How to Draw a Portrait: From Start to Finish

Every artist knows that moment. Inspiration has struck. You have an amazing idea for a new project, all visualized out and everything. You run to your art supplies, get everything set up, maybe even put on some music to get the creative juices flowing, and then you see it… Staring right at you….. The blank sheet of paper. 

Sometimes it’s intimidating to be confronted with a blank slate, and it’s hard to know where to even begin. Everyone has their own creative process, but I’m hoping to help a little, in more than just the starting point.

I’m going to break down every step of my latest portrait, from conception to completion. I personally love checking out other artists’ works in progress, so if you’re into that as well, please do stick around! But mainly I’m doing this in the hopes to help you realize that everything is just one step at a time.

So stare right back at that blank slate, and come draw with me!

Step 1: Reference Picture

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I get the feeling that there is some controversy and varied opinions about using photo references for art. I personally love it. As long as you’re not completely ripping someone else off, I don’t see the problem in drawing a portrait based off of a picture. Even if you’re searching Google to get the texture of a piece of cloth right or the details of a tree captured perfectly, I think it’s all good as long as you’re using common sense.

The portrait I drew is of my boyfriend, Greg (handsome, I know). His dad asked me to draw him and get the finished drawing framed to hang up in his house. I was all too glad to do so. This also gave us an excuse to have a fun day driving around and taking pictures!

Step 2: Outline

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As with every type of drawing I do, I start with an outline in a light peach colored pencil.

For portraits I choose light peach because it is the lightest color I use while creating skin tones. That way I know it won’t be making too many visibility problems later when I go in to do the shading of the face.

It’s important to outline first so you can get a rough idea of the finished product. Now is when you can really play with composition.

It’s also important not to press too hard while doing your outline because it may make an area you need to highlight later on more difficult to manipulate.

Step 3: Eye Number One

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This is where people tend to vary while drawing a face… where to begin. For some reason, I always start with one of the eyes.

First, I go back over the outline of the eye and surrounding area with peach, but this time with more detail. I actually do this before every step. Remember not to draw too dark. Then, I lightly shade the skin around the eye and eyebrow.

Next, I begin to draw the eyebrow hairs, starting with the lightest color first. For brown colored eyebrows, I use a light brown colored pencil for the whole area, usually going over it with a colorless blending pencil and then back over it in light brown with tiny hair strokes. Then I use a dark brown colored pencil mainly in the darker parts of the eyebrow and some fine hairs elsewhere for realism. Finally, I use a black colored pencil only in the darkest parts of the eyebrows.

After that, I work on the eyeball itself. I add subtle pink to the lower eyelid and inside corner of the eye (if visible). I add a light gray with a very light touch to the whites of the eye, blending where necessary with a white colored pencil and a colorless blending pencil.

For the iris I start with the less prominent color first and blend it throughout the whole area. For example, Greg has hazel eyes, so first I go over the whole iris with a green colored pencil and blend (leaving a spot of white for the shine of the eye). Then I go back over the area with brown, adding some detail where needed, like the outward strokes coming from the pupils. I color the pupils in black, leaving a spot for the shine on the eye once again.

Lastly, I add the eyelashes in black. Very light on the bottom and fairly dark on the top. Remember, most men don’t have eyelashes as prominently dark or flipped up as most females do.

Step 4: Eye Number Two

Here you can see a good example of the creation of the iris. I start with green for hazel eyes. Notice in the first picture that the eyelashes aren’t drawn yet as well. The shading of the skin around the eye is done, so I can add a beauty mark that Greg has under his eye. It’s important to save those little details for after the skin is already done and blended because, if I blended over the mark, it would smear.

Step 5: Shading the Nose

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Most of the time, the nose is my favorite thing to shade while drawing a portrait. There is so much shading to be done on just one area of the face, and every detail counts in making it look like the subject’s actual nose. The best tips I can give here are to pay attention to the details, draw the nostrils darker than the rest of the nose, and there is a highlight across the nose where it is about to curve under that will give it a more realistic look when drawn.

Step 6: The Lips and the Rest of the Face

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Lips are very hard to shade, especially for men. It’s so easy to make it look like they’re wearing lipstick. So if they are not, I would stick to peach tones and very subtle hints of pink and dark purple. Keep the lip line where the two lips meet a dark and prominent line. The rest is all trial and error.

Shading skin is fairly easy, so long as you really focus on the details, and keep a light hand where needed. Feel free to squint at the reference picture to see where the darkest parts actually are, and shade away!

Once the skin is done, you can add all of the various freckles, wrinkles, and facial hair that are personal to your subject and will bring your portrait to life.

For facial hair, I use pretty much the same technique as the eyebrows. Just remember that while drawing individual hairs will make your drawing look more realistic, it’s very easy to get carried away with it as well. I learned that the hard way!

Step 7: Hair

With any hair color, there are undertones that are a different color. For Greg’s hair, I start with a yellow undertone, as his hair is a warmer shade of brown. I very lightly go over the whole area with yellow and blend.

Next, I take it one section at a time. I choose an area to start and go in with a light brown colored pencil, using strokes to represent individual hairs until the area is complete. Then I go over the same area with dark brown.

Here’s where it gets tricky… If an area of hair has a strong highlight in it, I lightly rub over it with an eraser. This takes away some of the top two layers of brown and leaves the yellow undertone with a brown tint. I then go back over the highlight with the browns in individual strokes, leaving most of the highlight intact, but also giving it a realistic look of hairs throughout.

For the darkest parts of the hair, I use a black colored pencil. It’s also important to add the little wispy hairs and frizz. Very few people have hair that flat to their head, especially in the wind, which was the condition of the day I took the reference picture.

Lastly, using peach, I shade in any area where his hair might be casting a shadow on his face. I repeat those steps until the hair is complete.

Step 8: Clothing

You may think that since the face is done that the hardest and most important part is over, and that it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. Well let me tell you, it is so important to not skip over all of the details and textures of the clothes.

Just like with any other part of the portrait, all you need to do is focus on the details and copy them as best you can. It may not look like it’s making sense as you’re doing it, especially with clothes, but as long as you’re paying attention, it will turn out just the way you want it.

Here I shade the coat with black, except for the shiny part on the inside of the hood, which has some blue undertones. For that kind of texture, I usually blend with both a colorless blending pencil and a white colored pencil. It’s all about experimenting though, so don’t be afraid to get risky!

Step 9: The Background

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There are so many options for backgrounds, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin for advice. Just make sure that it doesn’t take away from what you’ve already drawn.

For this background, I decide to switch up the mediums a little bit, and go with a tan charcoal stick. I lightly color in the edges and blend inward with my fingers.

Step 10: Your Signature Here! 

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This has got to be the most satisfying step of all… the signature! So sign your name with pride.

Although, if you’re anything like me, it’s more of a “Well… there’s ten thousand other things I feel like I should do here, but I think this is as done as it’s going to get… *signs*.”

Step 11: Getting It Framed

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The last and final step for me is to get the drawing framed for Greg’s dad. I choose a frame that compliments the portrait rather than one that takes away from it.

I have since given him the portrait, and he loves it. I’m very happy and relieved to mark this portrait as complete.

Thanks for drawing with me!
Kayla

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