Drawing & Painting blog

TIPS FOR DRAWING PORTRAITS IN PENCIL

This isn’t a step by step ‘ how to draw’ guide. However in evolving my drawing method over a number of years I’ve arrived at a set of ideas about how to create a portrait in pencil, so here are my best tips! They work for me and I hope you’ll find them useful.

1. Don’t rub your pencil marks into the paper to create shadow

I think this is the most common mistake people make when drawing a pencil portrait. It’s how most of us were taught to draw at school where we were usually encouraged to draw a face with lines, shade the shadows with the side of our pencil, and then rub the shading smooth until the paper went grey.

When it comes to drawing faces I try to do an absolute minimum of smoothing to the pencil shading I apply. Not only does it produce a dull ‘airbrushed’ look, but it’s also much harder to control the exact tone you want and you may also introduce grease from your skin onto the paper, causing smudge marks. Whereas a bit of smoothing can work well to create a sleek look for hair (or fur!) when shading skin I build up layers of fine shading or cross-hatching using harder pencils for the lighter areas of skin (never shading more than I need to so that the areas of bright light are simply blank paper) and darker pencils for the areas which are in shadow.

Portrait in pencil
Hatching close up

The effect of this is firstly that you create an impression of ‘movement’ instead of flat dull colour, and secondly that rather than seeing a dull grey area of tone the eye registers tiny specks of the white paper in between the lines which vibrate and create an impression of luminosity, even in the more shadowed areas.

Take your time and build up the layers of hatching slowly, and you’ll have much more control over what you produce and a ‘brighter’ skin tone even in the darker areas. I’ll only attempt to rub the pencil marks if the hatched lines are overly prominent and need softening, in which case I’ll use a clean tissue to avoid transfering any grease from my skin. You can also buy ‘blending stumps’ for the same purpose. These are tight rolls of paper in the shape of short pencils which you can use to blend pencil marks together and smooth pencil into paper. They can be sharpened which is useful for blending really small areas.

2. Read ‘Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain’ by Betty Edwards

If you read one book about learning to draw, this should be it. There are thousands of ‘how to draw’ books out there and most of them focus on teaching you basic anatomy.  That’s not without value  but somehow always seems to me to be slightly missing the point which is that what you need to learn is how to really LOOK and observe, not to have a preconceived idea of what you’ll see when you do.

This book does exactly that. It has been in print since 1979 and is a real classic.  It proposes the idea that most people when trying to draw allow the part of their brain associated with linear reasoning and language to ‘jump in’ and tell them what it thinks they ought to be seeing, making them less likely to really study what’s in front of them. In Edwards’ view, artistic ability isn’t ‘magic’ or attributable simply to good hand-to-eye coordination. Artists are simply people who seem to know how to suspend this ‘linguistic’ area of their brain instinctively when they are drawing.

I don’t know how well the scientific aspect of this analysis holds up today in terms of the division of activity into right and left areas of the brain (recent research has shown that these areas are more scattered) but it doesn’t really matter. The concept still works perfectly as a metaphor to teach you how to set aside your learned assumptions. I recommend this book so often that people think I make money out of promoting it (I definitely don’t!) Here is her website

There’s an exercise in Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain which exemplifies the principle argument of the book. Edwards reproduces a famous line drawing of Igor Stravinsky by Picasso (I’d love to show it, but it’s only in the public domain in the United States. However above you can see a speeded-up video of someone completing the challenge) .

She asks you to copy the drawing firstly the right way up, and then upside down. Most people will find that the drawing they did upside down is far more accurate! This is because when the drawing is the wrong way up, your brain will be unable to identify the separate features of the face or parts of the body and therefore to impose any preconceptions about what those things should look like. All you will be able to register instead are abstract lines, and so you are likely to find yourself mentally measuring the distances between them and deciding where they ought to be placed on the page far more accurately.

The exercise teaches you that drawing is about constantly mentally measuring, sizing up and comparing shapes and lines. If you aren’t doing that, then you aren’t likely to produce an accurate drawing.

Here’s a good example I like to give about how this method helps us to avoid making presumptions about what things look like, without actually examining them. Take a close look in the mirror at your own mouth. When drawing a mouth, most beginners will assume that the lips are two shapes that stop dead in a hard line when they meet the rest of the skin. In fact, lips only finish in a hard and sharp line if you are wearing lipstick! The edge of a lip is rarely defined anything like so clearly.

When you look more closely you’ll notice that the thin tissue of the lip actually blends into the skin of your chin in quite an uneven way and straggly way. In between the lip tissue and chin tissue you may well see an area of lighter, pinkish skin that isn’t quite part of the lip above, but is darker in colour than the rest of your skin below. Underneath this you may see a soft line of dark shadow. By thinking of the face not as a familiar set of features but instead as a series of abstract tonal areas that aren’t even easy to name (where does the lower lip end and chin begin?) and working your way through them methodically, you’d be much more likely to notice what a mouth looks like and to draw it accurately. 

3. Measure like mad

This follows on from the discussion above. We tend assume that artists are people with wonderful hand-to-eye co-ordination who magically know where to put their lines down accurately. In fact, they are constantly measuring by eye and trying to judge where each part of the face exists in relation to the other areas. Is the distance between the eyes wider or shorter than the width of the nose? Which is greater – the distance between the nostrils and the eyes, or the nostrils and the chin? Asking yourself these questions as you go along will help you to draw much more accurately.

It may help you to visualise at least two important axes on a face when you are looking at it – one centrally down the middle of the face, and one or more horizontally along the line of the eyes as I’ve shown below. This will help you align all the features and be accurate with your distances.

Drawing methods
Negative space

4. Learn to see abstractly

It seems like a cliche in a film when we see an artist squinting at their subject matter as they paint (think of Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life) but squinting is actually really useful! It helps you not to get bogged down in tiny details but to see larger shapes and areas of tone. Think about negative space, by which I mean the space around someone’s head as in the image above. It will help you draw the shape of the head more accurately. I’d suggest defining the shape of the head and the basic position and axes of the features before anything else.

When you start to fill in detail of those features, you really need to try to set aside any assumptions about what you THINK you should see when you look at a face. When I draw I aim to entirely forget that I am drawing an eye, nose, mouth and so on!  Instead I try to simply see the image I am copying as simply an abstract collection of lines and different shapes of light or dark and am constantly measuring their relationship to each other.

After I’ve loosely and lightly sketched in the basic shapes of the head and features I will start to look at the tones I am seeing. Where are the brightest highlights? Where are the darkest areas? These may not be where you expect – for example people tend to assume that the whites of the eyes or the teeth will be the brightest parts of the face but in fact these areas are usually a little shadowed, with just tiny bright dots of highlight. Once I’ve established this range – by noting where the brightest lights are and by shading in a bit of the darkest tone I can see within the image – I can measure all the other tones against these two extremities.

If you are drawing from a photograph then turning it upside down as discussed above is the perfect way to learn to see abstractly and if I’m struggling to grasp a likeness the first thing I will do is turn my drawing and reference photo upside down to see where the inaccuracy lies. You can read a whole article here on drawing upside down.

Drawing upside down
Upside down face

5. Look at historical portraits

I started looking at portraits from the past when creating portrait drawings as props for film and television, that had to be drawn in the style of that particular period. I found that what I learnt from these drawings was also very useful for drawing regular, modern portraits.

I was really surprised so see how loose and expressive portraits from several centuries ago could be, such as this one below of John Newman by the artist George Richmond, with its bold and sketchy hatched lines. Pencil portraits would often have been created either as drawing practice or as studies for paintings and would have been created from life, fairly swiftly.

As mentioned above I’m a fan of using a hatching technique for drawing skin and nineteenth century artists (and earlier) always seemed to employ hatched and cross-hatched shading and rarely rubbed the pencil into their paper. They would often create engravings and perhaps this is why the hatching method predominated.

Another trick I learned was to vary the amount of detail you put into different parts of the portrait as in the portrait of Charlotte Brönte, below – also by George Richmond. It was very common to put concentrate a great deal of detail in the face, then a little less in the neck and hair and even less in the arms, shoulders and chest which are often left extremely sketchy and un-shaded. I like this look and it makes sense to me as it draws the attention of the viewer to the face, which should be the focus of the portrait.

John Newman by George Richmond

John Newman by George Richmond, 1844 © National Portrait Gallery London

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Charlötte Bronte by George Richmond, 1850 © National Portrait Gallery London

Historical artists often drew in pencil or chalk onto coloured paper, rather than white or cream. This meant that their mid-tones would be represented by the paper itself, and they would then simply pick out highlights in white chalk and their shadows in dark pencil or chalk. I found it interesting to try drawing on coloured paper as an exercise, because it teaches you that less can be more when making your marks and that you don’t have to cover every inch of the face with grey shading.

If you’re interested in learning to paint, rather than draw, portraits, to give you some ideas on where to begin with finding historical portraits to learn from I’ve put together some lists of my favourite child portraits, dog portraits and cat portraits by well-known and less-well known artists to inspire you. Pinterest is a great source for historical pencil portraits, or try the online collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

6. My secret weapon: an electric eraser

Below is the one I use by Derwent, although Jakkar makes a cheaper and less reliable version that’s more widely available. I use my eraser all the time particularly when drawing hair, not just to rub out mistakes (although it’s useful for that too!) but also for creating highlights. An battery eraser can erase even fairly dark pencil marks. Therefore I can build up the tones in layers, starting with the darkest areas and then use the eraser to rub away the pencil where the light hits, just as if I was using paint and adding the white highlights on top.

Hair is one place that I do sometimes rub the pencil marks with a tissue to create a smoother effect (I think of it as being a bit like ‘brushing’ the hair). Then I use the eraser to pick out the brightest points of light. A battery powered eraser can also be used to do sharp highlights within the eye or in other areas of the face such as the tip of the nose.

Using an battery eraser
Battery eraser

Above is  an example where I’ve used drawn darker shaded hair and then used my eraser to cut in the highlights, as well as adding the bright dot highlight to the left of the iris. This type of eraser also does fur brilliantly! You can see how I use it for pet portaits in pencil by following the link.

7. Invest in good quality art materials as much as possible

This really will make a difference. Try to get a good quality of cartridge paper to draw on which can take plenty of rubbing out. That’s particularly important to me because I erase out a lot as part of my drawing technique. Cheaper and thinner paper may result in your drawing being ruined if you rub straight through the paper and destroy the top surface. My paper is extra heavyweight at 220 ‘gsm’, but go for at least 130-140gsm weight as a minimum.

For pencils, I always use either Derwent or Faber-Castellartist’s grade’ pencils . Cheaper ones will break more and may even scratch your paper. You can read more about drawing materials that I like to use by reading my articles on drawing equipment and  pencil brands. I realize that proper artist grade pencils aren’t cheap, but cheaper pencils will break so often that you’ll sharpen them away in no time such that you might has well have bought the more expensive ones so buying cheaper is really a false economy! If you buy artist’s pencils in a selection tin with a number of different grades of softness it will work out cheaper than buying pencils singly.

Shop around for materials as much as you are able, because prices vary very much between different stores. For Londoners, I recommend the slightly pricey but very large London Graphic Centre  for variety. Cass Art branches do a lot of special offers and best of all the huge Atlantis store in Brick Lane which has the most extensive but least expensive range of art supplies. You can also order from all of them online. Some online-only companies can be great value. I’ve often bought supplies from http://www.greatart.co.uk/ which does very good discounts on the top brands.

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