Learn to draw a portrait – step by step guide

If you search the Internet for "portrait drawing", the search engine spits out almost 10.5 million results right away. In the case of "drawing a landscape," it’s almost 1.5 million less. Apparently, drawing portraits is something that people are particularly fascinated by. Capturing one’s own face or that of another with pens on paper – especially in the age of the constant availability of photos and especially selfies – is and remains a supreme discipline of painting. Our guest author Mareike Backenkohler is particularly addicted to drawing portraits. With the following crash course in portrait drawing she will show you why this is so.

This material you need

To be able to draw a good portrait, you basically don’t need much. Actually a sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil is enough. The more advanced you are, the more equipment you can use when drawing.

I use the following material when drawing portraits:

    (my favorite is not white, but ivory or grayish – so you can add even lighter accents)
  • Several pencil thicknesses (z.B. HB, 3B, 8B)
  • Mechanical pencils
  • Paper wiper
  • Charcoal pencils or black pastel pencils
  • White chalk

What I don’t use is an eraser. Often you only smear your drawing and do not make it better.

Some exercises beforehand

Of course you can grab a photo and start drawing right away. But if you want to warm up a bit to portrait drawing, here are some very effective exercises.

1. Look closely at your fellow men.

This sounds trite and maybe a little silly. But it helps. Every face has something that makes it unique. The more people you have drawn, the more you will perceive your fellow human beings "with the pen in your hand". Some have a special shine in their eyes, the next one has those great laugh lines, one has narrower eyebrows, a bigger nose, etc.

2. Cheating makes the master

There is no shame in drawing the first portraits tracing. With this you get a good feeling for proportions. The best thing to do is to draw the outlines and then shade freehand.

3. Draw when and where you can

A pencil has one nevertheless almost always in the proximity. And if you’re listening to your teacher, lecturer or boss anyway, why not draw a portrait of him or her?? At the time, I and a friend covered an entire bulletin board at school with portraits of teachers. At some point they were gone. I still wonder today who they are actually at home with.

  • Correct choice of paper and suitable drawing material
  • Various hatching techniques
  • Anatomically correct construction of facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears)
  • Proportion theory of the human head
  • Proportions of a child’s face
  • Perspective portrait drawing
  • Professional portrait drawing from the first to the last line in common exercises

Basically, the online portrait drawing course is for anyone who wants to learn to draw. So exactly to you! Age does not matter, because it is always the right time to be an artist!

Some basics to start with


In a portrait the proportions of the face are crucial. Of course every face is individual. However, a few rules of thumb can’t hurt:

  • There are many different face shapes. Basically, they are all variations of a more or less oval shape.
  • The area from the hairline to the upper eyelid often includes ca. one third of the face. Often people underestimate the height of the forehead and draw it too short. A minimally smaller part follows up to the tip of the nose. The same goes for the lower part of the face up to the chin.
  • If you draw a vertical line through the face, the point between the eyes, the tip of the nose and the cupid’s bow (the small wave in the middle of the upper lip) lie on this line.
  • The edge of the eye towards the nose (this area has the ugly name of the lachrymal or eyelid liner) is on a level with the wing of the nose. From the root of the nose, you can draw a diagonal line to the corner of the mouth, on which the wing of the nose should also lie approximately.

draw head

Personally, I don’t work with a grid, but it’s a good way to get started – especially if you want to draw faces without a template.

No face is perfectly symmetrical and hardly any will conform exactly to these rules of thumb.

Half the battle: drawing the perfect eye

What to look at when talking to a person? Look at it once. It is not the mouth. We look our counterpart in the eyes. If someone does not, it irritates us. Therefore, successful eyes also almost always mean a successful portrait. It is therefore worthwhile to practice drawing eyes. It is especially important with the eyes not to forget the shine. Therefore you should never paint the pupils and the iris completely, but leave spots white. You may shade the iris so that it becomes slightly darker on the outside. This way you achieve a particularly lively expression.

draw eyes

Draw the nose

When drawing noses, less is often more: it’s enough to highlight the nostrils with light shadows. The nostrils are never round. They are more like strokes or semicircles. Most people have a small laugh line from the nostril to the mouth. This often gives the face a lively, friendly expression.

Often the nose is so wide that the nostrils are at the level of the inner edge of the eye. Its length from root to tip usually covers a little less than a third of the face. Since the nose does not stop growing with age, older people usually have a larger nose.

Draw nose

Draw mouth

Lips are often quite wrinkled and have many light reflections. Therefore you should be careful when shading that you leave out parts and create the typical structure with darker lines. The upper lip always has the so-called Cupid’s bow, which can be well emphasized by a particularly bright accent. The opening of the mouth is never simply a straight line, but has a slight wave shape.

draw mouth

Draw hair

Hair is – in my opinion – the supreme discipline in drawing. You don’t want to have to draw each hair individually, but conversely you want it to look like there are over 100 growing there.000 hairs on the head – that’s how many the average person has. It is important that you achieve a gloss effect with shading. For this, the hair should get darker towards the tip, like the bangs in the example below. You can achieve a streak effect by shading some areas more strongly overall and drawing in individual, darker lines.

Draw hairs

Step by step to the portrait

Now it’s time to get down to business: You’ve selected a photo and want to start drawing at last. Here you can see in which steps I work to draw a portrait. Others will do it differently and you will surely find your own way in time.

Choose a suitable template

The great artists of past centuries had a decisive advantage and disadvantage compared to us: there were no photos. On the one hand this was an advantage, because if you wanted a picture of someone, you had to have it painted. This of course secured the orders. But there was still a disadvantage. Because the model moves and that makes it very, very difficult to draw it.

Therefore: draw your portraits from photos.

It doesn’t matter if you take a picture of your favorite star or a picture of your grandma. It is easier if you first choose a picture where your model looks frontally into the camera. Images in profile (i.e. taken from the side) or in semi-profile are often a bit more difficult to draw. Look at the picture carefully before you start to draw. How is the head shape? What are the proportions? Which characteristics stand out? Where are shadows, where are light reflections? For this post I have chosen a picture of my great-grandmother. I find pictures of older people particularly exciting because they tell a story all their own through all the wrinkles.

Step 1: Pre-draw proportions

I first take a hard to medium hard pencil (z.B. 2H or H) and sketch the outline of the face. For this I take my time and compare again and again with the photo. The preliminary drawings are, after all, the cornerstone of everything that follows. Some people find it helpful to work with a grid.

portrait characters instruction

Step 2: First shades

With a hard pencil I now shade the areas that should become especially dark afterwards. Here, too, I always compare with the photo: Are the shadows really where they should be afterwards?? In the next step I work on my previous shades with the paper wiper. This softens them and makes them stand out better.

Step 3: Trace details

I now draw details like wrinkles, eyebrows and hair with a mechanical pencil with a soft lead (z.B. 2B) after. I also darken the shades. I pay special attention to smaller wrinkles; these make the face come alive. It helps to put a sheet of paper under the drawing hand at the latest now, so that you don’t constantly wipe through what you have drawn.

portrait drawing guide

Step 4: Set accents

The portrait is now almost finished. It needs only the last accents, in order to work particularly alive. The pupils I darken with a charcoal pencil. Likewise the particularly dark shadows. I highlight light reflections with a white chalk pencil or a white gel pencil. It looks especially good if you have used yellowish or grayish paper instead of white.

Tip: Smooth does not exist! Advertising, Instagram and Co make us believe it, but each of us knows: no face is simply smooth. Your portrait looks especially real when you suggest freckles, wrinkles and pores.

portrait drawing guide

Mixing techniques

Not only pencil portraits look great. With watercolors you can still set great colored accents. I personally color my portraits rather rarely. Mostly when I want to emphasize a certain statement.

Tip: Use thicker paper for your portrait if you want to set colored accents. Otherwise the paper cannot absorb the color very well.

portrait mixed media

First I colored the globe with watercolors for this purpose. It is important here not to create opaque areas of color. Less is more! Rather work with very diluted color and leave free areas. Only in places where the shadow should be, a little more color may be used.

I especially like to accentuate with a sort of blotchy technique. For smaller speckles I use a bristle brush and dip it into the watercolor paint. I then run my finger through the bristles, creating the speckles in the picture (and everywhere else). For the larger blobs I take a hair brush and dip it in heavily diluted watercolor paint. With a bit of panache I then let the paint drip onto the picture.

Learn to draw a portrait - step by step guide

Attention: When you have drawn like this, be sure to look in the mirror before you next leave the house. Surely you’ve gained a colorful freckle or two…&

A valuable tip at the end

I must have drawn thousands of portraits before I received praise for them. In the meantime that is also again past, because everyone asks itself only "where we are to go with the picture then now already again?". I still don’t stop drawing, especially portraits are always exciting for me, because every face has something different to offer when drawing. But still many, many portraits fail me.

So don’t give up just because you are not satisfied with a picture. Drawing is so much fun and one thing is for sure: Anyone can learn to draw.

Mareike Backenkohler

Mareike Thea Backenkohler, born. 1991 in Delmenhorst in northern Germany, has always pursued painting and drawing with great pleasure. Still, after graduating from high school in 2010, she first devoted herself to her other great passions, music and literature. So she was drawn to study music education and German language and literature in Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen and Oldenburg. Today she lives in Oldenburg and works nearby as a high school teacher. In her free time she draws portraits.

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