How to Draw a Portrait


Posted on May 19, 2014 by


First things first, when beginning any work of art, it’s important that you have the right tools for the job. For this demonstration we will be sketching a portrait and I recommend: at least two kinds of pencils. If you don’t draw regularly, you may not be aware that pencil graphite comes in various densities allowing for greater variety when sketching. In the image below I explain the different nuances from hardest to softest graphite:

pencil nuances


You can see there isn’t a huge difference among nuances from 3B to 9B. The softer the grade, the darker the mark. Equally, softer grade graphite is good for shading. For this sketch, you’ll need at least one 2B pencils for the very dark areas and an HB pencil (same as the graphite in a standard #2 pencil). However, I used a number of pencils across the scale from very light to very dark. A blending stump is also quite useful to blend colors, but if you don’t have one, a cotton swab will work as well. For shading, I suggest making a powder from a 4H or lighter graphite pencil and use a tissue to spread it over the paper.

I recommend the 3 products below as great starter items:

Royal & Langnickel Essentials Sketching Pencil Set, 21-Piece

Stumps And Tortillions Set

Tombow MONO Zero Eraser, Round Tip, Retractable, Silver Barrel (57305)


Using a Grid:

If you plan to take on sketching a realistic looking portrait, it is important to ensure it is proportianal. You will want to start by drawing the main lines, or outline of your subject. If you draw sketches freehand and struggle to keep them in proportion, I recommend using a grid as most artist do. In the image below you can see our example of how this should work.


Draw a grid over your reference photo and lightly draw the same grid on your sketching paper. Keep in mind this will need to be erased later so you don’t want to press too hard otherwise your grid will not fully erase. Some artists prefer to draw their grid and outline, and trace it once they are happy with the initial outline onto a new page, so they don’t have to deal with erasing gridlines. Draw the outline with an HB graphite pencil. Don’t use 2B or darker pencil for the initialsketching. As demonstrated, you should draw the same objects that appear in each square of the reference picture onto the corresponding grid on your blank page.

After erasing the grid your sketch should look like this:



Some artists draw area by area others prefer to draw all areas that would use the same tones so they aren’t switching between pencils frequently; you can try different methods and find out what works for you.

To further frame the face, you can draw the darkest parts of the hair. You can use a 2B grade pencil or darker.



You may notice there was some work done on the eyes and mouth that difers from the initial outline. We will discuss each of these steps in detail in the next 2 sections.


For the eyes, I have broken it up into 3 steps as seen below:



1. With 2B or darker graphite pencil draw the pupils leaving a small area in the middle untouched; this will serve as the reflection of light. Draw the eyelashes with a sharpened pencil starting from the nose with smaller eyelashes, and as you work your way toward the outer eye the lashes should becomne longer.

2. Now draw a cirle around the iris with a B or F graphite pencil. You can also draw the line between the upper eyelid platform and eyelid fold. You can blend these lines a little bit with a blending stump or a cotton swab. After blending any line it will have a softer look..

3. Finally, draw the iris of the eye with a 5H pencil or lighter, and blend the corners of the eyes and the parts under the eyes. For all these areas you can use a blending stump instead of pencil if you prefer as there can be enough residual graphite on the stump to achieve the desired effect.

The Mouth:

Now let‘s continue with the mouth. In the below image I have, again, broken it into 3 steps to simplify drawing the lips and teeth.


1. With a3B pencil or darker, draw the inner corners of the mouth. At first draw these parts behind the teeth pressing lightly, and if you are happy with the result, then you can go over it again pressing harder to darken them up. This is a rule of thumb overall when drawing in various shades. It is best to start light and progress darker than vice versa. If you start too dark, you end up erasing more than desired which can damage the paper and the look of your work.

2. The upper lip will not have much light reflection, and will therefore be darker than lower lip. Draw the inner areas of the lower lip with a B graphite pencil.

3. Remeber not to shade the areas where light reflects as this is supposed to convey the “shine” of the light; you can draw around these areas with your HB pencil. The upper row of teeth will also have less light, so and be sure to draw carefully with an H pencil to shade under the lip over the teeth, as well as on the teeth to indicate the shadow of the lip.

The Nose:

It’s best if you shade the nose with harder graphite (a lighter pencil) or with the residual graphite on the blending stump. Under the tip of the nose (depending on the light source) you can shade with darker pencil, but do not use a 2B or darker for white skin. I used 5H graphite pencil to draw a shadow under the tip of the nose and blended it with blending stump. Leave the edges and the top of the nose white for now. During the drawing process it is likely they will get some of the graphite powder on them, which you will erase at the end end of the drawing:





You can continue to use your blending stump to start to shade the inner eye sockets and begin to define the smile lines and cheeks. In the next image we have also included the completed eyes and mouth which we have already seen.



Creating skin tones is a very important part of the sktch: it is crtical that you work on the skin tone slowly as this step can really make or break the portrait. At first, shade the whole face with graphite powder on a tissue from a 4H or lighter pencil. Be mindful to start light, you can always add more shade later (as you will see it in the next step). The tone of the face is very rarely the same shade as the paper, therefore, we have to give a little tone everywhere (logically, tanned skin needs more shading). By shading the entire face you achieve the overall skin tone. Next you will need to erase the parts of the face that you want to appear highlighted : the top and and edge of the nose, above the upper lip, the cheeks and so on . Use your reference photo to ensure you are highlighting the right parts. It also helps to take a step back from your drawing and look at it at arms length; doing so will give you a different view of the skin tone and will help you notice if you have made some mistakes in shading that would have been missed if you only looked at it while drawing.



You can continue to add more shading where needed, such as under the chin whee you will want to draw a darker shadow and erase the shading on the edge of chin (you can see it in the image below). This will give a 3D lookto the face and neck. At this stage I also suggest shading the background; this will also give further depth to your portrait.



Drawing with an Eraser:

After having already drawn the darkest parts of the hair (you can spread the graphite with a finger and tissue, or with a cotton swab, over the parts of hair that are not so dark ). Next, blend all the edges between black and gray. Define strands of hair by using a B pencil. Finally, with an eraser “draw” the light hair. Some artists use white ink pen for this. However, I prefer to cut my eraser with a knife to make it sharp and then proceed to erase the areas where the light hair or the areas of hair that are reflecting shine. In the image below you can see how I do this with my mechanical eraser.



Final Image:

As a final note, if you scan your drawing it can make your the portra shading) I took the pictures with a camera. I did so because the camera captures the finest shadows which would be lost with a scanner due to its strong light.


You end up with a beautifully rendered portrait thta is very realistic and life like. Best of luck in drawing your own portraits!

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