Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

Free Portrait Drawing Lessons

Portrait Drawing Lessons 1

Developing Tone

The urge to leap directly into painting is universal. The problem, however, is that jumping into painting before you learn to draw, i.e. before you learn how to relate and carve out form, is that things will quickly get bogged down. If one cannot handle form in drawing then the myriad challenges of working with pigment, color, temperature, relative values, etc. will completely overwhelm you.

In this lesson I will show you a working method that bridges the gap between drawing and painting – a tonal approach to portrait drawing.

Using an ivory colored sheet of Fabriano Ingres drawing paper, sanguine conté, a couple of paper stumps (or tortillons) and a clean kneaded eraser I will approach this drawing as if I were painting.

Sanguine conté is my favorite drawing medium. It has an expressive quality that appeals to my sensibilities.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 2


Whereas proportion establishes the underlying rhythm of drawing shape(s) expresses the narrative.

For this lesson my intent is to present a sketch that relies mostly on shape rather than three-dimensional form. Also I thought that working with three different colored conte crayons would be fun.

This sketch was done from a photograph taken of an older woman selling pistachios near the Galata Bridge in Istanbul on a cold, blustery early Spring day. She was bundled up in layers of scarves and a heavy coat. The rectangular shape of her face framed by a colorful headwrap immediately piqued my interest.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 3

Building Form

For this portrait drawing lesson I will address the needs of both the beginner and experienced artist.

Some artists pride themselves for always working from life. I have no argument with that and believe that working from life is by far the preferable mode. But it is not always feasible and the camera is an excellent tool for the artist. The problem though is that you need to be aware that a camera lies: the camera flattens and dulls form.

That said, let me unequivocably state that the photograph is merely a reference. At most it is a springboard. There is little point to slavishly copying a photograph; drawing is much more than that.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 4

Drawing Hair

Rendering hair is dictated by several factors: the type of hair, its color, texture, quantity; the arrangement and styling of the hair; the personality and mood of the sitter; and the light effect upon the hair.

For this lesson I have chosen the profile view as it lends itself to a more direct understanding of hair rather than the frontal pose where one is confronted with the issue of foreshortening and perspective. I’ve taken a small departure from the usual working method – whereas it is highly advisable to bring all of the elements of the portrait up simultaneously I’ve left the hair at an initial beginning stage: the arabesque. The arabesque is the entire outside shape of the head or an object.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 5

The Anatomy of the Skull

In Mastering Portrait Drawing: The Frontal Pose Workshop the study of the skull is that of the standard male skull. This is the classic starting point in learning portraiture. For this lesson I am going to present the female skull.

The female skull differs from that of the male in several respects. The male skull is generally larger than the female and becomes markedly rougher and angular as it grows into adulthood. In particular, the ridges and sites of muscle attachments are more pronounced. The female skull retains the gracile attributes of the prepubescent male skull. As we proceed in constructing the female skull I will discuss further the specific attributes differentiating the female from the male.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 6

The Beauty of Line - Part 1

I had no model available to sit for me but an old, dusty art catalogue was amongst the meager offers of my apartment’s library. This was a catalogue in memorium of the Italian artist Angelo Verga. Verga was an artist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, his early and, then later, work was heavily influenced by the Italian Futurist movement of the 1920’s. For me his best work was executed in the early 1960’s and very closely paralleled the work of the American minimalist artist Donald Judd. In the catalogue was a full page black & white photograph of the young Angelo Verga.

The problem with the photograph is that I felt its’ tonal concord would not translate well as a drawing. What works for a photograph more often than not does not lend itself to drawing or painting. This is a major drawback particularly with commissioned portraits. Quite often the client will present the artist with a flash-lit photograph that flattens out all of the form or the form will be indistinct and muddled.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 7

The Beauty of Line - Part 2

A cartoon is quite often a constructive drawing where the focus of line is on determining form rather than expressing movement.

Working with sharpened sanguine conté on a quarter sheet of Fabriano Ingres drawing paper I quickly established the Arabesque. The Arabesque is the entire outside shape of the head including the headress, it is better not to include minor elements such as the dangling locks of hair. After checking that my overall height/width proportion was correct I then lightly indicated the placement of the brow-ridge and the base of the nose.

When striking the arabesque architectonically succinct lines proffer a sense of solid form. What I mean by this is that I employ short straight lines to describe rounded shapes. Keep your initial lines quite light, my lines shown here are significantly darker than I would normally use; the reason for this is so that you can see what I have done here.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 8

The Beauty of Line - Part 3

There are, generally speaking, five types of line drawing: contour, blind contour, continuous, gesture and constructive. Each type of line drawing expresses its own language in terms of movement, rhythm, proportion and density.

A line drawing is not meant to fully describe an object’s form (whether it be a still life, landscape or portrait), but instead serves to capture the distilled elements and characteristics of the subject.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 9

Drawing the 3/4 View Portrait with Hands in Graphite

A sustained study of a gesture, such as lighting a cigarette on a wind-swept street, offers a myriad range of drawing possibilities and challenges. First, there is the issue of the gesture to contend with; composition, drawing media and approach must work together and present a cohesive correspond- ence and intent.

My subject is a middle-aged man who has most likely spent his working life in various physical jobs. Character dictates the approach to drawing. A highly polished drawing would be incongruent with the rough, working class persona of my subject. On the other hand I want a fairly resolved drawing, one that would go beyond a gestural sketch.

My choice of drawing medium is graphite pencil: specifically I limited myself to a Staedtler Mars Lumograph 8B, HB and for the final approach a 4H. The HB and 4H graphite pencils have a shiny luminescence whereas the 8B has only a slight shine and borders on being matte.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 10

Drawing Children in Graphite

Gesture and composition are as fundamental to portrait drawing as achieving the likeness.

The forward leaning tilt and the subtle tensing of the shoulders combined with my slightly elevated view immediately caught my attention. The gesture of any pose is captured right from the start by correctly rendering the arabesque or outer overall shape of the composition. You see the likeness of the sitter at once. I cannot emphasize the importance of this stage enough.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 11

Drawing Children: The Tondo Canvas

The circular canvas (whose term is tondo) last saw its heyday in the early half of the nineteenth century. Popular since the early Greek and Roman empires and the Renaissance the tondo canvas enjoyed a special status particularly in the genre of portraiture.

The medium that I chose for this drawing is a soft 4B black conte crayon (2B works just as well) on Fabriano Ingres charcoal paper. The approach that I am demonstrating can also be done with charcoal. My preference is for conte and is purely a personal one. I used a 10” plastic dinner plate to draw a circle. Using a compass will result in a small hole puncturing the paper and you can bet that that hole will be in a critical spot.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 12

Drawing the Profile Portrait in Sanguine Conte

The 7/8’s profile view is the pose where the far eye can be seen. The common difficulty with the far eye is if you’re not careful the eye will bulge out due to over-exaggeration both in terms of size and placement and also rendering it with too much detail. Highly rendered features will advance out of the picture plane. For some features such as the nose this is desirable, but with others like the far eye in the 7/8’s profile view this is less so.

Using a sharpened Koh-I-Noor light red crayon I quickly established the arabesque of the entire head. Of important note is the facial angle: I have deliberately ignored the nose and muzzle (mouth area) and simplified it completely. If you try to incorporate the features at this point it is practically guaranteed that you will get it wrong. The short and simple answer is SIMPLICITY. This goes for both the beginner and the highly advanced artist.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 13

Correcting Your Sanguine Conte Portrait Drawing When
Things Go Awry

In every portrait you attempt at every level, you are going to have passages where things don’t quite look right and that need correcting. Sometimes you will be near the beginning of a piece where it’s easy to make corrections and sometimes a portrait might be quite far along when you realize something has got to go.

One thing I have always tried to impress upon my classroom students is to not be too precious or afraid to push a drawing to the max even it means losing it. Students tend to be timid in how far they push drawings for fear of losing them, but without mistakes you cannot learn how to correct them. Even if you can’t resurrect a drawing the caveat is – if you did it once you can do it again. Sometimes it is better to admit defeat and simply trash a drawing and start again fresh. But quite often a drawing can be salvaged.

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 14

A Character Study in Sanguine Conte

Drawing a portrait with spectacles has its unique challenges. Spectacles cannot be drawn in as an afterthought, otherwise the portrait will appear stilted and the glasses will look pasted on. Spectacles need to incorporated early into the drawing.

Determining the medial line of the facial arena in a pose that is neither frontal nor profile or even 7/8th’s can be tricky. [The medial line, or facial angle, runs through the center of the face: between the eye brows, the philtrum (the trough between the nose and upper lip: philtrum is the Greek word for ‘to love/to kiss’) and the mental protuberance of the chin’s base.]

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Portrait Drawing Lessons 15

Drawing Conceptually: A Drawing of Medusa

For the realist, figural artist the bulk of training lies in observing and understanding the structure of natural form. This training is an absolute necessity if we wish to pursue our expression further than simply rendering what we see. There will come a time when you will want to tell a story, express a narrative, where you will then have to create the image out of your head relying on both memory and your understanding of anatomy and planar construction of form.

For this lesson we will construct a portrait in graphite working without any references other than our acquired skill set of drawing.


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