Drawing Ideas for Faces and Portraits

Portraiture Tips, Exercises and Projects

Learn to draw faces - not just one face, but any face, and practice your portrait drawing skills with these drawing ideas. Choose just one or tackle one each week - or even one each day if you're on vacation - to really polish up your portraiture.

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Draw a Self Portrait

Rembrandt Self Portrait
Rembrandt Chalk on Paper. Getty Images

Getting someone to pose for you can be tricky - but there's someone who is always willing to model for one of your drawings - you! Use a large mirror - such as a mirrored wardrobe, a free-standing mirror or a smaller one propped on a table - and draw a self-portrait. Take note of the background, and use it to help you line yourself up correctly when you move.

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Draw a Portrait From a Photograph

I always prefer drawing from life for a good three-dimensional view and practice in drawing real form, but drawing from photographs can help you practice the shapes that you'll encounter in portrait drawing. If you're not confident, you can even trace lightly and focus on shading correctly. It's a useful exercise. To help with accurate shading, you can scan and convert the photo to grayscale to compare tonal strength. Remember, though, the computer doesn't understand the 'brightness' of red.

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Draw Your Friends and Family

When they are reading a book or watching TV, friends and family can be great 'captive' models. You can also ask them to pose in a more interesting way - sitting by a window for interesting light, or pausing some task mid-action to try and capture the moment. How can you say something about their personality in the drawing? Consider your approach to gestural drawing - whether you use fluid lines, soft marks or energetic squiggles.

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Do A Page of Eyes, Noses, Mouths and Ears

Use a mirror, family, friends, photos, magazines as models. Draw them from every angle. Do some simple structural sketches thinking about three-dimensional form; try some simple linear representations, as well as detailed tonal drawing. Part of drawing well is building a visual story and understanding the subject. The more time you spend critically observing, the better you will draw.

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Recreate an Old Master

Consider your background and arrange your lighting and your subject carefully to match a favorite portrait. Match clothing colors and styles, and use a copy of the original as inspiration when drawing. You could even hire theatrical costume or fancy dress, but good, detailed photo resources can be a big help with referencing details.

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Experiment with Lighting

We usually see faces with bland overhead lighting, or worse, draw from photos using flash photography which flattens the features. Experiment with interesting lighting - catch diffuse misty morning light, or a golden afternoon glow. Use light through windows or louvres. Create drama with light from a television or computer screen, or use a candle in a darkened room for an intimate, or perhaps spooky, atmosphere. If you're using a photograph, learn how to control light in photography.

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Sketch at the Art Gallery

Take a visit to the art gallery or browse an online gallery. Draw thumbnail sketches of portraits that really impress you, and make some notes about the qualities that make each portrait special. How has the artist used lighting? How is the personality of the sitter conveyed? Is the focus on beautiful linework or dramatic light and shade? Use these pages to inspire you next time you sit down to create your own portrait. You could also make an inspiration board using portraits printed out or from old magazines.

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Practice Clothing

Portrait artists need to be able to draw all kinds of clothes. Practice drawing different types of fabrics, including coarse and finely woven cloth, printed and woven patterns, lace, and details. Try drawing a formal collar and tie, making sure that it sits correctly on the neck. Draw a fur-lined hood or collar, as well as fine, transparent fabrics that suggest the anatomy beneath. Draw draped and folded fabrics. Set up a still-life to practice with, and use photographs as references. You might want to try an extended technique - sgraffito (scratching), tape lifting or wax resist - to create some textures.