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How to Draw People

Updated on October 13, 2011

What is this page for?

I love to draw. I'm not an expert at it, but I know that it's something I enjoy.

People are what I especially love to draw because I love people and the challenge of portraying their personality along with their physical features. People vary so much in every feature and I love trying the different combinations of noses, eyes, smiles, and so on.

Graphite and charcoal are my media of choice. I can't paint for crap, unfortunately, so I do what I can with dry media. I also love the look of black and white; I think it adds drama and highlights the subject's basic features. I rarely ever use colour because I think it ruins the look of the picture.

I love how flexible drawing is; if there's something that bothers you about a person you can draw them and change whatever you want.

Below are my attempts to explain the way I draw because, while they will not be of use to everyone, a few tips here and there might fill in the gaps for those who can't quite get what they want out of a portrait. There are also a few samples of my drawings to reference.

General's charcoal pencils
General's charcoal pencils
Strathmore Charcoal pad
Strathmore Charcoal pad

Materials I use

I like to use graphite and charcoal pencils because I think they're the easiest for me to manage. Personally my favourite pencils are the silly party favour pencils with the shiny embossed designs and coloured erasers; I like the way they sharpen and how solid the lines are. It's also easy to erase.

For charcoal pencils I use General's mediums and softs. Mostly I use the medium because I like the way it shows up on the paper and it's easier to blend. Charcoal is nice to use because you get good, stark lines that make for good contrast; it really shows up well on paper. However, I find myself using it less often because 1) it gets awfully messy, and 2) it's harder for me to control... it doesn't stay sharp as long and it the tip is usually wider than I'd prefer because I can't get the detail I want.

While I use the pencils at the ends of my cheap pencils sometimes, I also like to use a separate eraser for blending and major mess ups. I like gum erasers best, but the white normal kind works too.

As far as paper, I use Strathmore, either the Charcoal pad or Drawing. The drawing pad is best with pencil. The Charcoal pad is slightly textured more than the Drawing, creating a nifty effect when smearing the charcoal. You can use the Drawing pad with charcoal too, as I did with the Ziyi Zhang portrait (from People magazine) below.

To seal the charcoal onto the paper (so it doesn't rub off as easily) I use hairspray. Any kind works, so I usually use the cheap kinds.

People Magazine and other similar publications are great to obtain reference photos from because they often include feature sections such as "100 Hottest Bachelors" with close-up pictures of people. Also, teen magazines are ideal with their make-up ads featuring airbrushed models that make for smooth drawing.

Ziyi Zhang, Chinese actress
Ziyi Zhang, Chinese actress
Kasey Kahne, racecar driver
Kasey Kahne, racecar driver
Supposedly Rachel McAdams from "The Notebook"
Supposedly Rachel McAdams from "The Notebook"
From a hair product ad
From a hair product ad
Stacey Farber from "Degrassi"
Stacey Farber from "Degrassi"

My drawing process

While it's nice to experiment every once in a while, I like to stick with the same method and improve upon it.

I almost always draw portraits of people (which include mainly the face) because there is so much that a face shows of a person. I think it's also the most difficult part of a person to draw. Every feature differs so much from one to another; noses, eyes, everything is different. Get one thing out of proportion or forget a line here and there and the portrait can look like it's of a completely different person.

This is the order in which I draw a portrait, as far as features go:

1. Eyes. Start with the basic outline of both eyes (this way you can see if the eyes are proportioned correctly beside each other before you get too far; it's really easy to draw eyes too close to or too far from each other). Add the crease over both of the eyes (if there are creases; some people don't have them), then the eyebrows (eyebrows are just a lot of lines beside each other), then pupils and the irises, then eyelashes. Don't forget to define the eyelids as they touch the eye, as you can see in the Kasey Kahne portrait to the right (especially his right eyelid). From there you can shade around the eyes. This depends on the lighting. You can shade under the eye, around the top between the eye and the eyebrow, and around the temple. Shading involves using your finger (that's what I do, anyway, because you have more control); you can add more graphite/charcoal if rubbing removes a lot of the media. Also, you can use the eraser to define or blend.

2. Nose. This comes right after the eyes because the shading around the eyes usually helps define the shape of the nose. I lightly outline the nose, then add the little curve at the bottom middle of the nose, curve those out on either side to make the shape of the nostrils, then add the curves on either side of the nostrils that make the shape of the bottom of the nose. Drawing the nose involves a lot of shading; other than at the bottom and the sides there are few hard lines. Depending on the lighting there can be a lot or a little shading, just like the eyes. Usually the very tip of the nose is light, where the light would be shining on it.

3. Mouth. I like to start the mouth by making dots where the ends of the mouth will be. Then I draw out the lips (the top one is usually darker). Don't forget about the vertical, subtle lines in the lips; usually they're not hard but rather faint. There is also the little trench sort of thing between the top lip and the bottom of the nose. And depending on how hard they're smiling, there may be lines around the mouth. These can be hard or soft, depending on the person. When drawing teeth, be careful because if the lines between the teeth are too hard you can make the person look like an idiot. And of course, shade around the mouth, beneath the bottom lip, around the teeth, at the bottoms of each lip, and so on.

4. Outline of the face. This helps make the person look more finished, by defining the shape of their face and encasing the facial features. Around the eyes the shape curves inward, then curves back out around the cheekbones, straight or curves out around the cheeks, out at the jaw, and in at the chin. Shading is fun here because there can be a lot, and it can really define how the person looks. There is often a lot at the bottom of the cheeks, around the jaw and the temples.

5. Ears. I never pay too much attention to the ears, but they're weird because there is so much detail here. The curves of the inside of the ear depend on the person but generally are of the same idea.

6. Hair. This is one of my favourite parts. It's usually a lot of lines beside each other, like with the eyelashes. At the top of the head I make few lines or make them more faint where the light would usually be shining, and closer and/or darker where shadows would be. Where the hair meets the head you can either make pretty vertical lines if the hair flares up or just start drawing hair using downward lines if the hair just falls down. Curls and waves are fun, as seen in the picture of Rachel McAdams to the right; use the same idea of more and/or darker lines where there'd be shadow and fewer/lighter where light would shine.

7. Neck and anything else. This can include the collar of shirts, necklaces, etc. Usually I add a little more so it's not just a floating head on the page, but I don't really care about more than the face anyway, so this part isn't very important to me.


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