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Portrait drawing: a simple approach

Updated on July 2, 2009

Portrait drawing is one of those drawing skills many people get into drawing for. It is so appealing and rewarding being able to draw a portrait of a friend, a lover, a kid in a way that makes them happy and you proud of it.

But drawing a portrait that captures the resemblance and the "soul" of a subject it is not an easy task and a skill that for many takes year to master and hone.

For this reason I am not going to focus this tutorial on the "capturing the soul" part (at least not for now) and I will instead focus on "getting the proportions right" to at least capture the appearance of your subject (this alone will bring you a long way toward becoming a proficient portrait drawer). In this tutorial I'll examine a method to draw portraits that is suitable for drawing from a picture and from a real person posing for you.

I do not want to overwhelm you with details and I'd rather prefer moving rapidly to the drawing, making comments and observations along the way.

I have chosen the beautiful Michael Pfeiffer as a subject for this portrait drawing and I will be using almost all the way a 2H pencil, just to keep things simple.

Lets' get started!

Ok she is quite beautiful, isn't she? Ok try not to get overwhelmed by the challenge and do everything one step at a time. There are many details on this face, let's try to break those detail and forms down to the essential things.

The first and I repeat the first thing I want you to do is to visualize the face as a big oval and establish three fundamental lines: The eye line first, the mouth line second and the nose line as the third one.

This is very important and it is also important that you trace (mentally) these lines in the order I have suggested. The reason is because your eyes might deceive you and drive you to get wrong proportions if you do not follow this rule.

Establishing the mouth before the nose helps imposing a downward limit to the extension of the facial features. But do not get distracted and keep going.

So you have established these lines? Good! Now draw.

Quickly and roughly sketch the shape of the head and the neck and shoulders. That's it, do not do anything else. Now wait a few seconds and look, seriously examine intensely how these few and simple elements look together.

Is everything in scale properly? Move on only if you are absolutely happy with what you have achieved so far! Ok let's move on with portrait drawing.

Now is the time to add those very lines I ask you to visualize upon the oval of the face. It's imperative you position these lines as good as you can now...

Take your time. Do it with calm and patience... I will be here waiting :)

Done? Are you happy with those lines and their positioning? Great, these three lines are really all that you need to efficiently build your drawing upon.

Trace roughly the mouth, the eyes and the wideness of the nose. Now look back at your subject. You should already see a hint of resemblance if you did it right so far. Ok next step!

As you can see I have added very very roughly the hairs, eyebrows and shaped the nose a little bit. I drew an ear also. All these things to start balancing out the drawing. This means that it will make it easier from now on to look at the subject and work to achieve resemblance if the main face features are in place.

I know it doesn't look like her yet but bear with me. You have got the foundations right and that's the main thing. You have got distance from mouth to chin tip, distance between the eyes and so forth, al those things that will make your portrait drawing resemble the subject you re drawing.

From now on what you need to do, really is look at the subject constantly to get the shape of the single facial features and start working adding detail but never focusing too much on a single feature.

Add a few lines around the eyes then move to the shape of the face, then to the nose and the mouth then back to the eyes. Do not spend more than few seconds on each part.

Remember you want to get the resemblance right. Too much detail now and you are on a "no through road".

See, all the drawing is proceeding as a whole. There are not parts which are developed more than others. And this is good. The drawing is still very fluid and you can make changes if you want. Like I am going to do.

I have noticed the mouth is too high and I mean, probably 2 millimeters. What I am going to do will be erasing it with my favorite eraser and redraw it in a slightly lower position. Remember, with portrait drawing small details can make all the difference.

There you go much better now! Wow it just needed those 2 millimeters to get a completely different look. Obviously you want to keep working at the drawing as a whole.

As you can see in this drawing every step is the immediate consequence of the previous. See for example the shadow under the chin? Look at the other drawings and you'll see how it started as a few lines to establish where the shadow was supposed to be. And the same applies to every part of the drawing.

As you have seen the drawing is not the result of some kind of magical process accessible only to naturally talented but a sequence of simple steady steps toward the final goal. You can definitely do it!

I want to review briefly the entire process here:

1. Establish the shape of the head

2. Establish the three fundamental guidelines, in sequence for the eyes, mouth and nose last

3. make sure you get these foundations right. Check many times before proceeding and do it only when you are satisfied.

4. Build up slowly your portrait from the foundations and it will almost draw itself!

Thanks for following my portrait drawing tutorial! in the next one I'll propose a more "scientific" method for portrait drawing. Stay Tuned!

Feel free to comment the tutorial. I would love to hear from you.

Visit my Website The Drawing Factory for more smashing drawing tutorials!



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    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      5 years ago from Texas

      This is Awesome, I wish that I had found it long ago.

      I will bookmark it to return when time permits.

    • crockpotcooking profile image


      7 years ago

      I draw something from time to time. I always loved it, however my profession is something completely different. I tried many times to draw portraits, usually models from shopping catalogs and I know how it often gets complicated and ruined.

      You explained it here in a very clear way. I will definitely try it asap. I hope I'll get better :)

      Thank you

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It helped me in getting my home work done.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Prachtig. echt knap als je dit kunt.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      truthfullly, i think it's good. but i really can't see the resemblance. but i have to say you did better than most people could do. keep it up!

    • Manna in the wild profile image

      Manna in the wild 

      8 years ago from Australia

      You explanations are very clear thank you.

    • Manna in the wild profile image

      Manna in the wild 

      8 years ago from Australia

      I bookmarked this as I dabble too. Will visit again later.

    • Vampire crazy profile image

      Vampire crazy 

      9 years ago

      You are an AMAZING drawer! Keep it up!

    • profile image

      The Lion Cowardly 

      9 years ago

      Love it!

    • Mike Lickteig profile image

      Mike Lickteig 

      9 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Nice drawing. You picked an interesting subject because the eyebrows are so distinctive. Very well done.


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