Drawing & Painting blog


Drawing a portrait from a photo, in ten steps

Portrait from a photo

I’m often asked for advice on how to draw portraits. When faced with an intimidatingly blank sheet of paper, where do you begin? Some artists use a grid system, some use a ‘lightbox’ that shines a reference photograph through their drawing paper, others may use nothing at all and simply pitch in and measure by eye. Everyone has a different process and style and it’s important to say that there are no right or wrong ways to approach a portrait, but this is how I do it and I hope it might help you if you’re a beginner at drawing. I’m describing how to draw a portrait from a reference photo because this is how I work, but much of the advice will still be relevant if you’re learning to draw a sitter who is in front of you.

I’m a firm believer that absolutely anyone can learn to draw if they first learn now to LOOK properly. Let’s get started and I will take you step by step through my process…

1. I begin by printing out my reference photo at the same size I want to draw my portrait

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it easier to achieve a portrait likeness if I print the photograph at the same scale that I want to draw the portrait. I think it’s much easier to copy precisely when you aren’t simultaneously either shrinking or enlarging from your reference, and you don’t want your reference picture to be too small to see what you’re drawing. I tend to print the image out in grayscale first on cheap inkjet paper until I’ve got the size to where I want it (adjusting the percentage in the ‘scale’ settings of your printer is usually the easiest way to do this) When I’m happy with the size I’ll print it out again on photo quality paper in colour, using the ‘fine’ print setting. I will print out two copies of the picture, because I’m going to draw grid lines on one of them.

Drawing grid on face

2. I draw a pair of axis lines on one of those printed photos

Taking a waterproof marker pen such as a ‘Sharpie’ I draw a line on one of my printed photos along the vertical axis of the head, running from the centre of the chin up between the eyes until it reaches the top of the head. (here I’ve marked it in blue, so you can see it clearly) Next, I draw a horizontal line either along the top of the eyebrows or through the centre of the eyes. With most people, you’ll find that these two lines will be at more or less 90 degrees from each other.

Next I take a sheet of tracing paper. I draw over my axes, turn the paper over and draw over the lines again, then turn it back and  transfer them very lightly to my drawing paper by rubbing gently with my pencil over the lines. I use an HB pencil for this – the pencil should be no softer as it may not erase fully, and no harder as it may indent the paper. This gives me a cross shape on my paper which gives me both the angle of the head I’m about to draw, and a sort of grid to measure the shape and all the features of the face within.

Grid transferred to paper

Instead of transferring the axes to your drawing paper could simply aim to visualise them instead, but actually tracing them on there is an immensely useful shortcut if you’re drawing professionally and have to work at a certain speed. Now I’m ready to start drawing.

3. Using my axes, I visualize the head in four quarters in order to perceive the overall shape

Looking at my reference photo with the axes drawn on it, I start to consider the shape of the head in relation to those vertical and horizontal lines. I imagine the head divided into four quarters and I visually compare the size and shape of each quarter. Here I’ve coloured the quarters in green and blue, so you can see what I mean.

Quarters visualisation

This reference photograph is complicated by the fact that the girl’s hands are cupping her chin and hiding the edges of it, so I need to visualise both the shape created by of the edges of her hands, and the shape made by those hands cupping around her chin too.

Line around chin

Now I copy the shapes of the four quarters of the head and the edges of the hands to my paper.  I draw them very lightly as soft sketchy lines so I can keep adjusting them until I’m happy that my overall head shape is fairly accurate. I may alter them some more when I start to draw in more detail, but for now I have a good starting point to work from.

Portrait grid drawing

4. I measure all the features of the face against my axis lines and lightly sketch them in.

Next, I start making some very light marks to define the positions of the eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth. With every line I put down I’m measuring carefully by eye along the axes I drew on my reference photo, and asking myself constant questions. In relation to the vertical axis line, how far along the horizontal axis line does each eye start and end? Which vertical distance is greater, the centre of the eyes to the bottom of the nose or the bottom of the nose to the bottom of the chin? Are the corners of the mouth horizontally aligned, or is one corner higher than the other, and if so then how much higher? And so on. People who don’t draw tend to assume that artists are simply people with very good ‘hand to eye coordination’ but really they are looking and measuring all the time as they work and this is something that anyone can learn to do.

Initial sketch layer

Before I start drawing the girl’s pigtails I draw some Sharpie lines on my reference photo around them so I can clearly visualise the shape of the spaces that they occupy as well as gauging their size and position. I compare the widths of the pigtails with the width of each side of the face.

Hair grid lines

I keep all my lines very light so they won’t be very visible in the finished drawing, because faces are not really composed of lines, but of shapes defined by areas of different tones and shades. For now I’m simply creating a sort of ‘map’ of the face so I can orient myself and feel confident in my overall dimensions, as I later work around the image examining all these tonal areas. Although one sometimes may see some strong shadow lines in a photo (here they are particularly visible around the outlines of her hands) I will try to curb the tendency to draw in lines from this point on, when drawing the features of the face.

For example, people frequently assume that the lips will finish in a hard sharp line and will draw them bordered in this way, top and bottom. Look closely at the lips in the reference photo however (or at your own lips, in the mirror!) and you’ll see that this isn’t really the case.

Just under the centre of the bottom lip you will see a small line of shadow, but left and right of this shadow you will notice how lips are actually bordered by an area of intermediate tissue that is thicker than the tissue of the lips, but thinner and redder than the regular skin below it. As a result the edges of the lips do not stop suddenly but rather feather out gradually as they meet the skin of the chin. It’s this kind of really close examination – never making assumptions about what any feature should look like – that you need to be making.

Lips close up

I’m next going to show you the collection of pencils and erasers I’m using, because I’ll be making reference to them a lot. This is because I tend to draw almost as much with my erasers as with my pencils, layering my pencil shading and then softening and cutting in highlights with my eraser. I use three types: The first is the small eraser on the tip of my Faber Castell pencil which I like because it’s tiny and soft. I use this for rubbing out errors but also for hatching softly over shading I’ve drawn with the pencils.

Drawing materials

Secondly, I use a soft putty eraser which is mouldable and is good both for cleaning marks off my page and softening my pencil shading by pressing it gently against the paper so it lifts some of the graphite off, if I want to lighten some of my lines. Putty erasers don’t leave little bits of rubber all over your paper and you just trim them with scissors when they get too covered in graphite.

The last type is my battery powered electric eraser which is really invaluable when drawing hair in particular. It comes with two different widths of eraser and I most often use the tiny 2.5mm attachment (under 1/8 inch) for cutting in fine highlights on top of my pencil shading.

I’m drawing with regular drawing pencils, in several grades between HB (your standard writing pencil) and 8B which is very hard and soft. Most of the shading on the little girl’s pale skin will be done with the light HB pencil, the areas of mid-tones with maybe a 2B, 4B or 6B depending on how dark it is, and the darkest shadows with the 8B. I also use a technical pencil with a 0.5mm point (1/32 inch), usually just for the eyes and for their tiny highlights as well as the eyelashes, eyebrow hairs and sometimes whispy hairs that often frame the face. If you’d like more information on drawing materials try this article, or this review of pencil brands

5. I study and contrast different areas of tone within my reference photo, and start to draw in the darkest and lightest areas on my drawing

Now that I’ve finished creating my sketchy ‘mapping’ lines I’ll completely erase my axis lines using my pencil tip eraser, or electric eraser. I’ll then set aside the reference photo with the lines drawn on it and start looking really hard at the other copy I printed. Firstly I’ll consider, where are the very darkest tones I can see?

Close up on face tones

Usually as above, the darkest spots will be within the pupils of the eye, but they may also be within the nostrils, sometimes in the corners of the mouth, or in the shadows within the ears or the creases of the hands. I draw the darkest areas I can see onto my drawing using the 8B pencil. I’m still measuring constantly by eye before making any mark, comparing the size and shape of different areas of tone with each other.

Next I look for the brightest areas in the image. These will usually be highlights reflected in the iris or pupil of the eyes or in the tear duct, but as with this little girl they can appear on any moist area such as the lower lids and the mouth . These tiny highlights are fiddly to draw but crucial to capturing the expression and life in someone’s eyes, so I will draw the outline of these spots with my very fine automatic pencil and leave them as completely blank white paper. The whites of the eyes will typically have highlights too, but on closer inspection you’ll see all sorts of tones within the white part of the eye created by shadow or by the coloration of the blood vessels within them, and some parts of the white will be surprisingly dark.

6. I build up all the tones in layers of hatches

As I now move around the face and start building up all the areas of tone in between, I compare the colour and shade every shape I see in the photo with the extremities of light and dark that I’ve already established. How dark is each area of shadow in relation to the blackness within the pupils? Where are the brightest areas of skin?

Although the lightest parts of the skin won’t be as bright as the reflected spots in the eyes that we’ve already discussed, I will usually leave cheat them by leaving them as blank paper too because in general my goal is to shade as little as possible on the face. I want to give the impression of a ‘light touch’ and to convey the natural luminosity and reflectivity of skin and so I don’t want to make it all look too grey.

First layer of hatching

It’s worth diverting to discuss exactly HOW I shade on my paper, because I think one of the biggest mistakes I think you can make when drawing skin is to rub your pencil marks into the paper with your finger in order to smooth them. Not only does this risk marking the paper with smudges from the natural oils in your fingertips, but it also creates a really dull tone. I prefer to shade by hatching very lightly in one direction, and sometimes cross hatching over in the other direction.

I build up the tone gradually using this method and the tiny specs of white paper preserved within the shading due to the textured grain of the paper give a luminosity and a glow to the skin even within areas of shadow – a bit like the effect of a watercolour painting where the paint is very transparent. This hatching technique works perfectly for any skin tone including dark skin shades, which are actually the brightest and most reflective of all skin types. For darker skin I convey the colour by hatching my shadows heavily with darker softer pencils but still allowing those specks of pale paper to shine out between the lines. As with lighter skin shades, I still leave the brightest areas of skin very lightly shaded so that the contrast of light and dark correctly conveys the shine on the skin.

Whilst I’m working around the face I try to look at the different areas of tone fairly broadly initially, and not get too bogged down in detail at this stage. Squinting at my reference photo really helps and I often do this! I’m also trying to see the face as an abstract collection of shapes rather than particular features and so I try not to name them in my head as I draw them, to bring any preconceptions as to what an eye should look like or a nose, a mouth and so on. This allows me to draw what I really see and not what I assume I ought to be seeing.

7. I divert from the face to complete the hair

Once I’ve made a ‘first pass’ at covering all the areas of the face, I’ll divert to the hair and complete this before I go any further with the features. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the shading of the hair will affect how I perceive the tones of the skin. For example, I might think that I’ve completed my shading within the face but once I add hair to the image it often starts to look like my skin tones are all too subtle and pale in contrast and I will usually end up darkening the skin some more by adding more shading.

Secondly, it has really surprised me to learn how critical the correct hair shade can be to achieving a good likeness! Sometimes I feel I haven’t captured a true likeness until I shade in the hair and suddenly the drawing seems to be coming together. Therefore I never leave the hair until the very end.

First layer of hair

I have developed a whole technique for drawing hair which you can read about in this tutorial on how to draw hair. It involved working in quite a few layers: adding shading, smoothing it down, adding more, rubbing again. Hair and clothes are the only places that I will rub the pencil onto the paper a little to smooth it, but I always use a tissue for this and never my fingers. You could also use what’s called a drawing stump which is a stick made of soft, rolled up paper sharpened to a point.

As with the face I start by sketching in some basic lines in order to orient myself. I start adding in blocks of tone, fairly broadly and without much detail. I look for large locks of hair and the direction that they are flowing or pulled back. Unlike the face where I tend to hatch and cross hatch on the diagonal, with the hair I always shade in the direction of the hairs in order to give a sleeker look. I’ll smooth this first layer down, then add darker shading and then smooth down some more.

Second layer of hair
Third layer of hair

Next I’ll add highlights with an electric eraser and then I’ll blend these in. I’ll add fine lines to suggest more detail of the hair – I am not trying to draw every single one but the effect of creating some fine directional lines over a smooth areas of tone will give a suggestion of the individual hairs whilst keeping the overall impression sleek. Finally I’ll squint at my reference and drag a putty eraser over the broad areas of highlights, removing the fine lines I’ve just added in these areas.

Fourth layer of hair
Fifth layer of hair

8. Returning to the face, I refine the shading

Once I’m happy that the hair is finished I’ll return to the face, adding more shading if the skin now seems too pale (I want to keep the shading light on the skin, but don’t want her to look too ghostly) and creating a bit more detail and tonal variety. If I want to soften my hatched or crosshatched lines a little I will hatch over again but this time using the eraser tip on my pencil. This softens the pencil lines and very slightly blurs the graphite. I might also press the putty eraser against it to lift off a bit of the graphite in order to lighten it if it’s too dark. The more I layer, smooth and re-layer the hatching the more soft and subtle it starts to look.

Final shading layer

9. If the likeness isn’t quite there, I look at it upside down

At this point I’ll usually take a break! It’s helpful to leave the drawing for a little while, breaking that strong concentration and resting before returning to look. Sometimes when I look at the drawing again I’ll feel that I’ve captured the likeness, and other times I’ll feel that something is not quite right. This is really challenging because often it’s hard to identify what it is that is slightly inaccurate and is throwing the likeness off. If you do need to troubleshoot, my best advice  is to turn both the reference drawing and your own sketch upside down and compare the two

From this new viewpoint you’ll be comparing a new and unrecognizable image and will no longer fixating on individual features. Instead you’ll notice only abstract areas of different tones and it will be much easier to see how what you’ve drawn differs from the original photograph. Any area that’s too dark, too light, or in the wrong position will be much easier to spot. I’ll amend anything that jumps out at me as being really different from how I’ve drawn it, before turning the drawing and the photograph the right way up again.

10. I shade the hands, and lightly suggest suggest the forms of the shoulders

Lastly I’ll look at the hands, arms and clothing. I prefer to concentrate the most  detail around the face because it draws the viewer’s attention the subject’s features and expression, so I usually keep shading on clothing to a minimum. I just want to suggest what she’s wearing and the forms of her shoulders beneath, without distracting the eye too much. I’ll almost never draw a garment my subject is wearing as dark as it really is, at least lower than the neckline.

As I sketch further down her abdomen and arms my hatching turns to simple and faint lines, which then fade out to blank paper. Finally I’ll take a putty eraser and gently clean the paper of any unintended pencil marks or smudges.

Hands and body

It’s finished! For more advice on how to draw people in pencil, try this article on Tips for drawing portraits which covers some of these points in more depth, or this tutorial on Drawing upside down

Original photo
Pencil portrait of a child









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