How To Paint Portrait: Learn Fundamentals

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
National Portrait Gallery London

People like their portraits. People like themselves to see on paper or canvas. That is the reason why the art of portrait painting or portrait drawing is one of the most favoured genres of painting and drawing among artists. 

Here the artists intend to describe the visual appearance of the person. The man, woman, or child who does want to be portrayed. Let us know about some basic rules to observe while doing a portrait. May it be a pencil or a colour portrait. Yes, there are rules. It is not like the rules of traffic, but, but there are rules.

What does an artist do on the first go? While looking first time at the face you want to portray, you should thoroughly scrutinise the geometrical proportions; yes, no face is similar to the other. So, observe the different parts of the face, the parts that make the human face complete: the eyes, the nose, the lips, and hair, and the forehead. Spectacles could be an added accessory. Smile is optional.

The Basics:  Every artist has his or her rhythm for working. It would also be important to find out the rhythm of the posture of the person being portrayed. First of all, draw the outlines of the figure, in faint lines. You can alter it at any time afterwards. There are certain miniature type aspects to remember. 

Catch the eyes first. An artist would not miss carving out, or deciding about, the difference in size and shape of the upper and lower eyelids. That makes a lot of difference. Mark carefully, how the upper eyelid covers a portion of the whole eye. That would be your first act to draw the eyes; after that, you can start drawing iris. Only thereafter, try to sketch out eyelids around it.

see page for authorCC BY 4.0, via
Wikimedia Commons
Edward Law - Pencil Drawing by H. M. Raeburn

The Details:   There are some important elements to remember while drawing a pencil or a colour portrait. You can note down these items as:

  • It is the common belief that both the eyes of a person are similar in size and shape. No. There can be a difference, a minor one will make a difference. 
  • However, that may not be true in everyone’s case. There can be a minor, but crucial difference in the sizes of both eyes. 
  • It is because our eyes are not the mirror image of each other. 
  • The shape of an eye varies with the movement of eyelids. 
  • The wind also affects the position of eyelids and the shape of the eyes. So while drawing the eyes, you are to keep several aspects in mind

After considering the above elements you can proceed on. Once the eyes are drawn as above, you can move further. The progress in the portrait can be summarised as below. Mind well, even if you are to make a colour portrait, a pencil portrait is a must to draw first. It helps a lot. 

1.  The first and important step for doing an artistic pencil drawing is to control a pencil. so, keep full control over the movements of your pencil. 

2.  Make sure that every mark you are putting on paper leads you to the final and fine work of pencil drawing. 

3.  You can use the tip of your pencil or the sides of the pencil as per your wish to animate the image on the paper. 

4.  At this stage, we would not engage ourselves in the detailed aspects of eyes, like shading and other things. 

5. Shading, hatching, or cross-hatching: can be done after the whole face is drawn.

We can start with a pencil drawing of a portrait. The pencil drawing is the fundamental of all the arts.  We would discuss here some of the aspects of drawing and painting. Here are some of them. It is not a conclusive list, though. It is to have an idea about what the art of painting and the pencil drawing consists of. Let us discuss it step-by-step.

Girl with a Pearl Earring 
Johannes Vermeer
[This painting was sold
for $10.2 Million]

Shape or the Edges:    Before starting a drawing, the artist looks at the object to be drawn.  It is very fundamental to look at the object and get an idea about the same. If you are drawing a portrait, carefully note the roundness or flatness of the object. Anything we see at the first sight will be useful. Basically, visual art is a matter of seeing. So, an artist has to see very well the object to be drawn or painted. The shapes, yes, the shapes of the objects are of much importance.

Once you identify the shape of an object well, you can think about its lining work That would recreate the shape on paper or canvas. You can start drawing a portrait after getting an exact idea of the face of a person. If it is a self-portrait, there are two benefits. One is that you would not spoil relations with anyone if any mistake is committed. Secondly, you would need only a good full-sized mirror. Just sit before the mirror and start self-portraying.

Clotilde on the Beach Joaquín Sorolla
Museum Sorolla, Madrid, Spain

Measurement of the Object: No one can dispute the importance of the measurement of the objects to be drawn. We must know the height, width, length and other aspects of the model. If it is a portrait, we have to see the exact measurements of the eyes, nose, ears, head, shoulders, hairstyle and other related aspects. 

When you are working under a commission and are required to draw or paint the portrait of a person, a slight variation would ruin your entire work. A slightly bigger eye or a lip thicker than the original one could displease the person being portrayed. In portrait drawing, there is room for artistic imagination, but you will have to honour reality, too.

Play of The Light: Here comes the major factor. Before taking a pencil or a paintbrush in hand, the artist would look at the play of the light on the person to be portrayed. It can be sunlight or artificial-light like electricity. This will enable the artist to know what he would be doing at the time of the final work. The intensity of light falling on an object indicates the areas of your operation. The light decides where to move your pencil or paintbrush. The lighted area would take the lighter colours and the spaces getting lesser light would be darker. That is called the ‘value’ in the language of art. A good drawing would have the full range of values, meaning all types of shades should be depicted as per their values.

Portrait of the Baroness de Crussol
Musée des Augustins de Toulouse 

The Level of Confidence: This is crucialArt is the product of the inner will of the artist. So, it is very important for an artist to feel that he can do the drawing or a painting that he wants to draw or paint. The level of confidence will work, as the persuasion of art requires too much patience and a lot of waiting. One more thing. Have consistency in your work. It is the maintaining of a particular style of drawing or painting. If you can do it, your artwork would be like your signature.

People would see the artwork and they would recognize it immediately as yours. So, to keep working on your own style is crucially important in the world of art. Moreover, if you have good control over the pencils and paint-brushes, you can draw and paint a perfect piece of art. The structure of the objects drawn and their relative size would render an artwork aesthetically correct. At a later stage, it would help in exploiting the fullest value of colours and creating rich textures.  


It is a universal rule that an artist heart would never feel satisfied with his or her work. So the artist would not declare the work as finished. But here the act of a prudent person should prevail. In some cases, it would be better to frame the work immediately or deliver the same to the person who has commissioned the work.

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