When I took a plunge into the world of portrait drawing last year, my attempts were about as flat as a pancake, and far from convincing. To give you an idea, once I was being brave and sketching a Pinterest girl in a small cafe vibing to my favorite song thinking I was drawing the portrait quite well until a passerby suddenly remarked that he seemed to recognize the old man I was sketching. 😅
But hey, progress has been made, and though my latest stab at realism pictured above might not be a masterpiece, it’s definitely something I am proud of considering where I started. I think I have come a long way in improving the realism of my portrait drawings (
if I draw a girl now, people usually don’t think otherwise) and in this post, I would like to share the six tips that I have helped me in doing so.
Tip 1 The structure and proportions of your drawing matter more in achieving realism in portraits than the finer details you can render when shading.
As a rookie, I used to dive headfirst into shading microscopic details, hoping to recreate the references perfectly in my drawings. Little did I know, that drawing realistic faces is more about nailing the big picture – getting those face proportions just right.
- The face can be divided vertically into three equal segments:
- The forehead,
- The nose,
- The mouth and chin.
- The eyes are placed at the vertical center of the head.
- The gap between the eyes is equal to one eye width and also aligns with the wings of the nose.
One of the best ways to make sure your portrait drawing is off to a solid foundation is to follow the Loomis Method which involves a sequence of steps that are designed to help you draw a face in the correct proportions.
I confess it took me way too long to incorporate the Loomis Method in my drawing routine, so if you’re a beginner, save yourself some time and start here. Once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll find that the details you draw will be a lot more convincing.
Tip 2 Skip harsh outlines and use some soft and lost edges in your drawing.
Mixing up hard outlines along some of the shadowy sections of the face with softer transitions in the lighter areas is a quick way to enhance the illusion of depth in your portrait drawings.
Experiment with different blending techniques – personally, I’m all about finger-smudging. Ian Roberts offers a deep dive into how the masters, like Sargent and Vermeer, controlled their edges to create their masterpieces.
Tip 3 Instead of shading each part of the face sequentially, first organize the value structure of a portrait into three segments: highlights, midtones, and shadows, and then refine the values further.
Don’t rush into shading every facial feature separately. Instead, break your values down into three amigos: highlights, midtones, and shadows. Block these in together first, then dive into the nitty-gritty.
One mistake I made when I started drawing faces was that I was rushing in to capture the exact value key of each part of the face one by one. For example, I would start with the nose and try to shade it to perfection in isolation before moving on to the nose or the eyes. The problem with this sort of approach is that it results in drawings that lack visual coherence.
One tip I learned by going through a Skillshare course by Chris Hong (highly recommended) is to build up the values in a drawing gradually in layers. So first you want to organize the values on a face into three groups of highlights, midtones, and shadows and block in these value segments in the same value key before detailed shading of each part of the face.
Doing this has been a game changer for improving my portrait drawings’ believability. Here’s a step-by-step process of shading portrait drawings by Chris Hong.
Tip 4 Learn to draw the different types of shadows and look for opportunities to bring those variations to your portrait drawing.
Drawing the shadows in a portrait is what conveys the shape of the face. If you’re a newbie like me, one of the quickest ways to improve the realism of your drawings is to study the different types of shadows and learn how to draw them.
Here are some tips that I have learned to draw the different types of shadows convincingly in a portrait:
- The darkest shadows on the face are the occulant shadows that can be found in places where it is the hardest for the light to reach such as the nostrils or the lip creases.
- Core shadows aren’t darkest at the fringes. They are usually darkest closer to the terminator line where the highlights and shadows of the face intersect.
- Some shadows catch reflected light from the illuminated surfaces nearby so be prepared to tone down the values of such shadows by blending or gently erasing.
- Do lots of value studies of sculptures to understand how light interacts with the different shadows.
Tip 5 Less can be more (sometimes).
Now, I know what you’re thinking – “more details, more realism!” But sometimes, less is more.
This might sound a bit counter-intuitive at first (
or just lazy) because you expect your drawings to look more realistic if they are more detailed. From my experience, when I try to capture the essence of a portrait without going overboard, my drawing tends to look a lot more believable compared to when I try to draw a ridiculously detailed face.
To be fair, that might just be because my drawing skills (
or patience) are not up to par to draw the finer details of a face convincingly yet. But if you’re a beginner like me who wants to draw more realistic drawings but your current art skills don’t match your art goals, then take some steps to make it easier for you to draw portraits realistically.
You can always choose simpler references to begin with. It’s always helpful to allow yourself to simplify certain elements of a reference to make it more manageable for you. Your drawings don’t need to look exactly like a reference!
Obviously, you don’t want to remain in your comfort zone for too long and avoid drawing the hard stuff forever. But I think it is more rewarding to enjoy creating art while slowly increasing the complexity of what you’re drawing instead of tackling hyper-realistic drawings right from the beginning of your art journey when your art skills may not be as polished.
Tip 6 It is hard to draw realistic faces if that’s all you practice and don’t supplement that with quicker studies aimed at learning fundamentals.
The first time I tried drawing realistic faces, I remember spending 20 hours and sometimes even more to draw a single portrait. My drawing process involved breaking down a face reference into a grid of about 20 boxes and replicating each box onto the paper one by one like a jigsaw puzzle.
Despite drawing for extended durations for a few months, I wasn’t able to draw believable faces and I wasn’t improving either because I hadn’t invested any time to learn the art fundamentals.
One thing I have learned from the setbacks in my art journey is that to get better at drawing anything, you have to zoom out every once in a while, take stock of where your drawing skills are at the moment, figure out what sort of art you want to be making let’s say in a year, what you will have to learn to close that gap whether that’s anatomy, gesture, Loomis Method, etc., and plan how you’ll balance drawing with learning those art fundamentals.
Parting wisdom? Supplement your portrait drawing practice with learning fundamentals to boost your art skills. If you’re like me, learning to draw without an art school, check out Kelsey Rodriguez’s video – it is full of guidance for self-learners to help them navigate their art education.
Now, go forth and draw, my fellow art enthusiast! 😊