georgia, USA

      This is great! Very useful tips.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      very tough drawing

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you both!

    • nikki1 profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanx for the tips. I love drawing.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Very good lesson! The final work is not bad at all.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Oh that's cool! Definitely try an easy one like a graduation photo, it helps so much.

      Writing rocks as a way to bring in income without having to put up with the stresses of things like retail sales. It's making it possible for me to go back to being self employed instead of just living on my day job as a cripple. I hope to become a taxpayer again.

    • skye2day profile image


      10 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Hi Robert Thank you for taking your time to teach others. You are a blessing. Your grandaughter is a cutie, big times.My father was an artist, medium pencil, he favored sketching people. My oldest daugher is an artist, medium oils and pencil, she favors people scetching as well. I am a hair and garden artist with writing in the works. Always a work in progress. I am going to try sketching a photo with your instructions. It will be fun. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my attraction marketing hub. I am in agreement with you, you have to have a passion for what you may be selling. I just know through my experience of desperation to earn income God led me to writing. I love to write. I love to give and live and live to give. God is my provision he will put in my path what he placed on my heart and will bless me. I am grateful for hub pages. It has changed my life. i have grown. Robert God Bless you for serving and for your honesty. Your friend.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks for a good topic idea, thesleepingman! I'll do one on hatching and crosshatching. It's tricky getting it right and you will often only get dark to medium values with hatching and crosshatching since it can look bad in lighter values without some specific tricks... I'll write that up as its own Hub.

    • thesleepingman profile image


      10 years ago

      I really like this hub. Im a fan of the pencil sketch, art has always been a hobby of mine since I was a toddler. Anyway my question is do you have any tips for hatching? For some reason I always manage to ruin my drawings because my shaded areas are too dark, or too light and I always fail trying to get it right.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks for mentioning that! I should probably do a Hub on how to draw teeth! They're very tough. Smiles that show teeth are the hardest thing to draw. If you get him to pose, ask him to keep his lips closed. Then get a good photo reference with side lighting.

      There are ways to get teeth to look natural but it's not intuitive. I'll write that up soon. Thanks for the idea!

    • Ms Chievous profile image


      10 years ago from Wv

      I enjoyed the tips about blocking in.. I have always tried to draw my son but I had a hard time with the mouth.. especially if he smiles and shows his teeth.. then it is just a mess. Maybe your tips will help me solve that problem.. great hub!


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