12 Tips for Drawing Children's Portraits

From perspective to shading, learn how to draw kids

Hand holding pencil sketching the face of a young boy
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For a portrait artist, drawing a child's face is particularly challenging, but it can also be a rewarding experience. Children's faces have bright, large eyes and innocent smiles that can warm the hardest heart. This makes it immensely satisfying to produce a good portrait of such a beautiful subject.

If you've struggled with capturing a child's innocent beauty on paper, a few tips may help. After reading through these, give your last portrait another try and see if the outcome improves. As with all types of art, practice is essential, so don't give up.

Individualize the Portrait

When drawing a person's face, it is important to look at the individual. Everyone is unique, so try to avoid fitting the face into some ideal set of proportions.

Carefully observe the main forms and place the features according to the size and shape of that person's head. Despite our basic anatomical similarity, small variations in bone structure characterize each individual, so it's important to recognize these in each subject you draw.

The Proportion of a Child's Head

The canon of ideal proportions is useful when trying to become familiar with the head structure, but is otherwise of limited use. This is particularly true when drawing children, as their soft bones and rapid growth dramatically change their head structure.

A baby's forehead is proportionately larger than an adult's. The halfway point on an adult is just below the eyes. With a baby, you'll find the middle of the eyes is about 3/7ths of the way up the face. The first seventh gives you the lower lip and the next seventh places the nose.

As children grow, the forehead becomes smaller. When working with older children, divide the face into similar increments to help you place the features.

Adding Facial Features

You can block in a child's face using the same approach as you would for an adult. Draw a ball for the head and add very light intersecting lines to indicate the face plane.​

There should be one vertical line running straight down the nose. You can add as many horizontal lines as you wish to guide you in placing each of the child's features. Many artists choose to draw separate lines for the top, middle, and bottom of the eyes, the bottom of the nose, and one that indicates the center of the lips. The nose and eye lines can also guide you when drawing ears.

Sketch contours across the face plane indicating the position of the various features. At this point, pay careful attention to a long or short nose, the size of the chin, and so on, adjusting the placement of your contours accordingly.

Choose the Right Materials

The choice of materials is important when drawing children. A coarse sketching paper can make it difficult to achieve smoothly modeled tones that give the portrait an innocent feel. Instead, consider a paper with a smooth surface like a Bristol board or sheets.

It's a good idea to work slowly and carefully so you can avoid having to erase too much of your work. Damage to the paper surface can make areas appear flat and lifeless. This will be most apparent in the eyes if you cannot lift out the necessary highlights.

The scale of the portrait is also important. When you're working on a small portrait, it can make it difficult to achieve the necessary details. While a sketchbook is convenient, you might try working on a 9x12 or 11x14 sheet of paper instead.

Follow the "Less Is More" Rule

When drawing a child's features, remember that most of the time "less is more." Don't be tempted to outline every detail or draw every single hair. This will only muddy up the portrait and distract from the most important features, which are the child's eyes and smile.

Quite often, you can leave the middle of the lower eyelid white to act as a highlight. This will help brighten the eyes as well. Also, the bottom edge of the lower lip often blends into the skin tone, so avoid a distinct outline there. 

A Few Key Points to Remember

Keep the proportion of a child's head and the other tips mentioned in mind and you'll be off to a good start. Here are a few more tricks that can help you draw a great portrait.

  • Don't use a flash photograph. The flash flattens the gentle curves of a child's face, giving you nothing to model. Opt for a photo with natural lighting instead, preferably a nice, gentle light from the side.
  • Be aware of small, fuzzy snapshots. After all, you can't draw what you can't see.
  • Avoid harsh outlines. Sketch softly and use flowing lines. Many of your initial guides will be erased as you work and you don't want to damage the paper.
  • Use a full range of value and shade skin tones carefully. A child's skin is very clean and delicate, so your shading technique should follow suit.
  • Use a good, smooth paper and a range of pencils. This will help you achieve those subtle variances in skin tone. If you need to, practice shading beforehand.
  • Reserve whites carefully, especially in the eyes. It's easier to add tone later than to erase it because you won't achieve those bright whites needed for the catchlights and whites of the eye.
  • Try to avoid overworking your portrait. Keep your drawing fresh and light and know when you're done.

Watch Now: How to Draw a Face