Here are some of my top tips for drawing portraits and improving your drawing technique
my best tips for drawing portraits in pencil
This isn’t a step by step, how-to-draw guide exactly. It’s just some ideas I’ve arrived at which work for me when I’m trying to create a likeness in pencil. I hope you’ll find them useful.
1. DON’T CREATE SHADING ON FACES BY RUBBING THE GRAPHITE INTO THE PAPER
I think this is the most common mistake people make when doing pencil portraits. It’s how most of us were taught to draw at school – we were encouraged to draw a face with lines, shade the shadows, and then rub the shading smooth. However I now 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 (and thus smudge marks) onto your paper. A bit of smoothing can work well on hair or fur to create a sleeker look, but 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.
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 want to read one book on how to draw, this should be it. It has been in print since 1979 and is a real classic, as it teaches you not so much how to draw as how to LOOK. 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 drawing, 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 anlysis 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 preconceptions. I recommend this book so often that people think I make money out of promoting it! (I can assure you I don’t) Here is her website›
Here’s a good example of the benefit of trying not to mentally ‘name’ the parts of the face as you do your portrait and seeing them as separate from each other. Take a look in the mirror at your own mouth. When drawing a mouth, most beginners will assume without really looking that the lips are shapes that stop dead in a hard line when they meet the rest of the skin. But in fact, lips only finish in a hard and sharp line if you are wearing lipstick! Otherwise they aren’t defined anything like so clearly – you’ll notice on your own lip 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 two 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 line of dark shadow. By thinking of the face as a series of abstract tonal areas and working your way through them methodically, you’d have been much more likely to notice what a mouth looks like and to draw it accurately.
There’s an exercise in Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain which exemplifies another way to practice this principle. 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 below you can see a speeded-up video of someone completing the challenge) It 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. You can read a whole article here on drawing upside down.
3. MEASURE LIKE MAD
This follows on from the discussion above. We may assume that artists are just 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 judging where each part of the face they are drawing 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 seems like a cliche when an actor portrays an artist squinting at their subject matter as they paint or holding up a pencil to measure against (think of Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Lust For Life) but this is exactly what you should be doing! Squinting as you look at what you are drawing is a really good way to look at and compare the overall tones, instead of getting lost in the detail.
It may help you to visualise two important axes on a face when you are looking at it – one centrally down the middle of the face, and one horizontally along the line of the eyes as I’ve shown below. This will help you align all the features and to compare the shapes of the four quarters that are formed.
4. LEARN TO SEE ABSTRACTLY
This relates to the previous two tips, and it’s about the need to set aside any assumptions about what you may 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. Insted 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 by eye their relationship to each other and comparing their tones. So after I’ve loosely sketched in the lines of the portrait I will then start to look at the tones I can see. 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 – 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 my two extremities.
If you are drawing from a photograph or another drawing then turning it upside-down – as discussed above – is the perfect way to learn to see abstractly and will not only teach you to put your lines in the right place but will also help you to analyse the tones of an image in relation to each other. As with lines and shapes, try never to make assumptions about areas of light and dark.
5. LOOK AT HISTORICAL PORTRAITS
I started looking at portraits from the past when doing portrait drawings as props for film and television, that had to be drawn in the style of that particular period. However 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 it’s bold and sketchy hatched lines. Of course you can see some amazing contemporary portraits online by both professional artists and very talented people who just draw for pleasure – I’d suggest looking at Pinterest for this. However historical pencil portraits teach us some particular lessons.
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. As well as hatching, 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 unshaded. 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.
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. You could also search Pinterest or the online collection at the National Portrait Gallery to find old pencil drawings.
Charlötte Bronte by George Richmond, 1850 © National Portrait Gallery London
John Newman by George Richmond, 1844 © National Portrait Gallery London
6. MY SECRET WEAPON! A BATTERY POWERED ERASER
This is the one I use by Derwent although Jakkar makes a cheaper and less reliable version. 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 the hair, just as if I was using paint and adding the white highlights on top. Hair is the 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) and 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. Here’s 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, as I’ve described above. Otherwise you may do a beautiful drawing only to ruin it by rubbing straight through the paper and destroying the top surface.
For pencils, I always use either Derwent or Faber-Castell artist’s grade pencils – cheaper ones will be less consistent in their grade, 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 so you might has well have bought the more expensive ones….it’s actually 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 extensive London Graphic Centre, Cass Art branches which 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.