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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

Freelance artist drawing portrait of the sitter.

Freelance artist drawing portrait of the sitter.

Portrait Painting

The first and most important step in portrait painting is to draw many pencil sketches until you feel the sitter’s personality is captured. The personality may be completely captured by your judgment call or reviewed by the sitter and both of you settle on an agreed decision.

Use a live model to pose for you. This is sketching at its best. A photo may substitute should you not be able to get anyone to pose. Or design an original portrait from your imagination.

The idea behind sketching is to outline general features. The next step is to draw prominent features which help to identify the individual. Then continue with the detailing and refining which is necessary to complete the portrait.

Drawing the Human Face

An artist busy drawing a face.

An artist busy drawing a face.

How To Draw A Face

There are standard instructions for drawing a face, and many artists do prefer and do follow those instructions. There are many magazines, books, and online resources for drawing techniques.

Are you in a hurry? Use graph paper, tracing paper, or the computer to help draw faces from photographs, magazines, and other sources of images. The computer enables shortcuts for more accuracy.

There are times when these shortcuts are beneficial while you are in the process of learning to be a true portrait artist sketching a live subject.

Here are two ideas to consider until you improve your freelance drawing skills.

  • One method is to place grid paper over the photo and freelance the drawing.
  • Or make a copy of the photo; place a sheet of tracing paper over the photo, then trace it onto the canvass.

Portrait Drawing - Personality Trademarks

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

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

Personality Identification

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. A particular 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 or deemphasizing 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 x 12 canvas.

Highlights and Shading in a Portrait

Light and shading add depth and shape to a portrait.

Light and shading add depth and shape to a portrait.

Light and Shadow

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 Water Colors

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 the 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.

Human Flesh or Complexion

The complexion of the human face has many colors. It is best to mix your own flesh tones. Experiment with pigments to get different shades of flesh coloring. Record the portions and tints which were used for the complexion in the event that this shade may be used in the future.

Beginning artists may wish to work from photos. Flesh is not always pink there are a variety of colors such as blue, green, coral, red, brown, and yellow. There are ready-mixed flesh tints but these tints will not be very true. Mixing pigments by your hand will be more accurate.

Coordinating flesh colors to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye is nice, but it is more important to capture the skin qualities of the face on your portrait canvas. Artists gifted with this skilled talent add a true realism to the portrait.

Before applying the cosmetic color of the face on the canvas, paint a toned down version of the flesh tone or layer with Burnt umber to cover the white canvas. The white of the canvas peering through the paint will alter the color tone.

Another item which changes the color tone is the coloring of the clothing. The clothing color or colors will reflect onto the complexion and it may be necessary to alter the facial coloring.

To have the face of the individual pop from the canvas keep the background covered with neutral paints such as white, beige, gray, and blue. The background color needs to help the face to stand away from the canvas.

It will take time and practice to become a good portrait painting artist, but it can be done. Find yourself a mentor who will be a great help to you. Learn all that you can from that person but at the same time your experiments and personal experiences will lend towards original works.

Painting a Sketch - Mixed Media Face

Paint Preferences


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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