Drawing & Painting blog


This isn’t a step by step guide for drawing a portrait (you can find a tutorial like that here if you’d like to read one). But instead, here are some of my best tips for creating a good pencil portrait. Everyone has their own style, but these techniques work for me and I hope you’ll find them useful.

Pencil portrait tips

1. When shading skin, don’t rub the pencil into your paper to create shadows

I think the biggest mistake people make when drawing a pencil portrait is to rub the shading with their fingers. It’s something kids are often taught to do in art class at school, but it creates dull and sort of ‘airbrushed’ skin tones – the opposite of the light touch I always want to achieve.

If you try to create your shadows and different tones in this way it’s also really difficult to control the exact degree of light or dark that you want to create in any particular area. Worst of all you risk introducing grease from your skin onto the paper (even clean fingers contain natural oils) and this can cause smudge marks when it becomes mixed with graphite dust.

When I’m drawing hair or animal fur I do smooth down my pencil shading to create the effect of sleekness, using a bit of facial tissue. However when it comes to drawing skin I do an absolute minimum of smoothing.

Instead I build up layers of very fine hatched lines, using harder pencils for the lighter areas (usually in H or HB grades) and softer, darker pencils for more shadowed areas (from a 2B grade up to around 8B) To increase the darkness for deep shadows I will sometimes crosshatch my lines in the opposite direction over the top.

Hatching technique

If I want to slightly soften my hatching I use an eraser pencil like this one to hatch over the top of the pencil lines. Importantly however this just blurs the lines slightly but doesn’t heavily rub the graphite into the paper.

Eraser pencil

What I want is for the hatched and cross-hatched lines to reveal little spots of the white paper, peeking out between them. As I shade over the textured ‘grain’ of the paper, the irregularity of the surface naturally causes the pencil to miss tiny little specs, which help me to convey the natural luminosity of skin even in areas of dark shadow. If I were then to rub the graphite into the paper all of the specs of white would be covered, and the vibrant effect would be lost.

2. Measure like mad

There are definitely some myths around the concept of artistic ability. People tend to think of an artist as someone with naturally great hand-to-eye coordination and believe that this is something that other people can’t learn. I don’t agree with this at all! Drawing isn’t magic, and in reality an artist is measuring by eye all the time as they draw: assessing and comparing shapes, distances and relationships.

There are lots of ways to visualise and examine these proportions. When I start drawing a head I imagine axis lines running down the centre of the face and horizontally through the eyes. This helps me to see the angle that the head is tilted, and how far down the head the eyes are situated. I also try to visualise the overall shape made by the head, and I sketch this onto my paper before refining any details within it.

Drawing with a grid

As I flesh out the sketch and draw the features I’m continually measuring by eye and asking myself questions. Is the distance between the eyes smaller or greater than the width of each eye itself? Is the vertical distance between eyebrows and the bottom of the nose smaller or greater than the distance between the bottom of the nose and the chin? How much more? Try to keep your eyes constantly flitting to your subject and to examine every distance and size before you make a mark on your paper. Don’t just guess.

3. Read ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards, and learn to see abstractly

This classic book has been in print for decades and can help anyone to improve their drawing beyond recognition (please note this is an independent opinion on my part – I don’t receive any sponsorship for recommending it!) It’s the only ‘how to draw’ book that I recommend because unlike many manuals it doesn’t focus on teaching anatomy or learning proportional formulas – something I don’t recommend at all because it can make people forget to look at what’s actually in front of them.

Instead Edwards’ book teaches you to learn to look at what you are drawing as something abstract, and to actually forget that you are drawing a face. This way you lose any anxiety about it which can impede your accuracy. The book contains numerous exercises designed to help you learn how to draw by assessing and comparing forms, instead of imposing any received ideas you may have about what something should look like.

This can feel counter intuitive at first because we are usually taught to think that drawing must be ‘expressive’ and should reveal our emotional response to the human subject. However only by measuring accurately are you ever going to actually achieve a good likeness, and learning to do so with confidence will actually free you to make more expressive marks.

4. Squint!

Squinting at your subject is genuinely useful, and I do it a lot. When you’re looking at your subject and trying to locate the shadows and highlights, squinting can help you to identify broad areas of different tonal values without getting distracted by smaller variations.

When I start shading my portrait I begin by trying to identify the very darkest tones that I can see, and by filling these in. Often they will be in the pupils of the eyes, but they might also be in the darkest shadows in places like the cracks between fingers. Then I look for where the brightest highlights are – I tend to leave these as plain paper. Once I’ve established these two extremes of tonal values, I can correctly gauge all the other tones against them. Again, it’s all about measuring and comparing.

5. Buy an electric eraser

I use a fairly layered technique and I draw almost as much with my erasers as with my pencils, working back into and lightening my shading with both an eraser pencil and a mouldable putty eraser. However the most useful eraser in my collection is a battery powered electric eraser. This is way more powerful than a regular eraser and you can use it to cut highlights into even really dark shading. It’s great for hair, for those bright highlights within the eyes, for animal fur and particularly for whiskers!

Battery eraser

Standard electric erasers have a 5mm diameter attachment but you can also buy erasers online that are only 2.5mm wide and these are great for the finest highlights. In the drawing at the top of the article you can see where I’ve used the eraser to create highlights within and under the eyes as well as on the brightest strands of hair.

6. Learn from historical portraits how to concentrate the detail level selectively

One problem I used to struggle with was how to ‘fade out’ my head-and-shoulder portraits once I’d reached the shoulders or the mid-chest, and here I found it really useful to look at pencil portraits by artists from centuries ago. Historical portrait artists usually focussed most of the detail in the features of the face, with slightly less detail applied to the hair and much less on the body which is often just lightly sketched with a minimum of shading, or no shading at all.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Jean-Louis Provost

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Jean-Louis Provost, 1813

Private collection, CC0 1.0 Public Domain

I started using a similar technique, concentrating most of the detail around the face and fading out to sketchy lines below the neckline with only a tiny bit of shading. This helps me to ‘end’ the drawing and I think it really helps draw the viewer’s attention towards the face. Whatever garments my subjects are wearing I’ve learned to avoid drawing in too much of the detail of their clothes. If they are wearing a dark coloured top I make it much lighter in tone than it really appears, again so that it doesn’t distract from the head and is easier to gently fade out.

7. Invest in good quality art materials

When it comes to art supplies you really do get what you pay for. There’s a vast difference in quality between cheap student grade paper and pencils and those brands aimed at professional artists. With the paper, try to work on a proper drawing paper (called ‘cartridge’ paper in the UK) as will have a fine grain to it which will add texture to your drawing, and will be thick enough to take rubbing out and layers of shading.  

When it comes to pencils, buying a cheap set really is a false economy because the leads will break so often. If you buy professional grade pencils from a brand such as Faber-Castell or Staedtler, the graphite leads will be glued to the wooden casing all the way along and will hardly ever break. This is in contrast to cheap pencils where the leads will only be spot glued in places along the shaft.

You’ll also be able to make a much nicer and more consistent mark with an artist’s grade pencil because the graphite will have been better mixed with its clay binder. This means you’ll avoid that ‘scratchy’ feeling you often experience when drawing with a cheap pencil, caused by lumps of unmixed clay. Good drawing pencils whether in harder or softer grades should glide across the paper, and will feel so much nicer to draw with. In this post I’ve reviewed some of the top drawing pencil brands so that you can compare them.









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