How to Draw a Portrait Using a Photo
September 3, 2021
Many budding artists tend to begin their creative journey by learning how to draw portraits. You may recall being in an elementary school art class and drawing that quintessential face sketch with the dividing lines for where the ears, nose, and mouth should go.
The truth is, drawing a portrait that way only gives you a 2-dimensional front-facing portrait that lacks ingenuity and is rarely very realistic. If you want to upgrade your portraits, here’s a step-by-step guide of two different methods that will help you do so:
Method 1: Grid Drawing
You may have heard of grid drawing for larger murals and projects which require great attention to detail over a substantial surface area. This same idea works well for portraits because it allows the artist to focus on small spaces at once, creating an exact copy of a photo reference.
This method requires few materials. You’ll need a digital copy of the photo you are referencing, plus your drawing materials and a ruler.
Step 1 – Create your grid.
You will have to make an identical grid on your reference photo and your drawing surface or paper. First, create the grid on your digital copy of your reference photo. You can do this in a few ways. One way is to upload your photo in your program of choice (it can be Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Photoshop, etc.) and manually apply a grid using the line drawing feature. An easier way to do it is by downloading the drawing grid maker from the Google Play Store and applying the grid that way.
Once you have your grid applied to your photo, you will want to draw the same grid pattern onto your sheet of paper. Make sure to draw with very light pencil marks because you’ll be erasing it later.
To create the grid, count how many squares are in your gridded photo and decide how large your squares will need to be to fit onto your sheet of paper. Then, decide how many centimeters your squares need to be. From there, measure out the squares, marking where the gridlines will go. Draw your lines to create the grid.
Step 2 – Sketch the main lines of the portrait.
Your grid will serve you well for this step, because it will allow you to make sure all of your proportions are correct. Beginning on the upper-left side, begin copying the main lines of the portrait, square by square. By main lines, I am referencing the outline of the head, neck, and shoulders. From there, lightly outline where the main features of the face will be: the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and ears.
Once you create these soft outlines, you can compare the photo with the overall drawing that you have created. Are all of the proportions correct? Check each box for accuracy before you begin to add details. This step is important because it is basically the blueprint for your portrait.
Step 3 – Erase the grid.
Some artists may disagree as to when to erase the grid, so use your best judgement on this one. I think erasing the grid should come just after outlining the main parts of the portrait because it is more difficult to erase it after you have added details and shading. After all, the grid serves mostly to create the initial blueprint of your drawing.
When you are erasing the gridlines on your paper, make sure to do so softly and avoid erasing any parts of the outlines you have created. It is important to remove any lines as you will not want them to be a part of your final portrait.
Step 4 – Add details.
Once your grid is erased and you are left with the outlines of the main parts of your portrait, you can go in and add details to each part. You should still leave the grid on your reference photo because it will still help you focus in on certain parts of the portrait.
The details during this step will mostly be completed with lines. Where you once had the outline of an eye to mark where the eye should go, you will now begin to add the iris, pupil, eyelashes, wrinkles, and other line details. This is also where you will add variation in line thicknesses to create depth.
Once this step is complete, your portrait will begin to come to life. It will still be mostly two-dimensional at this stage, but you will see more depth emerge once you add shading in the next step.
Step 5 – Add shading.
This is when you will begin to add depth and texture to your portrait. Graphite pencils of varying hardness will be great for this step, but are not essential for shading. These pencils range between 6H being the hardest and producing precise, thin lines, and 8B which gives you thick, dark lines that are easily blended.
Using your reference photo, look for where there are shadows. Shadows can be imitated using shading on your paper. You can use cross-hatching techniques to create shadows as well as blending techniques. Some shadows are darker than others, so pay attention to the depth of them in the reference photo in order to reproduce them on your paper.
Step 6 – Add highlights.
Once you have added the shadows to your portrait, take a look and see if you need to erase any shading in order to create highlights. Use your eraser and lightly erase the parts of your portrait that you want to highlight.
Once this step is complete, you should have a pencil portrait that looks just like your reference photo!
Method 2: Impression Technique
This technique requires more materials than the grid drawing technique, but yields great results and can even be easier and more accurate than grid drawing. The impression technique involves tracing a portrait onto tracing paper with a soft graphite pencil and using the traced portrait to create an impression onto the drawing paper that serves as a guide for the portrait.
To do this technique, you will need a hard copy of the reference photo that is the same size as the drawing will be. You will also need tracing paper, as well as your drawing paper, pencils, and eraser, plus any other drawing materials you would like to use.
Step 1 – Trace your portrait.
The first step is to place your tracing paper over the portrait you wish to draw. You can secure the tracing paper using a piece of tape if you would like. Using a soft graphite pencil, trace the main outlines of the portrait, making sure to trace the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and ears. Avoid too many details and focus on just outlining the main features of the portrait.
Step 2 – Create an impression.
Then, you will take the tracing paper and flip it over onto your drawing paper, graphite side down. Make sure to adjust it to where you want to leave the impression of the portrait. Once it is secured, use a ruler to press the impression into the paper. You should not have to press very hard. Make sure to press down in smooth strokes without perforating either sheet of paper.
Peel back the tracing paper to reveal the portrait outlines. They should be neatly printed onto your paper. Erase any extra marks that were made in the process and lightly sketch whatever lines that are missing.
Step 3 – Add details.
Just like in the grid drawing method, this is where you will go in and add all of your portrait’s details. Since you are using a hard copy of the reference photo, you might not be able to zoom in and see the minute details. It may help to have a digital copy of your reference photo on-hand to use for this purpose.
Add the small line details of the portrait, making sure to emphasize the main outlines and various line thicknesses.
Step 4 – Add shading.
Exactly as you would have done in the grid drawing method, in this step you will add shading to your portrait. Pay close attention to the shadows of your portrait and decide which shading method you will use. Note that not all shadows are alike and shadows vary in darkness.
Step 5 – Add highlights.
Use your eraser to erase any pencil marks where there should be highlights. These are various points on the portrait which have more light and should not be shaded.
Once this step is complete, you’ll have an awesome portrait that should resemble your reference photo!
Creating a lifelike portrait does not have to be a daunting task. In fact, it can be quite easy and fun to do. Imagine all the possibilities! You can create portraits of friends and family, or even professional clients someday!
With these two methods, I hope you are able to continue improving your portrait-making. Do you have any other photo-to-drawing tips and tricks? Let us know what they are!