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How to Draw a Realistic Face - An Artist's Insight

Updated on September 5, 2014

My History of Drawing People's Portraits

I've loved drawing people's portraits ever since I was yay high, and the passion has never died, though these days, I don't have as much time to dedicate to drawing and doodling as I did when I was in high school biology class. (Don't tell the teacher!)Here, I would like to share with you my personal tips and tricks about how to draw a realistic face. I am not a master by any means, but I've been told that my portraits are very realistic, with particular praise being given to the expression of the eyes. My hope is that my methods for drawing will be of use to you as well! Happy reading!

Feel Passion for your Subject

Passion will help you transcend spirtually as you draw!

I find that if I am very passionate about my subject, my mind transcends to a new and hyper-perceptive level of consciousness. Details become clearer, my art tools and body become one, and the physical world around me melts away for those few hours I am completely and utterly spellbound by my work.I don't know if this sort of out-of-body experience happens to every artist. All I know is that the degree to which I become spiritually united with my art piece will determine just how good it will be.If you are just starting out on your portrait drawing path, I would suggest that you draw someone whose face will trigger your inner artistic passion. That person could be anyone - a dear friend, a relative, a lover, a person you admire from afar, a superstar, a person you have lost. Can the person you have chosen make you smile from ear to ear, just at the very thought of them? Then you've picked out the perfect subject.At the risk of sounding very cliché, I have always found that, personally, drawing the man I am in love with, or a singer I enjoy listening to, is a sure fire way of reaching that level of intimacy with my work. However, I am not going to presume that these subjects will necessarily work for you!Note about the above portrait:This is a portrait I did of Hyde out of L'Arc-en-Ciel, a Japanese rock band. I drew this at the height of my obsession with Japanese culture and music, and it probably one of the finest portraits I have ever completed.

"Draw what you see, not what you THINK you see."

Every artist has a motto. This is mine.

Whenever I begin a new portrait, I repeat these words to myself. Why? Because it is too easy to become distracted by what you THINK exists in a subject, as opposed to what is actually there.Yes, it's all fine and dandy if you want to create an impressionistic portrait that deviates from reality, but if you want to draw a realistic face, it is very important to respect the details you see before you.A good example is a person's ear. (I always find ears the most challenging, which is why I bring them up as an example.) An inexperienced artist might draw a half circle containing another half circle, and a number of squiggly lines to suggest the auricle (outer ear). If you do this, you aren't actually drawing what you SEE. Look closer. Are those REALLY lines in the inner ear, or are you actually seeing a number of depressions, humps and hollows that create shadows which resemble lines? Focus in on those shadows. Block in the light and dark areas of the ear to create contrast. By doing so, you will gradually end up seeing those lines appear without even drawing them in!

The Best Graphite Pencils for Drawing Portraits - The Mars Lumograph Brand

Mars Lumograph Pencils are quite affordable and are available in a wide range, from 9H (the lightest) to 9B (the darkest). It is the brand that I tend to use when I draw realistic faces!

1. I've got my model. Now where do I start?

A good place to start is always at the beginning!

When I begin a portrait, 99% of the time I start out by roughly blocking in the most important features of the face. Which are the most important features? They are as follows:

the head - the eyes - the nose - the mouth - the ears - the hair

Start by drawing the outline of the head. If you are unable to do this freehand, draw a grid to help calculate where each feature stands in relation to the other features. Generally, when drawing a frontal portrait, the eyes should be on the same line as the top of the ears, the nose, somewhere along the invisible line that joins the middle part of the ears, and the mouth, just below the point where the neck meets the ears. These are general rules, and may vary slightly from subject to subject. (Barack Obama's eyes, for instance, fall below the line that joins the top of the ears!)

2. The Importance of Eyes

Eyes are the windows to the soul, right? So make them count!

Let's be serious.The rest of the drawing may be roughly drawn or incomplete, but if you have captured the expression of the eyes, you have a winning portrait.Why is this? It is because the eyes of a person are the first thing to which we are drawn. They are the physical feature that express most profoundly our genuine emotions. Have you ever tried looking at a person in the eye for more than two seconds, and attempted to hide how you really feel about them? You can't - that is, unless you are a sociopath.It is for this reason that, when you have finished blocking in the basic features of your subject, you should immediately start working on the eyes. You don't have to complete them. Just make sure that you shade them to the point where you almost feel as if your portrait is looking back at you. (This is very important as you want the portrait to communicate an emotion to the person viewing it.)Some wonderful online tutorials for drawing eyes:

How to Draw Eyes

Eye Drawing Tutorial

How to Draw an Eye in Pencil, Step by Step

How to Draw Realistic Eyes - by Mark Crilley


When you have finished the eyes, start shading the entire face (nose, mouth, ears, hair and all) with a very light 7F pencil. Why? Because you don't want any white space in your finished portrait, except for the sparkle in the eyes!

3. The eyes are realistic. The portrait has been shaded. Now what?

It's time to block in the shadows!

Now that you have a shaded drawing without any white space, and two realistic eyes looking back at you, you are basically free to start blocking in all of the shadows. Where will you normally find shadows on a face?Well, it depends very much on the lighting, but you are guaranteed to find shadows in the following places:

- around the nose - under the eyes - around the jawline - under the bottom lip - under the hairline - in the ears - under the cheekbone -

Jason Brain has created a very nice example of a portrait that marks out all the important shadow zones on a person's face (see picture on the right). Look carefully at your own subject and see just how prominent each of these shadows are in relation to the lady in Jason's portrait.Picture courtesy of Jason Brain.

The Best Sketch Paper for Drawing Faces - Arches Hotpress Watercolour Paper

This is some of the best paper on the market. It is a little pricey, but worth it for the degree of detail you can achieve with any grade of pencil, from 9H to 9B. It is made of 100% cotton.

Finally, it's time to draw the rest of the features of the face! *claps hands*

4. Drawing in the other features

The easiest part of the portrait!

Now that you've got the perfect eyes, and the perfect shading, you've reached the easiest part of the process - drawing in the rest of the features! The most important thing to consider when you are filling in the features is to remain true to the original guidelines you laid out. Do not let the nose sink below the midline of the ears, for example! (It can be easy to get carried away and ignore your original sketch!)Below, I have included a number of helpful videos - one for drawing noses, one for mouths, one for hair and one for ears.

How to Draw a Realistic Nose - A tutorial by The Virtual Illustrator

How to Draw Realistic Lips and Teeth - by Brian Alan

How to Draw Realistic Ears - by The Virtual Instructor

How to Draw Realistic Hair - by Matthew Archambault

More examples of my portraiture - From 2001-2011

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Buy Erasers for Drawing and Sketching - by Design Kneaded Rubber Erasers

These erasers are a must for pencil sketches! They are easily moulded into various shapes, so that if you need to erase a tiny portion of your drawing, you can simply pinch your eraser into a fine tip, and gently rub away the mistake. They are also fun to squish when you're feeling a bit frustrated with your sketch!

Poll about Portraiture

When you draw a portrait, what is your favourite medium?

See results

Yes, I do commissioned portraits!Just send me a message and I'll give you a free quote. :-)

Do you feel you now know how to draw a realistic face? Have some tips of your own to share? - This is the place to share your thoughts!

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    • Georgina_writes profile image

      Georgina_writes 2 years ago from Dartmoor

      Great tutorial. I find faces so difficult to capture, and I love the videos, they' re really useful.

    • profile image

      Margot_C 4 years ago

      Great article. I loved to draw as a kid. I always thought I struggled more with hands and feet than with faces, but after seeing your tutorial, I can see where I could have improved. Thanks for the great tips.

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 4 years ago

      Well, i just want to say that, i use pencil when i draw face and luckily i feel that my art work looks amazing.

    • treasuresabound profile image

      treasuresabound 4 years ago

      Love your portraits so much, you are a great artist. Well done!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      While your instructions are clear and I get the gist of the steps I still do not feel like I could do a portrait justice. Mind you, that could just be because I am not wanting to make a mess of it. Like anything, I suspect, a certain amount of skill just comes from practice.

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 5 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Very helpful instructions! I would love to be able to draw as you do. I am trying.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      first of all , all your polls seem to be faulty, they all show zero votes!But apart from the bug in the polls, a great lens full of useful tips and some great links which I will have to go thorugh carefully. Thanks for the help - blessed

    • Alana-r profile image

      Alana-r 5 years ago

      Im am a million leagues off this level of skill, amazing portraits.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Fantastic article about drawing realistic faces. Filled with very helpful tips and resources. Angel Blessings! :)

    • EMangl profile image

      EMangl 5 years ago

      well explained but i won't bother trying, somehow there is a broken point between brain and hand :-)

    • siobhanryan profile image

      siobhanryan 5 years ago

      Brillant-Angel Blessed

    • lclchors profile image

      lclchors 5 years ago

      you do beautiful work thank you

    • poldepc lm profile image

      poldepc lm 5 years ago

      I wish, I could draw; but soon, I will start aquarel paintings

    • BlueObsidian profile image

      Kimberly 5 years ago from Oregon

      My drawing has been improving, but I still feel so far away from being able to draw a realistic face. Thanks for the great lens! Hopefully I can keep improving!

    • SailingPassion LM profile image

      SailingPassion LM 5 years ago

      Lovely - wish I could draw like this

    • profile image

      Annamadagan 5 years ago

      Amazing lens. Great, great tips and information! Blessed, 'cause I just had to bless it.

    • profile image

      aquarian_insight 5 years ago

      I absolutely love this lens. You've given me a fabulous idea for my sister's first wedding anniversary, which is of course Paper. Thank you so much. *blessed*

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      You are such a talent! Great job explaining the steps and for your fabulous portraits!!

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 5 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      Fantastic drawings! You are so talented. And great job on this lens. I'm impressed. *Blessed*

    • MarcoG profile image

      Marc 5 years ago from Edinburgh

      Utterly fabulous lens. You are incredibly talented, and very modest. I'm so, so impressed!

    • profile image

      sheezie77 5 years ago

      Great lens!Squidlike

    • sunny saib profile image

      sunny saib 5 years ago

      i am not much of an artist.. have just tried some basic sketching.. cool tips n some really great sketches here.. :)

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 5 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      You are an amazing sketch artist; I've learned a lot from this how to draw portraits lens, thank-you.

    • Budeni profile image

      Budeni 5 years ago

      Hey, great lens! You do an extraordinary work with light and shadow. I really appreciate you dropping by on my lens although you could consider us as some kind of "rivals". You usually don't get that on the web. And that makes me very happy! :-)

    • Shoputopian profile image

      Karnel 5 years ago from Lower Mainland of BC

      I wish I could draw, that would be something I'd really like to do, great lens thanks for sharing

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This is really cool! Your lens is really helpful.. :) I also found some helpful tips on how to draw realistic faces on this site...

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 5 years ago

      Lol, all my figure drawings are just that; they look Venus de Milo (without the head on). Great instructional Lens. Kudos.

    • squallpogi profile image

      squallpogi 5 years ago

      You have some fantastic lens! :) keep it up :)

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 5 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Oh me! You are so very talented and I could spend hours here. Thank you for all of these great Portrait Drawing Tips.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Love these drawings and your tip about blocking in the features is a great one. You have to know where your features should be before you start really getting on with the drawing. I enjoyed the videos too. Great lens.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      Excellent presentation. You are very talented. Blessings. Your lens has been added to "Wing-ing it on Squidoo," our tribute page to some of the best lenses we've found since donning our wings.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      I've always drawn more cartoon style people but with your tips, maybe I should try a realistic portrait. Time to get out my drawing pencils.

    • Tonigr profile image

      Toni Grundstrom 6 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      You have such a rare skill. Drawing portraits is something I have always wanted to do, yours are fantastic. Blessed by a SquidAngel.

    • profile image

      ErHawkns7100 6 years ago

      Great lens.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 6 years ago

      My artistic talent is so unhoned - I have tons of practice to do. You're so right about drawing a face that inspires - my best work by far is a portrait of my favorite spiritual teacher. Thanks for sharing your work, you're a fantastic artist. Blessings to you and I will feature on Pencil Sketches, many thanks.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      Most impressive. You have a true gift. Appreciated these tips and instructions. Very helpful. *Blessed*

    • efcruzarts profile image

      efcruzarts 6 years ago

      nice presentation

    • billfiddle lm profile image

      billfiddle lm 6 years ago

      wow! great lens! weird because I recently bought a new set of pencils with the intention of trying again...loads of great info and videos, many thanks!ps, if you are interested my son is an artist, is where he puts some of his weirder stuff! :-)

    • profile image

      poutine 6 years ago

      I appreciate your tips here.

    • MelissaRodgz profile image

      MelissaRodgz 6 years ago

      Wow you are a super talented artist. thanks for sharing some great tips.

    • profile image

      termit_bronx 6 years ago

      Great lens and you have a special talent! Your work is amazing, I like it very much! Nicely done and blessed by a SquidAngel*