Pencil Portraits

click for bigger picture

How you can start drawing pencil portraits

Find a quiet place. Brick up the door and unplug everything. Make sure that you won't be disturbed for an hour. Background radio chatter or music are distractions although I find that external sound fades to nothing while I'm concentrating on drawing.

Food and drink are all magnetically attracted to your drawing so keep them at least ten yards away. Try this experiment. Put one tiny crumb of french fry on a clean piece of drawing paper and watch the oily stain grow.

I use a propelling pencil with soft 2B leads and solid graphite pencils (2B, 4B, 6B and 8B) rather than those old fashioned things made of wood that need constant sharpening. If you only have wooden pencils then get a couple sharpened before you start and round down the hypodermic point on a scrap of paper. Having to jump up in the middle of drawing to sharpen a pencil really breaks your concentration.

You must have a kneadable eraser or putty eraser as they are sometimes called. If you don't know what a putty eraser is then go to an art shop and buy one. They are very cheap. To use one first warm it in your hand, while constantly squashing it, until it's soft and sticky. Form a point with the eraser and dab the point on the paper to erase pencil marks - don't try and rub out with it! Keep the putty eraser in your non-drawing hand. If you only have a normal eraser use a feather to brush away the bits instead of smudging your drawing with your hand.

A clip board is ideal for holding the paper. Use a smooth piece of thick cardboard as backing. If you fasten your paper down to a desk then it's awkward to draw shaded lines at some angles because you can't turn the paper.

Subject matter
What's the easiest portrait to draw? Try and find a photograph with the subject facing directly forward with shortish hair, without glasses and as young as possible - no wrinkles to draw! Drawing from real life is far more difficult than from photographs. Photographs don't fidget or walk off unexpectedly for a sandwich. Ideally find a photograph that is the same size as the picture that you are going to draw. This saves you having to do any scaling and you can check your accuracy with a ruler!

Before you start drawing first practise by drawing with your pencil just off the paper. This may sound crazy but you need to get into the mood. Concentrate on the details of what you are going to draw and go through the motions of drawing for a minute. There's nothing more off-putting than to draw the first pencil mark and then immediately have to erase it.

Look at the photograph you are drawing every couple of seconds - yes, that often. If you don't then you will start making up a different, and wrong, picture. By constantly looking at the original picture you burn the detail into your memory. As well as constantly comparing the detail of your drawing with the original you also need to constantly check the overall composition. What's the use of two individually perfect eyes if they don't match. So, look at the photograph, draw on your paper, look at the whole thing and repeat.

click for bigger picture

What part of the portrait do you draw first? It's a good idea to get the general outline shaded first - don't draw any lines to start with - just shading. With shading you define the size and shape of your portrait without placing down hard lines that are difficult to rub out. Shade by holding the pencil at the non-point end and nearly horizontal to the paper. You won't get any deep pencil marks this way. After initial shading, go around, again and again, increasing the definition and filling in. Use a finger to lightly smooth shading. Try to fill in the detail from top-left to bottom-right if you are right-handed, or top-right to bottom-left if you are left-handed. This way your hand doesn't rest on and smudge your work.

Having trouble with the shape of something? Staring or squinty eyes? Trying drawing shapes next to the part such as the white of the eye rather than the iris. Alternatively turn both the paper and photograph sideways or even upside down. Every student of art knows that the eyes are halfway up the face but only when the picture is upside down do you believe it. Try it now and see! When the portrait is upside down it's much harder to recognise who it is and this means that it is easier for you to concentrate on copying the detail without distraction.

Eyes are the essence of a portrait.

If the eyes are wrong then the portrait is dead. Just look at the first horrible image. Removing the highlights from the eyes makes the drawing flat and lifeless. The eye isn't just a white disc with a grey ring surrounding a black spot in the middle. Take a look in the bathroom mirror and see how many highlights dance across your eyes' surfaces as you move. If you observe a twinkle on one side of the pupil you'll probably also notice that the area around it appears relatively dark whereas on the opposite side of the pupil the iris is lighter. So in your drawing use this principle.

In the second image, there are two glints but the rule still holds since the iris is lighter on the opposite side of each. Also, notice that the pupil is a dark hole surrounded by the iris muscle that is striated with lines radiating out from the pupil.

Positive Attitude
Believe that you can draw. Everyone that can write has the hand-eye co-ordination to draw. Don't be put off by unhelpful comments. Keep your old drawings so that you can see your improvement. Draw something everyday, just an eye or an ear - anything to keep up your confidence. Confidence is the key. If you believe you can draw you will be able to draw. If you need more help get either Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or the new version from your local library. If you can't find it then you can get an inexpensive paperback copy within 24 hours from Amazon- you can use the direct links below.

The book by Betty Edwards that inspired this web site
The original book available from
The original book available from
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
The new book available from
The new book available from
The New
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Everybody has artistic talent and can be good at drawing. You only have to tune into the creative, intuitive and artistic side of the brain - the right side - and you will be able to draw accurate and imaginative portraits, landscapes, and still life. By setting you simple tasks which only the right side of the brain can perform, Betty Edwards heightens your awareness of shape, colour and form, makes you see more clearly and intuitively, and within a remarkably short time, gives you the pleasure and satisfaction of being a competent artist. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is an established classic. This revolutionary book has been updated and now contains much exciting new material. For the first time there is a section on drawing in colour, with twelve pages of full-colour illustrations; additional information on using lights and shadows enables the artist to create three-dimensional effects; and a new section shows how drawing techniques can improve your handwriting. There are new examples of before-and-after drawings by students, new exercises, and much more.

Home Gallery Order Postcard Pastel