Getting Started in Portrait Art

Two Profile SketchesSo, you want to draw and paint portraits, and you want to know where to begin?  Here are some things you need to get and do to get started.

Materials You Will Need:

Strathmore drawing paper.  Other brands will do - Grumbacher is another good brand.   Do not get a cheap sketch pad, all it will do is not take erasures well. (And trust me, you will be erasing!)

Graphite pencil. 2B or B softness.  Do not get a "hard" pencil, one with an HB (or an "H" in it's softness rating at all) will give too light of a line to make a decent drawing,  You may even want to get one of those mechanical pencils, (the ones commonly found in stationery and grocery stores) they are handy to have, and do not need to be sharpened!

Kneaded Rubber Eraser.   If you do not know what that is, go to an art store (or perhaps a stationery store) and ask.   It is a pliable, soft eraser that can be manipulated (a little like silly putty) to erase small areas.   It also seems to be easier on your sketch paper, and will not tear into it as easily.

Pencil sharpener.  Get a decent one.   There is nothing more frustrating than working on a drawing, and then having to stop and struggle with getting your pencil sharpened correctly!   If you feel comfortable investing in one of those electric sharpeners (a good one, with a brand name) do so!   However, it is not necessary.   Pencil sharpeners can be a frustrating thing, and I recommend one of those very humble sharpeners that are just a small piece of metal with the sharpening blade.   (You insert the pencil, twist it to sharpen, and discard the shavings as they come out.)  This sort of sharpener may not be as fancy as a electric one, but it is portable, easy to use, and cheap!

These basic materials will be enough to get you started.  As you can see, it does not have to be expensive!

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Other Materials:

 You can also use a ball-point pen.  The drawings on this page are from my sketchbook, and are rendered in ball-point pen. However, ball-point cannot be erased, (usually) so keep this in mind.  But for doing little fun doodles, ball-point is certainly fine.  (That is how I kept my sanity through High School - doodling with a ball point pen in my notebooks...) 
If you want to work in color, try a small set of Prismacolor colored pencils.  They are not inexpensive, however. A set of 24 pencils would probably be the minimum to use. You may want to couple the use of colored pencils with a set of inexpensive watercolors (and there are many sets out there!)   Using a pretty good quality drawing paper (that specifically claims that it can take water media like watercolors) you can draw in colored pencil, and then later go over and "fill in" other areas of your white drawing paper with watercolor washes.   The end result can look very nice. See an example of one of my portraits, where I use this technique.

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Now that you have your basic materials, now what?

It sounds pretty basic, but this is what I recommend: Get a book!  The one I strongly urge you to get is "How to Draw on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards.   Go to a library, get it at or see if there is a used copy currently available at Abebooks. This book is definitely one of the best out there to help you learn how to draw, and it does give a lot of attention to portraits.  I sincerely wish that I had known about this book when I was starting out.  (If I had only one book to recommend to a new artist, this would be it!)  This book is suited for any artist, at any time in their artistic development.   However, it is most encouraging to the beginning artist.   Look at the "before" and "after" examples of what Edwards' students drew, using her technique... they cannot fail to inspire!   Edwards shows how to look at a subject objectively with easy and clearly explained exercises in this book.

Another excellent book to get (as a supplement to the Edwards book) is an (unfortunately) out-of-print book.   (But there is always the library!)  It is called "Figure Drawing For All It's Worth" by Andrew Loomis.  While Loomis' book focuses on figure drawing, his explanation of drawing heads, (and drawing anything) is written in so clear and friendly a manner, I think it is a book to be included in every artists' library.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print. Please bear in mind that this book is very rare and difficult to find. Most used book places sell it for over $100. Don't expect to pay the list price. $50 for this wonderful book is a bargain. (I know. I've looked around a lot.) A good place to look for a used copy of this book is Abebooks (an incredible resource!).

Updated! You can find an online archive of this book at (Warning! This link might not be work safe, because it is an online anatomy resource, which means possible nudity.) There are several of Loomis' books archived here. This should definitely tell you something - this book is so wonderful, someone decided that it needed to be archived online. However, an online archive is only a temporary substitute for the real book, alas, and be aware: this online resource may not be up forever. If this link turns up dead, don't blame me! It was active when I posted it. However, I have no doubt that somewhere, somehow, there will always be an online copy of Loomis's books floating around the Internet. (At least until someone decides to republish his books properly.) So, if my link does not work, just do your own search and I am confident you'll come up with something!

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An Important Word about Attitude:

Get a lot of practice in.  Do not be intimidated by others around you who are more advanced, or experienced with art.   If you are an adult (or even consider yourself "advanced" in years) it may be a little hard to see younger people mastering something that you are struggling to learn.  But do not be disheartened!   You will be amazed at how fast you can learn (look in the Betty Edwards book for inspiring examples of "before" and "after" drawings of students of her teaching method!) 

Whatever you do, do not give up, especially if you feel you are not doing as well as others around you.  People progress at different rates.  Also, I have been in classes where "older" people (probably over 50 - which looking back, doesn't seem that old!) have started to learn how to draw.  Even though they may have started out with very humble art efforts, because they never gave up I saw them improve much more than younger students who were gifted with far more natural talent, but lacked the discipline.

If you are a young student, and are feeling competitive (it is a common feeling) with other young artists you see around you, try to squelch this feeling.  It will get you nowhere.  If you are a young artist and are feeling discouraged because there is someone younger than you (or the same age, for that matter) who you worry is a better artist than you, knock it off!   You may not see it now, but all artists are different is subtle ways.   While some artists seem to excel in certain areas, they are weak in others.   All artists have different sensibilities, and styles.   To "compare" yourself to someone else is like comparing apples and oranges.  

Focus on your own progress, and put your energy into getting better at things that you feel are important to you.   Do not be looking over your shoulder at someone else's work, and thinking about what they are doing.  I know I seem to focus on something not directly related to the drawing process, but your attitude when you are learning to draw will make a BIG difference in how well you progress!

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