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How To Draw Portraits

Updated on December 30, 2010

How to Draw Portraits: Tips for Beginners

Drawing portraits is a lot of fun in my opinion, I love trying to create an image of the person I'm looking at on my paper. I get asked a lot how to draw portraits, where did I learn how to draw portraits? And so that's what inspired this page.

I'm still a beginner portrait artist but that doesn't mean I can't throw out a few tips, and techniques I use. The tips on this page are by no means the only way to draw portraits but just my way of doing so. I hope that this page will help you out, I'll try to put some helpful information and resources here.

Picking the Right Photo to Draw From

When starting to draw a portrait the first thing I do is look for a good quality, large photo. The portraits I draw are usually of my FaceBook friends, I go through their photos, pick the best one and draw from it. It's important to pick a clear, good quality and preferably larger picture to draw from. It helps you draw a more detailed, and accurate drawing of the person. You can use a small, or blurry picture but note your portrait may not be as good as you were hoping for.

When I find a photo that works for me, and meets my size/quality requirements then it's time to move on to the next thing!

Gathering Your Art Supplies Before Hand

The next thing I do is make sure I have all my art supplies near me that I would use for this project. I don't want to be on a roll with my drawing and all the sudden realize I forgot my eraser on the other end of the house, having to get up, find it and then get back usually throws off my mood for drawing a portrait.

What you want to make sure you have depends on what you like to use to draw your portrait, everyone uses different things based on their preferences. The basics however, normally stay the same. You need your Pencils, Paper, Eraser, Some artists also use a ruler. For me, I use my mechanical 0.7 #2 pencil, my white eraser, my sketch pad, my scrap paper I keep under my hand to reduce smudging and my blending stumps, also know as tortillions.

Your needed supplies may be similar, I found It took me a few times of drawing portraits to decide what my preferred tools were, experiment with this!

What Kind of Art Supplies

What kind of art supplies are you supposed to use? Well, that all depends on the effect you are trying to get, your price range, the supplies available to you, and of course your preference.

Some artists will draw their portrait drawings completely in regular #2 pencil, like myself. Others may choose to get a set of various pencils.

Some Artists work on expensive, non yellowing, no fade sketch pad paper, others will work on printer refill paper or something similar.

Some Artists like to do their work completely in pencil, other like to use blending stumps or tortillions to give a smoother more finished look.

Like I said it all depends, look around, experiment, and try different things.. You'll find what works best for you and you'll be good to go!

Your Work Space

When drawing portraits it's important to have a clean, open, and well lit work space. However, sometimes you have to compromise. I use my desk and the extra light from my computer monitor while drawing my portraits, since the pictures I use as reference are on the computer, it works well for me. You might find something different works better for you. You can draw from pictures online or print them out. That's a personal preference.

Drawing portraits usually take a few hours at least, sometimes several hours, so make sure that where you are is comfortable for you.

Left Brain Right Brain

Okay, grab your coffee and lets get started!!

The first thing I do is check up my subject, I look for details about them that make them, look like them. Whether that's far set eyes or the type of nose they have it doesn't matter. But when drawing portraits of a specific person you have to remember to not go from what you THINK a person should look like but draw from what THAT person looks like, this isn't generic, this is brand specific!

Of of people's largest problems with drawing anything, but especially portraits is that most of us draw from images we made in our head to represent the thing we are drawing. However, these images are made while we are very young, and most of us use them as our sole guide to our drawing for the rest of our lives. Drawing is a creative activity coming from the right side of our brain. Not the left side which is the logical side of our brain. The left side will see symbols while the right side sees shapes. We want to draw from the shapes that are there not the symbols in our heads. That is very important to remember.

Some people to switch from the left side of the brain to the right side of the brain will use activities such as taking their picture and turning it upside down, now it's not a person anymore it's a series of shapes. This doesn't normally work for me personally but I hear it can work wonders!

So, study your subject, not think of what a person looks like, SEE what they look like.

Starting to Draw the Portrait

There are multiple ways you can start drawing a portrait. How I start is by filling in the basic shapes and lines, such as the shape of the head. Some people will start at one side of the drawing and draw that side and move across the drawing. I think that people who are more able to switch to the right side of their brain, seeing the shapes are more likely to draw this way as it comes easier to them, while the other part of us who still use parts of our left brain need to see the structure come together in an order that makes sense to our brains.

Experiment on what works best for you, some people will draw from one side of the drawing to the other so they don't smudge their work, people who are right handed will work from the left to right so they don't end up resting their hand on their work, vice versa for left handed people. For the people who work on the entire drawing at once, we usually put a scrap of paper under our hand to reduce smudging of the drawing we are working on.

Your New Best Friend

You want to reference back to your reference picture when drawing portrait often. Remember you are drawing from that picture, not your head.. unless of course you have awesome photographic memory!

Also, if you see a mistake, something that doesn't look right, I want you to meet one of your new best friends. Meet the eraser. Even if it feels like you will have to eraser a lot to fix the mistake it will be worth it for the finished product.

Trust me, one thing that's just slightly "off" can make a big difference, and the sooner you get to fix it the easier to be. Never be afraid of you eraser, it's your friend. Trust me. You mess up, and it's the one you can turn to that will make it all disappear!

Practice, Practice, Practice...

I draw some pretty crappy portraits from time to time. sometimes all the time! But the thing is, your going to screw up, your portraits are not going to look like your subjects... that's life, that just part of the process. You have to keep going, keep trying and keep practicing.

My Dad said something to me about two years ago now, something that pops up in my head every time I think "I'm not good enough" "I'll never get it" "I should just give up" and when he said that to me, at first I blew it off, yeah yeah yeah.. I know, but after it sunk in, it's become something I repeat to myself and keeps me going no matter how discouraged I am.

"Practice, practice, practice. Drawing and sketching every chance you get is the ONLY way to improve."

So remember that and if you need a little more inspiration, remember these:

"Work towards your goal 50% of the time and don't give up the other 50% of the time."

"Quitters never win, and Winners never quite."

More helpful quotations for me.

Ending Notes

Drawing a good portrait takes lots of practice, work, and several hours of time.

Sometimes though, we need to walk away from it and come back later, portraits that take me more then 3 hours are usually ones I do over a couple day period.

Sometimes we get so focused in on the work that we don't notice the problems until we can't fix then anymore. I like to every couple hours at least get up, walk around, so I can come back refreshed with a new set of eyes, ones that are no longer too close the the art work for their own good. ;)

I find that the better I understand human anatomy the easier it is for me to draw portraits. Understanding anatomy can be very important to drawing a good, realistic portrait. If I am not getting something, I go look up the anatomy of how to draw that specific thing. Open mouths are a challenge for me, so I will often sit at my sketchpad drawing various open mouths for practice, using pictures online to learn more about them.

If you are having difficulties with something try sketching just that several times until it becomes more natural to you, just remember when doing this you are doing generic sketches and when draw a portrait you have to pay attention to how it really looks not to how your practice sketches were. The object is to get more familiar with whatever it is, not learn how to draw it the same way over and over and over.

Your Comments Here

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens, looks like you are coming along nicely with your art.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for beautiful lens. I am also crazy about art.


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