“A good sketch is better than a long speech” - Napoleon Bonaparte
You can say a lot through a drawing. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, just take a look at the Mona Lisa and you’re bound to feel something. This is why an increasing number of people are learning to draw. A lot of Brits enjoy creative hobbies.
So, with that in mind, here’s how you can learn to draw a portrait.
What Are the Characteristics of a Portrait?
Whether it’s a painting or a photograph, a portrait is defined as “a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.”.
We tend to think that a portrait is just a simple drawing of a face. However, a portrait can go beyond the head. If could be from head to foot or just the head and shoulders.
Each artist can decide how they want to draw their portrait. A portrait is a person on their own. Otherwise, it’s a group portrait.
A portrait doesn’t even need to be head-on, however. While a front view is the most common type of portrait, the subject’s head can be turned away from the artist or even a side view of the subject. In this case, you'll need to pay particular attention to the face shape, the bridge of the nose, the upper lip, the eyebrow, and facial features that you'd usually draw differently.
In any case, a portrait needs to represent the subject’s physical traits. Portraiture can also represent a person’s profession, etc. The goal is to better understand the subject through the piece. Of course, if you want to do a portrait, you need to learn how to draw a face, how to shade it with a graphite pencil, and how to make it expressive.
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Tools for Drawing a Portrait
To start drawing portraits, you’ll have to first choose somebody to draw. It's not easy learning how to draw faces or capture somebody's likeness in your sketchbook. However, you don’t need to draw somebody in front of you to do a nice portrait. You might want to avoid this if you’re just getting started.
The easiest way for a beginner to start drawing portraits is from photos. You can draw a portrait of a stranger or use a photo of somebody you know. I recommend starting with black and white portraits to bet understand light and shadow. It’s a useful exercise in understanding depth.
Once you’ve chosen your model, you need to choose the technique and medium. If you start with a black and white portrait, you can opt for graphite, charcoal, or pens, which can be good for portraiture.
You’ll just need a sheet of paper. The sheet of paper needs to be quite thick so that it doesn’t crease when you use a rubber. However, you can always grab some printer paper if you’re on a budget or just getting started.
If you’d like to do a colour portrait, you have a few options. Coloured pencils, markers, acrylics, gouache, watercolours, oil paint, etc. If you’ve opted for oil paint, you'll need a canvas. When it comes to watercolours, there’s special paper you can get. Each artist needs to choose before they draw their portrait.
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Drawing Construction Lines for the Face
Once you’re sitting comfortably with your art supplies, you can start by drawing a circle, then drawing intersecting curved vertical and horizontal lines to turn it into a sphere.
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The horizontal line will half the sphere, like the equator on the earth. The second line will also cut the sphere in half. These lines will help you correctly position the facial features. The eyes sit just above the horizontal line and the nose and mouth will sit on the vertical line.
You can alter the positions of the lines (while always ensuring they divide the sphere into two equal parts) to change the orientation of the head. Of course, a face isn’t a perfect sphere. Once you’ve placed the facial features, you can start by creating the jawline. This will work for most portraits and you can also use this technique to draw your own characters.
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Drawing the Main Facial Features
Now that you’ve got your construction lines, you can draw the outline of your model’s face before adding the features (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc.).
You can then do your subject’s jawline. The hairline is also important because you’re going to have to go back over it once you add the hair.
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Once you’ve got the outline drawn, place the ears just above the horizontal line. Pay particular attention to the space between the eyes. Carefully look at your model to get the proportions right. There is no one-size-fits-all mathematical rule for faces. Each face is different, after all.
Once you’ve got the eyes, you can add the eyebrows, eyelids, and pupils. Keep in mind that a face will never have perfect symmetry. Ensure that each detail is as realistic as possible. Details can change everything (beauty spots, scarring, etc.).
Move onto the nose and then the mouth. The latter needs to be about halfway between the horizontal line and the bottom of the jawline.
Start by placing the ears at the same level as the eyes. You might need to practise how to draw eyes, eyelashes, the eyelid, and the human head in general before you start. Human faces are notoriously difficult to get right and you might want to use construction lines rather than doing it freehand.
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Learning to Draw Hair
For the next step, you’ll need to add hair to your sketch. Hair is an important part of a portrait but it’s difficult to draw. You need to work out where the hair starts on the forehead so that you can set the limits.
You can then draw the outline of all their hair and don’t hesitate to add some movement. Trace a few lines and defining features of the hair but don’t overdo the hair else you'll be closer to drawing a caricature than being a portrait artist.
Practising how to draw hair is particularly difficult and private art lessons could help you draw it.
The Background of a Portrait
To finish off your portrait, you’ll need to add a background. It could be in the countryside or a town. It could also be basic shapes, animals, or whatever.
The background can add important information about your subject. It could represent their loves, hobbies, etc.
Two More Techniques for Drawing a Portrait
While we’ve gone through the basics of drawing a portrait, these aren’t the only techniques you need to use.
You can also draw on grid lines. This technique involves drawing lines on the source photo and then replicating these lines on your blank sheet of paper. The grid lines will help you faithfully position parts of the drawing. This is also useful if you’re changing the scale.
Some artists prefer to draw their portraits with no grid lines or construction lines. These artists can do this from feeling alone and replicate a face just as it appears in the photo. You can start with just an eye, then align the second, sketch the nose, mouth, and the outline of the face.
There are no rules. Just trust yourself and practise regularly.
Learning to Draw Faces
There are several ways to learn the fundamentals of drawing and you can always teach yourself. Get a lot of source material and practise regularly to get better. You can also attend an art school, art workshops, or hire a private art teacher. No matter how you choose to do it, drawing has to be enjoyable first and foremost.
If you want to learn how to draw people, how to sketch simple shapes, how to draw an eye or do a quick pencil portrait, you can always get in touch with one of the many talented private tutors on Superprof!
There are three main types of tutorials available: face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials, and group tutorials, and each comes with its pros and cons in terms of learning and cost-effectiveness.
Face-to-face tutorials are taught with one student and one tutor and they tend to be the most cost-effective type since every minute in the lesson is spent focusing on you as the student.
Online tutorials are similar to the face-to-face tutorials but take place either on a call or via webcam. Online tutorials are usually cheaper than face-to-face tutorials.
Finally, group tutorials are classes with one teacher or tutor and multiple students and these tend to be the cheapest per student per hour.