Blog My own art and craft


Sketching a face – what I’ve learnt so far…

I’m not trying to present as having any particular expertise in drawing or painting, just a renewed interest in it. I only really started about 18 months ago, when I did a short online course with Vitruvian Art Studio (check them out for demonstrations of ace drawings, and also access their free materials guide Through that course and some reading, I have learnt a bit about portrait drawing that I thought a few people might find interesting.

You can find many many places with much better insights that I can give. The reason I’m keen to throw my two pence in though is because I think a lot of people tend to just see drawing/painting as something you can either do or not do; like it’s an innate gift that’s bestowed on some and not others. I’m sure that for some people, that is true and as soon as they were old enough to hold a pencil they had a natural knack for capturing what they see or imagine. For most of us though, it’s good to remember that you can improve if you put effort in. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better. Go on, grab a pencil and have a go (even if that’s in secret!)

Getting started:

I guess anyone who draws has their own way of doing things, so here’s just one of many methods – aimed at people like me, who want to develop confidence and so need to see something half way decent to make sure they don’t throw the towel in after the first attempt.

I’m not going to go into the equipment you need as basically you can get a much better explanation than I could give on the Vitruvian website, but as a little tip regarding paper, if you can, get something that’s not bright white. The thing about bright white paper is that you’re always making things darker against a really bright background, so literally everything you do has to have some level of shading. If you get a slightly darker tone of paper, you can go darker where you need to, but you can rely on the paper to do some of the work for you, and even get lighter using a white crayon (which is pretty impossible on a bright white). A darker toned paper isn’t really that much more expensive, and you can find it in high street shops without any issue.

Anyway, whatever paper you’ve got, you need to start drawing somewhere. For portraits, I tend to do them about a handspan’s height so they don’t look too big on the paper. To start then, I just make a quick mark where I want the top and the bottom of the head to go.

Mark out rough idea of the overall size.

Obviously, you then need the head shape, which you’ll intuitively know is roughly an oval, but don’t get too focused on that as it will vary depending on what you’re looking at. Get the rough shape with some straight/blocky lines and just refine it into curves until you’re happy. It probably won’t be exactly right but you can play with that later as long as its roughly there.

If you want your face to have more than a passing resemblance to the person you are drawing, then I think the most important thing is to get the eyes, nose and mouth in the right place. There are some basic, loose ‘rules’:

  • the eyes are about half way down the head;
  • the space between the eyes is about the same width as one eye
  • the edge of the mouth is roughly in line with the pupils
  • the side of the nose is roughly in line with the inside corner of the eyes

BUT…it really does depend on what the face is doing and what angle you are looking from. A smile changes things, and people’s faces aren’t symmetrical a lot of the time so be guided by what you see. By the way, if you’re a beginner; avoid teeth at all costs – I absolutely guarantee your picture will end up looking like Alan Carr or Mr Ed.

From what I’ve read the human brain is so good at recognising the difference between people (consider how even a young baby can tell its mum from someone else) that even if you draw a fantastic nose, if you get it in slightly the wrong positioning it will throw everything out and you’ll know its not quite right.

This bit isn’t very glamourous but if you’re prepared to admit to yourself that you might not yet be able to do this just by having a go at it, then I’d recommend working out the angles to some key points on the face properly at this point. It’s admittedly a bit deflating to think that there’s a bit more science to drawing than just grabbing paper and getting on with it, but I think the satisfaction that comes from a half decent picture is worth it. Over time you will get a feel for where to put them just by looking (you’re not committing yourself to this method forever), but I’d genuinely say that if you’re just starting out, have a go at doing it like this, and then without, and see which turns out best.

You can see below that for this portrait of my friend’s daughter, I’ve drawn lines to mark out the eyes and the bottom of the ears. I did this by literally just putting a protractor on the photo I was copying, reading the angle from a point on the top of the head and the replicating that angle on the paper. You could go further and mark out the corners of the nose or mouth as well. I did this just to show you how to find points that can anchor your features (for example, its easier to get the mouth in the right place if you know the eyes are in the right place).

After this, basically forget about actually drawing anything for a while and just work out ‘where are your darkest darks and your lightest lights’ (this is a mantra on the Vitruvian course).

For this picture, the light source on the actual photo has really darkened the eyes, the slight opening of the mouth, and has created patches of shade on certain areas of the face. The lightest parts are on the cheeks (particularly the left side) and the chin. My initial shading looks something like the picture below and I use a blending stump (readily available from Amazon or any art shop like the Works) to smooth it out.

I can be a bit heavy handed with shading, and I’m still learning, but you can see below how it starts to build up:

The point about getting your darks and lights in the right place is that all the rest of your tones hinge on those colours. If you don’t make your darks, dark enough, then you’re not going to have enough contrast with other parts to make them stand out. Its worth spending a bit of time on this stage as if you do then darken parts later on, you’ll probably have to readjust all the rest of your tones too or it’ll look out of sync (which is a hassle).

You can then start to get into the detail. I haven’t got space or the expertise to go through every feature in its own right (and I imagine that if you were that interested you probably will be doing a proper course and not just listening to me!) but there’s a couple of things I’d suggest might help you if you’re starting out:

The first is to draw what you see, not what you think should be there. If you draw a nose as you think it looks in your mind, I pretty much guarantee you’ll end up with something that looks a bit daft; for example there is rarely a hard line at the side of the nose. Instead try and suggest the shape of the nose through the shading.

The second is not to forget that the face is a three dimensional object. This might sound obvious but your eye is not a 2-D almond shape – it protrudes from your eye socket, and your eye lid comes over the top of that, so it really isn’t a flat surface – you therefore need to try and show that on the page. Similarly, the nostrils are not just two dark lines, they are essentially a hole – so create the shape of a nostril by the lines you draw around the nostril, which creates the hole i.e. you’re not really trying to draw the hole itself. I maybe haven’t explained that particularly well, but if you approach each feature trying to bear in mind that its 3D, it should help.

This is getting there, but the jawline is too big on the right so I took that in a little afterwards.

The final thing is hair – it really isn’t worth trying to draw individual strands unless there is a particularly unique strand showing or hanging down. Instead, to give a sense of a block of hair, just take that same approach of darkest dark/lightest light and blend if you need to.

This was a relatively quick sketch, but basically just continue to refine until you are happy. Remember to go easy on yourself, chances are you’re probably not aiming for an exact replica of the photo, so if something has a likeness and you know you’re improving, then just enjoy the journey.

So there you have it! My portrait doesn’t do my friend’s daughter justice, but there’s a likeness and hopefully she will appreciate the effort.

In terms of the advice in this blog, I’ll probably look back at this in years to come and think ‘what was I on about?’ but this is where I’m at at the moment and I wish someone had have told me some of this earlier. On that basis, hopefully it was useful to at least someone!