Learn to draw paint portraits

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

A Portrait Drawing of Verna in Sanguine Conte

Be sure to view the larger image of these thumbnails for a more indepth discussion of each step of this classical approach to portrait drawing.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Verna Shape

The first shape to be decided upon is our canvas (the term used for the shape and size of our paper). For my portrait drawing of Verna I have chosen a square.

Within this square canvas I very lightly sketch the overall, general shape of Verna's gesture. I refer to this as striking the arabesque.

Many artists also call this the contour or outline. Terminology implies intent: Contour, or outline, tends to denote a static state whereas arabesque speaks of gracile rhythm.

This initial shape immediately infers the composition and directional movement of this portrait. Even after several decades of teaching drawing I am still surprised by the number of artists who cannot accurately strike shape. This skill is readily learned and not being able to see and draw shape infects every step of their drawing and painting.

An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm, by efforts that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.

Henri Matisse

How to Draw Faces and Portraits


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    Within my initial shape of the arabesque the smaller shapes of the face, hair, hand and arm are sketched in.

    My agenda at this stage is to draw each shape so that it corresponds proportionately within the whole. When I draw and paint I do not think 'hair' or 'hand', etc. but only shape and its proportion and placement.

    An artist's training needs to invoke the ability to accurately assess the placement of each shape within the larger. To acquire this skill your training should include exercises to develop and hone your perception. I do not think that a beginner should concern themselves with line quality. That comes later and will develop naturally as you become more adept at seeing and drawing shape.

    A well drawn shape possesses a calligraphic grace much akin to a musical chord; an awkward and timid shape is always discordant and without charm.

    Portrait Drawing Lessons - Verna Block in

    Shape also possesses the plastic qualities of form. Using the side of a small piece of conte I block in the overall dark pattern of the head. Remember the one big rule of drawing and painting: Always work general to specific. It is a poor practice to immediately delve into details. Admittedly, for teaching purposes when discussing facial structure, I sometimes sketch out the features before blocking in (see my Drawing Isabella lesson) it always better to proceed as I've illustrated here.

    Getting used to blocking in, also referred to as massing in, the primary light/dark pattern before delineating the features will be of significant benefit when you begin painting.

    Keep this massed dark pattern to one shaped tone; unified form is the utmost criteria.

    Using my fingers the conte is aggressively stumped down to a singular tonal mass. Residual conte is dragged into the mid-tone planes also with my fingers.

    My thinking is sculptural. I consider the conte as if it were clay that I am pushing and pulling into cohesive forms; first, into flat shapes and then with a kneaded eraser I 'paint' out the distinctive shapes of light.

    I am not thinking of eyes, nose nor mouth; only succinctly placed shapes of light and dark.

    An emerging consideration is rhythm and movement.

    A sound foundation in portait drawing is built layer by layer, step by step. That is my teaching method.

    Portrait Drawing Lessons - Verna Plasticity

    Plasticity is defined as giving form to. Once the larger and secondary shapes have been placed (to train your eye a plumb line is an indispensable tool) relative to their corresponding proportions the additive/substractive process of constructing tone begins.

    Most beginner and intermediate artists fail to render the full stretch of light to dark; the result is flat and lifeless. Tone is a significant hurdle to many artists. Achieving a 'touchable' plastic feel takes time and practice to master.

    There are numerous ways to build up tonal values. The most effective learning method for the beginner is cross-hatching. Later, and with experience, a painterly approach can be applied; this is building up tone by shaped strokes and pushing and pulling the edges with a kneaded eraser. This additive/subtractive approach is what I've done here.

    Form requires an underlying architecture; without structure form is meaningless. This is particular true in how to draw hair. An engaging drawing presents a unified design. The principles of Unity are completely interwoven. There is a sympathetic fusion of both the Quantities and the Qualities such that isolating one from the other for study requires significant simplification.

    The Quantities are our visual materials: line, tone, color, texture, etc.

    The Qualities are the binding elements of the basic principles of design, namely Opposition and Transition. Refinements to the basic principles are variation and dominance. The final result of good design is balance and cohesion, hence Unity.

    These principles apply also to rendering what at first appears to be a mass of unruly hair.

    Portrait Drawing Lessons - Verna Hair Structure

    Mimesis is defined as the imitative representation of nature. In realist art we strive to achieve a plausible image that conveys the actuality of what we are drawing. As artists we need to accomplish more than just a mere depiction.

    Composition, design and the other structural qualities are the foremost consideration; to a lesser extent, but important for the delight and engagement of the viewer, is the abstract structural application of the media; for Verna this is developed with layered meanings of conte applied onto a delicately textured paper (Fabriano Ingres). In painting this would be the brushwork; in drawing we rely on the calligraphic additive/subtractive process of applying the conte and manipulating it with a kneaded eraser.

    The three elements of art making are the craft, the emotive and the construct. The craft is the technical means of rendering the qualities of line, tone, etc. to present a plausible image. The emotive (spirit) is self-explanatory: a technically accomplished drawing devoid of spirit is meaningless. Unfortunately this is the case with many portrait drawings copied from photographs. A photograph can be a useful reference but the photograph's danger is its insidious distortions that we tend to readily accept as a 'truthful' record. An engaging drawing comprises both craft and spirit.

    The construct is the language of drawing. Its' syntax is the markings upon the page that correspond to seen experience as symbols. An exquisitely rendered portrait is, at base, a symphonious arrangement of symbols and pigment.

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