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DFH: Portrait Drawing Part 1 - An introduction

24 May. ' 20

People love to look at faces, making the portait a popular subject. In this first post of a nine-week series I will use a constructive drawing approach, building from simple shapes to the observed shapes of the face but there are many other ways to draw a portrait that all produce different results - don't be afraid to experiment and combine different ideas. It is a good idea to apply what you learn here to drawings done over different lengths of time; repetition is key to learning proportions becoming confident in starting a portrait.


Getting Started

When drawing constructively, we balance ideas about three dimensional forms with observation to create a convincing result. This gives us two main ways to start a portrait: working out from a simple volume, or working in from a container shape.


(These portrait sketches show their starting points with both approaches)


When working out from a simple ball shape, I add to the volume and steadily transition from the knowledge of an approximate volume – the skull is not a sphere! - to using observation to tighten up the details. Starting from a container shape, I carve out a rough shape of the head, and placement of key features. Thinking about volumes is important too – for example, by drawing arcs to make sure the eyes and nose line up to the ear correctly.


(Starting points for frontal, profile and three-quarter views, showing the centreline of the face)

Here, I've started with a ball and checked the angle of the chin and jaw to place a rough shape. Next the centreline is added; to find it, look for the mid points, such as the centre of the lips, base of the nose, and in between the eyes.


Placing the Features


It is a good idea to work out the proportions and check for mistakes early on, when they are easy to fix.


(I lightly indicate the markers for placing the features early on in the drawing, and erase them when they're no longer needed)


  1. Break the face up into thirds, leaving extra space for the hair line at the first marker.
  2. On the second marker, the eyebrows are placed. The eyes occupy the top half of the centre portion of the face.
  3. The bottom of the nose sits on the third marker, with the nose sitting on the centreline. Note that there is a flattened dip before the nose starts to curve out about a quarter of the way from the eyebrow line.
  4. The ears sit roughly in line with the eyebrows and base of the nose, though they can vary in size. When you look at the profile view, the distance to the back of the ear to the corner of the eye is about the same as the distance from the eye to the chin. 
  5. Finally, divide the gap between the nose and chin into thirds to place the mouth and chin. The centreline of the mouth sits on the top third, whilst the chin will lie roughly under the bottom third.

These proportions are a guideline, and you may need to adjust them. Everyone has slightly different proportions, helping to create different likenesses, so you should always look carefully at your sitter when placing the features.


Caption: Adding the contour completes the layout of the face. I have left the construction, but would normally erase it now.


By this point, we have the structure of the head laid in, but we need to tighten up the contour. Look out for the angles formed  by the outline of the face – compare them to vertical and horizontal references. For three-quarter views, look for the negative shape created behind the nose.


Composing Your Portrait


Composition isn't the first thing that comes to mind when drawing portraits, but extra thought can give your work a push. At the beginning of your drawing, pay attention to the placement on the page. We often default to plopping the head in the middle of the paper, but this tends to create a static look, as the negative space either side of the head is equal and the face is dead centre. Pushing the head to one side or the other can help introduce a variety of negative shapes to the picture.


(John Singer Sargent – 'Portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky' In this portrait, Sargent has placed the head quite far up the page, partly to allow space to emphasise the exaggerated neck. An area of tone behind the face helps introduces tonal contrast)


Elevating the head on the page makes space for the neck and shoulders. Even if these elements are only loosely rendered, they still add variety and support the face. Often we fall into the habit of drawing floating heads, when a few extra lines for the shoulders and neck can add stability.


As we move down to the body, where should we to stop? Will it be at the collar, hair, or further down the torso? Look at what you have to work with. Sometimes shadow shapes around the neck give you a convenient shape to 'cut off' with, or the collar of a shirt frames the neck.


If you are working tonally, think about the light and shadow shapes. Are you getting interesting shapes, or are they fragmented? Sometimes, poses or references might have awkward shadows; you needn't be a slave to them. If adjusting the shapes a little unifies your final piece, go for it.


(Rembrandt – 'Self Portrait, Frowning' (Etching) Rembrandt experimented with lighting to create more interesting shadow shapes in his portraits)



Over to You – Quick Portrait Studies


Now it is your turn to tackle some portraits. If you are unsure of proportions, check the above guide. If you're a supporter of the Draw Patreon, you'll have access to a catalogue of portait reference photos and our weekly Thursday evening Portrait Club sessions to help you practice!

Try working with different lengths of time -  anything between 10 minutes and an hour is typical, though once you feel more confident, try shorter and longer times. A longer drawing may take several hours or more, but is excellent practise. Quick studies of 5 minutes or less teach you to simplify and draw at a smaller scale, a useful exercise if the faces on your full body figures are tricky – after all, you'd only have 30 seconds to draw a face on a 5 minute full body pose!


(This page of quick portrait studies includes sketches done between 2 -12 minutes)



This is the eleventh of our weekly 'Drawing From Home' blog posts, commissioned during lockdown to help you draw more at home. Please do share your drawings with us, as we would love to see what everyone is up! Just tag us with @Draw_Brighton on social media or use the #DrawingFromHome #DrawBrighton hastags. These articles are written byLancelot Richardson, commissioned using money raised by theDraw Patreon.

Published by Lancelot Richardson on 24 May. ' 20

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