Handy tips for the portrait artist—drawing portrait art.
Portrait Drawing Tips

ball-point pen sketch of womanPencil sketch of man
Sketches of woman and man. (No photo reference or model used for either drawing.)

Some random drawing tips (some of these also mentioned in the various tutorials):

Use a scrap of paper under your hand when you are drawing, as a "shield." That way you won't get graphite smeared on your drawing as you work.

Use a spray "fixative" after finishing a drawing, to seal it and keep in from smearing. (Don't do this until you are sure your drawing is done, though!) Use spray "retouch fixative" if you're in the middle of a drawing, but be careful—it's difficult to do drastic erasures even after only using retouch fixative.

Wait a few days before declaring a drawing "done." Often it takes several days for you to become less attached to the drawing. You will then be able to notice some additional flaws and errors in the drawing. Also, never feel too bad if you find some glaring flaw in a drawing that you thought looked fabulous just a few days before. This is not uncommon. It's part of the process.

While working on a drawing, frequently look at your drawing in the mirror. Or, put your sketch up to a bright light and look at it in reverse. This will allow you to see weird lopsided flaws in your drawing, that you wouldn't notice otherwise. It is a great way to "weed out" problem areas in your drawing before you work any further. It also teaches you where your "problem areas" typically tend to be, which will help you improve next time. If you scan your drawing into your computer, you can use Photoshop (or GIMP) to flop your image and see where things have gone wrong.


Look at the drawing upside-down. This will help you see if anything is crooked, or lopsided (crooked eyes, mouth, etc.). Also, if you are having trouble drawing a particular part of a portrait, turn the photo upside down too, and draw everything in the upside-down position. (Do this if you are copying from a photo—I don't suggest that you make your model stand on their head!) Drawing upside-down helps you to see things abstractly, and assists in drawing accurately.

Draw people off of the TV! This is a fun exercise. Your may not always like your drawing (you may not get a good likeness) but the practice of drawing people off the TV is an excellent way to strengthen your observation skills. You see the person in many different angles, which forces you to "analyze" their features on the fly. Plus, you'll get that much more drawing practice time in. You'll be doing two things at once—drawing and watching TV!

Don't become dependent on tracing photographs. The sooner you learn how to draw the old-fashioned way, the better. And don't use the "grid" method as your primary way of getting an image on the paper. Sure, you can dabble with all sorts of techniques, especially when you're just getting started. But please don't become too dependent on either tracing or the grid. If you do, you will be cheating yourself of an integral part of being a portrait artist. You won't be able to draw from life. (Some of my favorite portraits have been drawn from life. They have a special "spirit" in them that portraits drawn from photos don't have.) You'll never be able to learn how to draw without a model. (The drawings on the top of this page were drawn from my imagination. These sketches only took a few minutes to complete, and were a lot of FUN to draw!) If all you ever know how to do is trace, you will be missing out on a lot of fun! It's like you are riding a bicycle, but with training wheels. You may still be able to get around with the training wheels, but you'll never be truly "free." Drawing is a delightful thing, not a "chore." Don't rob yourself of its joys. I have more to say about drawing and tracing here.

Draw subjects you like. Even if it's Justin Bieber or one of those Kardashian babes. (I don't keep up with current trends. I'm sure these names will be outdated in no time at all!) Don't let anyone around you tell you that your portrait choices are silly or stupid. Please yourself. It's your talent, your time and effort, not anyone else's. There will be plenty of time later on to draw more "serious" subjects. But when you are just practicing and learning, make the whole experience as fun and pleasant as you can. Remember, drawing is supposed to be FUN!

Don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun. (See the tip right above.) Don't always worry about what other people say. Learn to listen to compliments or criticism, but don't take any of it too much to heart. Don't allow yourself to become too elated by praise, or too dejected by criticism. Just keep plugging away. Have fun, please yourself, keep on working on improving your skills. As long as you keep working, you will end up with drawings that please you and make you happy.

Keep a sketchbook. Carry it with you whenever you can. Fill it up with lots of drawings. Don't think that every page has to have something "serious" on it. Get an inexpensive sketchpad, and just draw, draw, draw. Draw silly stuff or "not serious" stuff. Sometimes, cram a whole lot of drawings on each page, every which way. If you do a drawing you dislike, leave it. Maybe you will fix it up later, or maybe you'll tear it out of the sketchbook and burn it! Have fun, and please yourself. It's your sketchbook!

Don't draw subjects you don't like. It'll show in your drawing. People will sense it, if only on a subconscious level. If you are drawing a portrait for someone else, (of a subject that you are not crazy about) make yourself find something to like. You must connect to your subject and LIKE what you are drawing. Trust me on this one.



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