Some advice and tips for beginner portrait artists

Portrait Art

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Mad Max in colored pencilSome advice and tips for "newbie" portrait artists:

I thought I'd pontificate on a few things in regards to drawing portraits. I don't pretend to cover everything here, just an overview of a few things. For a more comprehensive tutorial, consult my Portrait Art Tutorial site.

One of my colored pencil portraits. Click the thumbnail image to see a larger version..

Getting Started -  Pencil and Paper  -  Drawing -  Basic tips

Getting started:

Two things you need to get started with drawing portraits: a thick sketchbook, and books! Books books books! I am a big fan of books. One of my favorites (and one I always recommend) is Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (See if iconhas a copy of this book, or check it out on Edwards shows you how to "see" the subject accurately. When you "see" it accurately you will draw it accurately. Just check out the "before" and "after" examples of her students. It is truly amazing how much a person can learn and improve with Edwards' teaching philosophy!

And the big sketchbook - you will need it, you will be using up a lot of paper. One of the most important things you can do is just draw, draw, draw. Books or a good class can really help (and I heartily recommend them) but without practice, it's all about nothing.

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Drawing Materials:
Pencil and Paper.

You will need a good quality drawing paper, one that can take repeated erasures. A "big" brand name like Strathmore or Grumbacher will be fine. You don't have to get the most expensive sketch paper - just "sketch" paper is fine. For some reason, "drawing" paper is often heavier weight, and more expensive. This isn't bad, but when you are going to be cranking out lots of drawings, saving money will make sense. (Don't get newsprint paper, though. It's too cheap, and doesn't take erasures well.)

Pencils - any brand will do. A softer lead is better. The typical #2 pencil is OK. If you find pencils that have the HB - 2B - 3B rating, go with B or 2B. HB is too hard, and 4B is getting too soft. You want your pencil to be soft enough to get dark darks, (instead of washed-out grays that an HB will give you). A 4B or 6B pencil have their place, but they are so soft, they get smeared way too easy.

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Use photographs, or draw family members or friends. Drawing from life is really the best, but you have to deal with the...(shudder) model. No, nothing wrong with a model. My painting of my friend Bill was painted from life, and Bill was a very good model - very patient. But not everyone will be as obliging. So - draw from life when you can, but drawing from photos is fine too. Drawing celebrities is always fun. Everyone will know what the person you are drawing should look like. (Is that a good enough likeness of Harrison Ford? All your friends can chime in and give advice.)

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Some Basic Drawing Tips

Start a drawing by sketching lightly. Sketch in the basic shape of the head. Don't start by drawing just the eyes or some other part of the face. Just lay out the placement of the head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth. Make sure the eyes are not crooked. Make sure that both sides of the face are lined up, not lopsided. A good way to do this is to look at your preliminary sketch in the mirror. It will bring out some shocking flaws! Don't be discouraged. This is part of the process. Correct these lopsided weird flaws while your drawing is in the light sketch phase. It's much harder to erase and correct when you've drawing in dark lines. Now is the time to get all the little problems ironed out!

When you are sure that you've got a decent preliminary sketch, (you've checked it in the mirror, etc.) you can now start putting in darker tones. Use a soft pencil, one that will give you a decent dark stroke. Don't just lay in darker tones right off, though - build up to them gradually. Start putting shading and detail in the face. Check the drawing in the mirror periodically, to make sure nothing has gone askew. When you are assured that everything is looking OK, put in your darkest tones!

It is sometimes a good idea to use a "shield" for your hand. Use find a clean scrap of paper to put under your hand, so your hand won't smear the graphite as you draw.

When you are sure you are done with your drawing, put it away for a few days. Then look at it again. After a few days, your mind will clear a bit, and you might see some hidden flaws. Ask for feedback from those around you. Then, when you are happy with your drawing, spray it with a fixative. (Grumbacher and other art supply companies make special sprays that will seal a graphite drawing, so it won't smear.)

Go to my next portrait art newbie page. I discuss things like tracing, your attitude, and taking criticism. >>

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My favorite place buy art supplies online is: Dick Blick Art Materials. I've been buying from them for over 10 years.

Portrait-artist.orgMy new portrait art site, Portrait art and drawing tutorials, tutorials on color, figure drawing, digital portrait art, and more!


Dick Blick Art Materials (an excellent art & pottery supply store - this place has everything!)

This page last updated: April 15, 2005

All original content, images and graphics © J.R. Dunster 2001 - 2006

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