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Drawing and Painting Faces

Tricia Deed enjoys and relaxes with her hobby of painting portraits and landscapes with acrylic paints.

Portrait Artist at Work

Freelance artist drawing portrait of a sitter.

Freelance artist drawing portrait of a sitter.

Portrait Painting

Artists paint portraits to record facial features and personality qualities of an individual. The portrait is of a face or a full body. Artists enjoy painting portraits because it challenges our creativity and skills to reproduce a person’s face on canvas.

Portrait painting requires making many pencil sketches. It will take hours of practice to develop into a talented artist. Practice with photos or pictures from magazines, books, and varied visual outlets. Last, sketch a live model. Ask a family member or a friend to pose.

Do you wish to develop your speed? Visit shopping malls or public parks and sketch people as they perform their daily activities.

A sketch outlines the general area. Shading and value layering will add a 3D visual. Correcting errors, detailing, and refining completes the person’s likeness. Before deciding the portrait is satisfactory, you and the sitter need to review and make adjustments before completing the portrait.

I employed a student artist to imitate a photo of myself. I asked her if she could manage it, and she responded with a confident yes. Months passed. One day she carried in the completed portrait. It was disheartening. She did not reproduce the photo as agreed. She never offered to show me how her work was developing. I gave her 50% up front, later declined to pay off the balance as she failed the portrait agreement. She kept the portrait. (I didn’t want it.) It is important that you examine your sketch with your client.


Drawing the Human Face

Artist drawing a face.

Artist drawing a face.

How to Draw a Face

There are many techniques for drawing faces. The best plan is to attend a credited art school and earn a Fine Arts degree. It has been proven that a college graduate has more opportunities to build a successful career than being self-trained.

Self-learning is for those who want to gain art experiences at their own pace, enhance their craft or past-time hobby, or are exploring and experimenting with a mix of art ideas before investing in an art course.

Freelance method:

  1. Draw a circle.
  2. Draw light guidelines to mark chin, eyes, nose, and lips locations.
  3. Insert hairline and ears.
  4. Sketch details and add shading and highlights.

Personal observation: After indicting the head shape with its chin, I move on to detail the eyes and eyebrows. The nose and lips are next. The hair style determines if the layout will have ears or not.

This method is fun to do, but it is a trial-and-error approach. Shortcomings abound; however, it lets you know why education is essential.

Instructions for drawing faces are available in art publications, online classes, videos, DVDs, and local art classes. Or you may enroll in a Fine Arts course at a college of your choice.

Tracing Method:

This may be considered as cheating, but it may help you to experience “getting a knack” for sketching facial features as you can keep retracing to aid your learning process.

1. Select a photo and secure with tape to prevent movement.

2. Place a sheet of tracing paper over the photo.

3. Trace the photo lightly with a pencil.

4. Place tracing paper onto selected paper or canvas.

5. Retrace the figure, the lines will appear on the selected paper.

6. Remove the tracing paper.

7. Darken lines and fill in with shading and values

Another “cheating” or “mechanical helping aid” method is to use a light table which reflects the photo or original drawing onto the final paper. This is an easier tracing method. If there is no light table use a window that allows the outdoor sun light as a visual aid. This is similar to working with a light box. Light boxes may be constructed in the home or purchased from art suppliers.

Wall projection:

Are you wanting to make a wall mural from your drawings? Make a light box to project the sketch onto the wall or you may rent or purchase a wall projector.

These mechanical methods are useful tools. These tools aid learning, acquire motor skills, repetition, and reproducing copies in a shorter period of time.

There are copyright laws governing artists work. Use your original material to avoid legal problems.

Portrait Drawing - Personality

Realistic drawing of Marilyn Monroe capturing the essence of her personality.

Realistic drawing of Marilyn Monroe capturing the essence of her personality.

Personality and Interests

There is always a feature or a trademark which helps to identify the person.

  1. If the person is a hunter there may be a special cap or a lucky shirt.
  2. A birthmark, scar, beard, mustache, or tattoo is a definite trademark.
  3. Hairstyle, earrings, or makeup completes a person’s identity
  4. A significant background symbol representing the person’s interest.
  5. Emblem, medals, or trophies signifying accomplishments.

The portrait is the point of focus. Minimize background distractions.

After making portrait sketches consider where light and shadow will be noted in the portrait. Light and shadow are critical for emphasizing facial lines, expressions, and so on.

What is the finished size of the drawing or painting? A standard rule says the subject should be two thirds of the canvas. Most beginners start with a 9×12 canvas.

Highlights and Shading in a Portrait

Light and dark add depth and shape to a portrait.

Light and dark add depth and shape to a portrait.

Highlights and Shading

Use a lamp to help determine highlight and shading areas. Place your lamp directing its light towards the portrait drawing. The light will help to illuminate the light and dark areas. Then lightly pencil in the shadow areas. This lamp technique will also help to clarify the understanding of light and shading which will help in color selection from bright and sharp to darker and less intense tinting.

Understanding and knowing how to use light and shadow is critical in painting.

There are four elements to be considered:

  1. Direct highlight – the brightest light area
  2. Core shadow – the darkest shadow area
  3. Reflective light- light located next to the shadow area
  4. Cast shadow – the shadow which is cast by the object

Light, dark, and color with their gradient effects must be understood by all artists as it is essential in any painting.

Acrylic Painted Portrait

It is often difficult to tell the difference between oil and acrylic paints.

It is often difficult to tell the difference between oil and acrylic paints.

Painting with Acrylics, Oil, and Watercolors

Painting with acrylics is exciting. You can create your portrait painting projects using thin to thick coatings to accomplish an exacting texture. Acrylic paints are water based affording control over its pigment consistency.

Apply paint in layers. Be patient. The first tint to be applied is the foundation color of the face. As you apply layers of paint it will afford decision making time for the correct skin colors. (Be careful with the type of pencils being used to trace. Acrylic paints do not seem to cover pencil markings very well. Erase pencil marks whenever possible or lightly sketch the drawing.)

Layering is one of many acrylic painting techniques. It is a brush stroke application which artists may use in painting on their work surface of paper, canvas, fabric, wood, glass, and many other surfaces.

Acrylic paints are applied in layers allowing time and control to develop accurate highlights and shadowing. After completing the facial foundation move on to painting the eyes, eyebrows, eyelashes, nose, and mouth. Thicken paint to add texture and depth.

Stop periodically to compare your work with the image that is being copied from photo, magazine, or another source. The final touches would include the white dot in the eye to reflect light, a hint of white to the lips, and any last touches of highlighting or shadowing.

Protect your completed portrait with an acrylic fix-it agent. Other protective measures include storing portrait paintings away from heat; avoid garages and attics. Do not stack paintings face to face.

Both oil and acrylic use the same techniques. One of the main differences is that acrylic is fast drying and oil paint is slow. Both paints are agreeable to many different surfaces.

Water coloring has a different appearance from oil or acrylic paints. It needs a special water coloring paper. These paints have limited use of surfaces.

The results of what the artist wants determines the use of oil, acrylic, or water colors.

Foundation Tints

The human face has many choices of colors in its foundation. Several tints may need to be blended.

The human face has many choices of colors in its foundation. Several tints may need to be blended.

Flesh Hues

The human flesh is a complex of many colors. It is best to mix and blend your own shades of flesh hues. Experiment with pigments to get various shades of flesh colors and tone. Record the pigments, portions, and variation results when adding white for highlights and umbers, and black for shading. These records are for future reference.


Beginner or advanced artists may work from photos. Flesh is not always pink, there are a variety of flesh hues. Mix primary colors of red, blue, and yellow with slight amounts of blue, green, browns, white and black for skin tones and accuracy. There are ready-mixed flesh tints, but these tints are not accurate.

  1. It is important to capture skin qualities on the subject’s face. Artists gifted with this skill add true realism to the portrait.
  2. Paint a toned-down version of the flesh tone or layer the white canvas with burnt umber before applying facial colors. The white of the canvas peering through the paint will alter color tones.
  3. The subject’s facial complexion and tones may change because of the clothing colors. Make all necessary color corrections.
  4. Paint backgrounds with neutral colors of white, beige, gray, and blue. The background color helps the face stand away from the canvas. Do not overload the background with competing objects.
  5. Dim and brilliant lights change skin tones. Observation and practice will teach how to mix warm and cool tones.

8 Tips - Draw A Better Portrait (Realistic...)

Paint Preferences

Comments

Tricia Deed on December 15, 2015:

Accomplishing realistic face drawings will take practice and time. Your eyes need to be like the lens of the camera and your brain needs to see exact. To me, the difficult part is to learn how to work the pencil for details and shading and the paints to capture that reality. Much patience will be needed. But it can be done.

Regardless of whether we trace or not, all artists want to do it the correct way. We seem to feel we are cheating if we are not sketching from the very beginning of the process.

Jasmeet Kaur from India on December 12, 2015:

I am quite weak in drawing realistic protraits, but i love to do so. You shared very helpful info for me..

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 09, 2015:

I am trying right now to improve my drawing although I have seen many just tracing the portrait on the canvas after magnifying it in the printer. Still, I want to improve my drawing. I have gotten an acrylic set so am learning and your hub has lots of tips.

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