Studying the overall composition of the face/subject is a very wise thing to do prior to starting any pencil portrait. There are many subtleties and details that have a great deal of sway in the overall appearance and realism of the portrait. The points below highlight some of these key areas and will help to guide you through some of the biggest pitfalls artists come across when attacking pencil portriat drawings.



THE MID-TONES – create the perfect balance between your dark and light areas.

When starting your pencil portrait, creating the outline, start with a light grade of pencil that won’t put too heavy a mark on your paper or damage it. I use a B grade pencil which is a good balance to achieve this, and is easy to rub out as you build up your detail.
Once your outline is complete, using a 3 & 4B start to work into darkest areas, then moving to the mid-tones, taking particular attention to the level of contrast and tones between these two areas. This is a crucial part to any portrait as the contrast between the darkest points and mid-tones cover the largest part of any portrait and are the biggest driver to create the most realistic effect.


THE NOSE – subtlety is key

One of the biggest mistakes artists make when drawing the nose it to define the shape and nostrils to much with hard defined lines. The nose, apart from the darkest parts of the nostrils, which are normally in the shadows of the face, is made up of soft subtle blends of shades and tones to define the overall shape of the nose. Again as in point 1, pay particular attention to the different tones and highlights of the nose, if you capture this well the realism will be on target.


EYES – The windows to the portrait

The eyes are what draw the viewer to the soul of the portrait. Creating the right level of highlight to the eye is crucial, too small a hightlight and the eye looks flat and lifeless, to large and the eyes can look distorted lacking realism. Take your time, looking at all the tones and the overall composition of the eyes and eyeballs, how there are subtleties and where there are dark defined edges. When I outline a portrait drawing, I always draw the eyes and eyeballs as a group of different shapes, each shape signifies a different tone. But remember go soft when outlining this area as leaving too dark an outline in subtle areas can ruin the overall effect of the eye.




The main difference from drawing a young child to a more mature subject is the detail. With an older subject, there tends to be a lot more detail to all elements of the facial composition. I like to think of these as individual chapters in the life of the subject, each line and wrinkle tells a story. As we know portraits come in different shapes, sizes and shades, giving each of them their own individuality.
The one key thing to remember when drawing wrinkles and contours of the face is to not create them to defined, or too dark. If they stand out too much they can appear as a gash to the face, they need to blend in. Again look at the tone differences between the midtones of the face and the darkest parts of the wrinkles, to ensure the tonal balance is just right. As well as the tone of the individual shapes and size of each wrinkle, these also need to correspond to the shape and plane of the face where they appear. Over accentuating lines around the mouth or on the forehead can give a harsh bold appearance killing the desired expression of the portrait. Study the lines and wrinkles that are the main contributors to the smile or facial expression, its these areas that will give the face its exact expression.


THE PERFECT TONAL BALANCE is a marathon not a sprint

Starting lightly with the outline, then shading in the darker areas and mid tones, slowly work up each area until the face is covered with a pale layer reflecting the right level of contrast just on a paler level. Then work up a second and third layer, going slightly darker each time, this way you will have far more control of the overall level of contrast between each facial element as well as the overall composition of the portrait drawing. At each stage stand back from the drawing for a few moments, then go back to it with fresh eyes, this is important when you have been drawing it for a while.