Draw Portraits

Pencil Portraits - Composition - Draw Portraits

To the budding artist or art student, the entry of ' Draw Portraits ' in the curriculum or on the list projects usually stirs up a sense of apprehension. Yet it is a challenge that can be very rewarding.

Yes, it is a complex study and it does not take much for something to go wrong. But, fear not, if the basics are done correctly, it will not take much to get it right the first time round. So often when we do portraits we can see that something is not quit right. But we cannot find the problem?

The object of this text is to give the artist a comprehensive list of techniques and guidelines to help them create a successful portrait. Each technique and guideline could be seen as being a single tool in the toolbox of 'How to draw portraits'.

Master that tool and you will never problems with its usage again. Furthermore, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the easier it will be to get that job done.

Everyone acts on what they know, but if you know better, you can do more.

Metaphorically it could be compared to having a driver's license. Once you have your lisense you can go anywhere. And, I may add, without thinking about when to put your foot on the clutch.

Reference Material

It is assumed that pictures or photographs are your primary source of reference for that portrait you wish to do. When choosing the subject matter it is important to consider both the practical requirements and the sentiment of the proposed study.

Quality of Photographs: The clarity of the photographs you choose will make a significant difference to the quality of the final artwork. Photographs taken by a professional photographer are always the best. The importance of lighting, focus and detail is paramount to achieving a favorable result.

Avoid photographs that where taken with a flashlight with no secondary light. The photograph taken in 'daylight shade' usually produce a good result, but be conscious of light coloured clothing or nearby objects that reflect light.

With commissioned work you choice of photographs may be limited. Consequently, ensure you have good quality subject matter. If the portrait is of someone you do not know get a selection of pictures so you can get a broader sense of their characteristics.

Computer Aids

There are a number of 'tricks' that be done on a computer to boost your subject matter.


Typical Example


Adjust Contrast


Edge Lines


Colour Contours

If you are doing a group or family portrait from a number of independent photographs use the Cut and Paste facilities to arrange, position and size the members.

However, when mixing different picture be aware of the common denominators such as the source of light and scale of one in relation to the others.

In conclusion, I feel I must echo that conventional values such as pleasing, beautiful and aesthetic need not be a measure for determining the value of art. Being true to what is real, and an appreciation for the individual is what makes portraiture so interesting. Rather be true to the character of the study and draw portraits that inspires.

Remember the choices you make at this level will be the starting point to the success of your study. So don't be too hasty, give it a little thought.



Stationery and Equipment

Besides a drawing board or suitable worktop you will need a selection of different grades of pencils or clutch pencils.

Ranging from light (Hard or H) to dark (Soft or B) that include 4H - 2H - H - HB - B - 2B - 4B.

In addition to the pencils you will need erasers, erasing putty or 'Prestick', a dusting brush and maybe an erasing shield.


Paper is the foundation to your art and is probably the most important.

It must be of the best quality, hard, if not, very hard and should have a light irregular grain. The grain of the paper is a matter of choice. However, a light irregular grain will be an advantage when doing textures or shin tones. For example stubble.


Irregular grain


No Grain


Regular Grain


The importance of the contrasts between light and dark is crucial to the black & white study and how you draw portraits.

The impact of a pencil study hinges on the quality and variation of contrasts. The first being the contrast between light & dark or tones, and the second being textures.

Throughout the drawing process, keeping your drawing clean is paramount. Keep your study dust free, never rest you hand on partly completed work and never, but never use your fingers to dust or rub the paper. If you do it will leave fatty residues that that absorb dirt and graphite dust.


One of the first factors that influences the composition of a study is to what extent is the person being portrayed interacting with the viewer. Is the portrait looking at you or is it looking somewhere else.

If the portrait is not looking at you and it is assumed to be 'in a world of their own', then the composition must accommodate that assumption. To do that free space should be added that in principle, holds their interest or their thoughts.

The next factor you need to consider is activity. Is the portrait posing or is the person being portrayed involved in an activity. For example, golfer, matador, campaigner or bride. In this case, draw portraits with appropriate props or a related background. Furthermore, the size of the one being portrayed must be reduced to accommodate the extras.

There are those portraits that focus on the facial expressions of a person involved in some sort of activity. In this case the joy, anguish, fear and the like of the portrait now becomes the focal point. As a result the size of the portrait should be increased and props or background should be minimal, if not, none existent. You must have good reference material for these types of portrait.

On occasion, you be required to draw portraits in a set. That is 2 or more separate portraits that will be framed and, or exhibited together. In this case consider the common denominators and try to carry them through the complete set.

In closing, I have to stress the point that there are no hard and fast rules in art. Some of the greatest 'masterpieces' have earned their status not through being a fine example of technique but rather from having just that something that cannot be explained.

That something that cannot be translated into the language of reason. That something 'extra' that does not come about through following the rules but rather through the artists discovering within themselves an ability that is driven by intuition and a passion for their art. It is not the art but the artist that will determine the value of the piece of art. Follow that passion within you and you will create 'art'. Do this and draw portraits with a passion and respect to honour you subject.

Portrait Types

When you draw portraits the size of the head in relation to the paper size is determined by two factors.

They are the focal point or the purpose of the portrait. The focal point can range from the face to the complete body. The purpose or type of portrait could include an activity, event or dress.

  • The largest (head) is a study that focuses on the character of, or expression on the face. For example a golfer following the ball with his arms still extended above his head.
  • The second is referred to as the bust. This is head and neck and is prevalent in sculptures.
  • Then there is the conventional 'head and shoulder' type portrait. Where the size of the head is usually determined by the width of the shoulder that just fit on to the paper. This applies to portraits where the study is interactive with the viewer. In other words when the portrait is looking at you.
  • If there is no interaction with the viewer addition space should be added in front of the study to in theory 'hold their thoughts'.
  • The next would of the head and torso where the focal point is now swinging to clothing of the subject. A typical example could a graduation or similar event.
  • Another aspect of head and torso would include those poses that would involve the hands or arms in some sort of activity. Example, painting her finger nails. Or, whatever.
  • The full body length portrait usually applies to dress. Such as the bride, McFarland, or the Dean.
  • A compact full body pose such as sitting on the floor and the like usually full into the same category as point 4. Here again additional space should be added to the composition to accommodate their circumstances.
  • The final option would be of the study involved in some sort of activity. In these types of portraits the background or environment become an important contribution to the study. It must be applicable yet must not over-power the subject.
  • As an extension to this type of study the dimension of the activity could enlarge the background or environment. For example the golfer on the fairway.

The composition of how to draw portraits will also to a degree be influenced by the type of portrait you are doing.


If the paper you choose is said to be the foundation to you study then the setup would be the floor plan. Without good reference material of the dimensions and proportion of the proposed study you are going to do you will battle with the setup.

The setup process is basically the method used to transpose the dimensions of your reference material on to the paper you will be working on. There are several ways of setting out the dimensions of you pencil portrait.

The first is by eye, where the artist uses no grids, methods of scaling or mechanical aids. By judging the relative position of one point from another the artist will Setup the complete outline of the study.


This may appear difficult initially, but with practice it is a method that ultimately will produce good results. It could be used in combination with another method that sets up the basic outlines and then thereafter add the detail by eye. In my opinion, this probably the best method.

A little trick you could try out is to draw it upside down. Straight way you are disorientated, and you are now confronted with something that doesn't make sense. Consequently, you are forced to look at it more carefully because 'things' are not quite that obvious. When setting out always position a point in relation to at lease 2 other points.


To draw pencil portrait a very commonly used method is the grid. Apply a regular or irregular grid to a copy of the picture you are coping and do the same to the paper you will be working on. Then map out the intersections and join the dots.

To increase the scale apply a larger grid on the paper you are working on, map the intersections and join the dots.

Always use a soft grade such as B or 2B to setup the grid on your drawing. Harder grade may be lighter but they tend to make an impression on the paper when drawn with a straightedge. Besides a hard grade is more difficult to erase and it will affect the layering process.

Another option is to make a carbon copy. But, instead of using carbon paper you replace it with a layer of 4B graphite applied to the back of a enlarged paper print of your reference material.

Position the printout over your paper; tape it in place and with a B or 2B trace out the basic space. The printout could be a modified by a computer prior to printing. As above: Computer aids.

Before removing the printout, lift one corner to check there are no missing lines. Thereafter remove the print and with a erasing putty or Prestick dab and remove unnecessary graphite dust a marks.

There are a number of mechanical methods that could be used. But frankly I have always ignored them. All I say is 'No comment'.


Under the headings below techniques to do whatever will be covered. However, every artist has a style of their own. Consequently, the results will vary from artist to artist. This is primarily due to their sense of touch that is but one part of our complex makeup.

In time every artist will develop a style that can be said be indicative to that artist. Their style comes about through time, practice and experience. Alternately, the artist could chance their style by making conscious effect to 'shape' it for a particular reason or purpose.

The artist's style can also vary depending on the medium they are working in. Depending on their conference in a particular medium and the nature of that medium their 'sense of touch' and consequently the results will vary from medium to medium.

As they say, practice makes perfect. As you work through the practical examples below try to duplicate the results. Experiment & try to apply 'what works for you' to create a style of you own.

Light and Toning

The importance of contrast in a pencil portrait is critical. To do this you must have a sound knowledge of lighting options and the tonal range of a soft surface and textures.

With the lack of contrast, the pencil portrait will look 'flat' and uninteresting. If it were possible to increase that range of contrast it would make a significant difference to the 'depth' of the pencil study. To do that, the different phases of light must be understood and applied


Typical Example


Phases of Light

  • True light also referred to as Full Light usually set the tonal range. The Highlight is a reflection of the light source and is less obvious on matt surfaces.
  • Fading light is a gentle escalation of tone.
  • Night-light is usually the darkest point.
  • Reflected light is refracted light from nearby a surfaces
  • Shadow is the shadow cast up the object.
  • Reflection of an adjoining objects or surface only comes into play if the surface is of a reflective nature. A typical example could be a shop front window where the reflection of the street (most likely in daylight) overwhelms the window dressing beyond.

Further detail on tonal range from light to shadow is discussed on page Draw light.


Light and the tonal range also affect textures. n this section techniques on how to create texture we will discussed, and the verity of methods that can be employed to add light and shadow to the texture.

The skin is in fact a texture. Although cosmetically, it is 'preferred' to seen as smooth and in good tone. Yet there is a need for the rougher skin in some portraits. Practically, when stubble, freckles, blemishes and the like come into play.

Another important aspect of the portrait is hair. A portrait can fall apart if the hair appears dull and lifeless. It needs a drawing technique that will produce convincing results and will play to the different styles and colour of hair.

Google Search