How to Draw Portraits

I have been creating portrait pencil drawings for quite a few years now, mainly as commissions for family and friends. I get quite a few responses to these ranging from ‘they are so life like’ and ‘you have really captured this person’, whilst recently a response took the form of ‘what is the point, you might as well have a photograph!’ although this may be true in that the drawings i have done are lifelike i still believe that a drawing can convey an essence more powerful than a photograph. Drawings are to me more personal and meaningful.

Another response i have received is ‘i could never do that!’ and i do not agree. Firstly, portrait does not have to be lifelike, it is about portraying that person how you see them. Secondly, once you know facial proportions any can be drawn. I have taught sessions on portrait drawing for which i created a help sheet, with proportions and a few tips on drawing and shading specific features. I believe that with these anyone is able to draw a portrait with a little bit of practice, this help sheet is below.


With this and a few little exercises anyone can draw portraits. For commissions i work from photographs as these are much easier to email etc. Although life drawing  is fun it is also more challenging so i would suggest working from photographs to start with (i did and still do this myself), another useful tip is to use a mirror and draw yourself! This works especially well for practicing features such as eyes.

A Few Exercises to Get Started

1. First start with either a photograph or a mirror so you can see yourself, and front on view would work best at the moment. Focusing on line alone draw the face working along side the guidelines i have provided. Thing about the shape of individual features but the proportions will always follow the same rules.

2. Focus on particular features, these could be eyes, nose or mouth. Spend 15 minutes or so on each feature to start with and concentrate on shading to make the drawing come to life.

Shading – A useful tip, and i use this myself, to create a more lifelike image s to always imagine light coming from the far left just above the eye line.  This way the shading and lighting in your drawing will always be consistent. Also do not be too heavy, even light shading or none all in some areas can be more effective, using a  putty rubber for highlights afterwards also works well.

3. Combine the two stages above, i usually draw the proportions then concentrate on the facial features leaving the hair until last (yes t is the hardest part to do so i suggest practicing a little beforehand). Also think about the position of your drawing on the paper, by doing a quick sketch of the basic proportions you can ensure all aspects are included and the paper is covered as you would like it.

4. Practice! try a few different portraits and you will find it becomes easier as you progress and learn the proportions. Try drawing people of different ages thinking about how each persons facial features differ slightly.

5. Once you have drawn a few and become more confident you can think about different positions, (i plan to do a sheet with proportions from different angles in the near future) however the basic proportions will always be the same. Again photographs are particularly useful for this.

Drawing portraits isn’t as difficult as it might seem! hopefully these few steps and the help sheet will allow you to experiment. Below is one of my earlier portraits a friend, others can be seen on my blog ‘Drawing’ page.

I hope this is useful, i plan to do similar artistic technique posts in the future! 🙂


One thought on “How to Draw Portraits

  1. Another subject to study in tandem with portraiture is physiognomy; the study of human facial expressions. You can study it formally or by making old maser copies of Raphael’s drawings. Frozen unrealistic smiles are unseemly on an otherwise beautifully rendered drawing.

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