Sketching Exercise: How to Sketch People's Faces

An illustrator working on a drawing
Nicola Tree / Getty Images

Faces are a favorite subject for artists, but our desire for realism means that too often we resort to tracing or we get obsessive about photo-realist details. This results in losing the creative touches and personality that a freehand drawing can offer.

In this drawing lesson from cartoonist Ed Hall, you will learn how to draw a face freehand from life or a photograph. It allows your artistic personality, as well as the subject's personality, to shine through in your sketch.

While photorealist portraiture emphasizes fine surface detail, the sketched portrait values a combination of line and tone. You will use contour and cross contour to describe form. Expressive mark-making is encouraged. Drawing freehand brings your portraits to life.

You can copy Ed's lesson exactly or use it as a guide to draw a portrait from your own favorite photograph.

Begin Sketching the Head Structure

sketching the face - roughing in the face structure
Roughing in the face structure. Ed Hall

We'll get started by roughing out the basic shapes of the head - two overlapping ovals. The main oval gives us the shape of the face, while a secondary oval describes the back of the head. 

The exact position of your ovals might vary, depending on the angle of your sitter's head. So observe carefully and ignore the detail of features for now. Try to see just the main shapes of the head. 

Next, we make a 'note' of where the features will go using construction lines. Do this by drawing the line of the eyes, the base of the nose, and the general location of the mouth.

Also, be very careful at this point to make sure to properly place the ears. A beautiful portrait can easily be ruined by misplaced ears.

The ears will typically fall where your two overlapping ovals intersect. This also relates to where the jaw bone connects to the upper part of the skull. This part is very important! A little extra care with this step will help you to create a great drawing.

Sculpting Planes of the Face With Light and Shadow

Sculpting the planes of the face
Sculpting the planes of the face. Ed Hall

Now we start to 'search' for the various planes that run across the face. Good lighting helps a great deal at this stage, as a natural, angled fall of light will emphasize the planes.

Looking for how the shadows fall to create planes is similar to working like a sculptor. Imagine that you are carving the face and instead of soft curves, you have hard edges. These will be softened later.

Too many people forget that as light crosses planes, it creates a shape. These shapes are the building blocks of a structurally sound and “sculptural” drawing. Everything has planes: hair, cheek bones, eye sockets, the forehead, etc.

Draw the planes as shapes and you are well on your way to understanding figurative form.

Establishing Values in the Sketch

face sketching - establishing values
Establishing values. Ed Hall

Up to this point, we've been using line to establish planar shapes across the portrait. Now some value can be added.

I've been using a carpenter's pencil - it's a useful tool to quickly create large areas of value. Applying more pressure creates a deeper tone in shadows or where the form turns.

Working With Line and Contour

Using the point to develop line and contour.
Using the point to develop line and contour. Ed Hall

We continue developing tonal value, using the edge of the carpenter's pencil to get a finer line or to re-enforce the lines. This works really well for drawing single hairs or to pick out the contour lines.

Essentially, I'm attempting to sculpt the drawing by using varied line weight and by 'pushing' and 'pulling' the space using pencil line.

Shading the Face With Pencil

Graphite Value - Shading Tonal Value with Graphite Pencil
Building tonal values with graphite. Ed Hall

The drawing is progressing nicely, but the carpenter's pencil is not getting the tonal values as dark as I’d like. This is the time to introduce a 4B graphite pencil to push the blacks and make the space even deeper in the shadow areas.

To create a very dark space around the figure, it's best to use a dark graphite block for shading the final stages.

A Quick Note About Pencils

Artist's pencils are not all the same and there are many to choose from. If you're unsure, do some reading about graphite pencils and other drawing materials. A few experiments will help you decide what works best for you.

For this exercise, 3b or 6b pencils are good alternatives for the main sketching. A woodless pencil is a nice replacement for a graphite block when covering larger areas.

Assessing the Sketch in Progress

assessing progress on the sketch
Reviewing the sketch - assessing progress. Ed Hall

It's useful to take a moment to assess your progress from time to time. It is very easy to overwork a sketch, and part of the trick is knowing when to stop!

I could consider the drawing finished at this point. However, setting the figure in a dark environment like in the photo may make the rest of the values fall into place.

Blocking in the Background

blocking in the background
Blocking in the background. Ed Hall

Using a graphite block, begin to block in the value around and behind the figure. At the same time, look for places where the dark value is echoed on the figure. If you find a comparatively dark value in a fold or deep shadow crevasse, make sure to darken that area as well.

Be careful not to press too hard ​in the dark values. Graphite can get quite shiny or waxy and reflect too much light if you overwork these areas. 

Finishing the Sketch in Photoshop

the completed portrait sketch
The completed portrait sketch. Ed Hall

Scanned into Photoshop, I use the filter>sharpen>smart sharpen tool to punch up the pencil lines, crop, and save the picture.

This type of sketch usually only takes about an hour to complete. Yours may take longer, but if you keep practicing, your speed will quicken and you will become more accurate. Remember that practice is key to an artist's development, so keep at it.