How to draw a realistic pencil portrait from a photograph. How to draw the face in a realistic style. Tips & suggestions.

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Realistic Pencil Portrait
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Ben BrowderTo the left is a pencil portrait drawn in the detailed "realistic" style. (Click on thumbnail image to see larger version.)

There isn't really much of a "secret" to drawing in this style. I was first introduced to this technique by one of my teachers, L.A. Times illustrator, Richard Milholland. He explained it very simply—you just get a sharp pencil, smooth Bristol board, and draw in the itty-bitty details. His own work was known for its scary photo-realistic detail, so I was a little amazed that this was all that there was to it! But that was it!

This portrait was drawn from a photograph. I didn't use a grid or tracing paper—I just sketched it in and rendered it.

Consult the "step-by-step portrait" tutorial to get an overview on how to draw a portrait. The process I went through to draw this "realistic" style of portrait is pretty much the same as described in that tutorial.

Materials to used for this drawing:

  • Bristol Board, smooth finish. (Smooth finish illustration board will also work.) It is important that the paper be smooth, and doesn't have a lot of "tooth" (texture). I use Strathmore Bristol Board, in the 9x12 or 11x14 sized pads.
  • For this portrait, I used a .05 mechanical pencil. I usually use a B or 2B lead, but this time I only had an HB. It was sufficient. A regular pencil will work fine, as long as it is kept sharpened.
  • Kneaded Rubber Eraser. It was invaluable in picking up stray lines, softening tones, and erasing errors. Really good with erasing small, delicate areas.

To keep smudging at a minimum, I used a scrap of paper underneath my hand as I drew. I also attached a sheet of tracing paper to go over the drawing, sort of as an "overlay." It was there to help prevent smearing as the drawing was being moved and transported around. The tracing paper also protected the drawing from fingerprints and dirt.

All preliminary sketching was drawn lightly, so that stray pencil strokes could be erased later. When I felt I had drawn in the face correctly, I started lightly adding more detail and shading. I double-checked the drawing in the mirror (a good way to see errors) regularly, to make sure nothing had gone astray.

All through the progress of the drawing, I used the Kneaded Rubber Eraser to lighten up areas, and erase mistakes. I would use the eraser to "pat pat pat" an area that had gotten too dark. This would lighten the area without smearing the graphite, or losing the quality of the pencil strokes. The eraser was also very good at completely erasing an area, without damaging the surface of the paper.

The drawing progressed, as I kept adding more detail and shading. All shading was done lightly at first, and then darkened progressively. The sharp point on the .05 pencil kept all pencil strokes fine and small. This way, I was able to retain a "realistic" and "detailed" look to the drawing.

I didn't draw as much detail in the hair or clothing. This was a deliberate stylistic choice. The center of focus is the face, not the hair and clothes. It is a nice touch to have some loosely rendered areas, that allow the pencil strokes to show. This gives a nice "arty" feel to the portrait, and reminds us that it is a drawing, not a slavishly copied photograph.

Crichton's eyeA detail of the eye. All the pencil strokes are "crosshatched," not smeared or smudged. The gentle crosshatch gives the portrait a cleaner, neater appearance. It is much easier to control than smudging. Small subtle details are easier to define.

If the crosshatching technique is done with these small, refined pencil strokes, the effect will look smooth and even photo-realistic when the portrait is seen at a normal distance.

If "contour" lines are used in conjunction with the crosshatching, a subtle but effective dimensional effect will occur. This will enhance the "realistic" look of the portrait.


Crichton - mouthA close-up of the nose and mouth. This is an enlarged view - the original drawing is much smaller.

Notice that there is a subtle indication of a "highlight" on the tip of the nose, and a highlight on the bottom lip. This was achieved by gently laying down a light tone around these highlights. With a portrait this "detailed," most of the face will be rendered as a light gray, so that such "highlights" will show up.

When seen at "normal" size, most of these light pencil crosshatching strokes will not be very visible. However, the crosshatching technique is not unattractive, and needn't been concealed, or hidden.

The drawing was completed over the expanse of three days. I drew in and did most of the rendering of the face in one evening (perhaps 4 - 5 hours). Only the darkest dark tones were not yet rendered on the first night. The next evening I tweaked and corrected out some details. This took approx. 1 hour. The third night, I tweaked and corrected the drawing yet again. (Another hour or so.) Bear in mind that some portraits will take much longer to complete. It depends on the size of the drawing, the complexity of the pose, and how much drawing practice the artist has. The more practice you put in, the faster you'll get.

The actual time it took (in total hours) to complete the drawing isn't as important as the days it took to declare it "completed." I always need to wait a few days to finally consider the likeness to be OK. Getting the portrait drawn and rendered isn't the problem—that can be done in a few hours. Capturing the fleeting likeness takes more time, and objectivity. Just because the drawing is more or less in "proportion" doesn't mean the likeness is there yet.

It is almost impossible for me to really finish a drawing in one sitting. I am too close to the subject. Certain errors and problems just don't "pop" out at me until I've "slept on it." The likeness may appear to be good when I am working on the drawing, but in the morning I'll see all sorts of problems. Therefore, I find it is preferable to do a drawing over the expanse of several days, rather than to rush it and try to finish it all in one sitting.

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(Original Ben Browder photo reference for this portrait: FARSCAPE © and TM 2002 The Jim Henson Company, SCIFI.COM © 2002-2004 SCI FI). Please do not save the portrait image on your hard drive—it is for viewing only.