An approach to portraits


After doing a recent quick ‘selfie’ portrait, I sifted through some old art folios, in which I found a few very different images of myself.  Two were pencil drawings, and the other a quick sketch in acrylic on paper. Over the years I’ve executed many portraits, in pastel, pencil and paint; some done as teaching tools, some commissions, and others as part of children’s book illustration. rbt



With all portraits, and all figures come to that, I have generally used the same techniques to plot the sketch. But the most important technique of all does not involve pencil or paint. To become accurate with any portrait, you must look. Seems obvious? I am talking about really seeing here: the shape of the head, the face; whether it is thin, long, wide, plump. Is the skin tone fair, or dark? All these features need to be observed before a pencil makes a mark. And, then comes the hair. Is it dark, light, thick, wavy, straight? Is it wispy, framing the face? When you are becoming to know the person, it comes the time to select your tools (pencils in this case). It does help if you already know your model too.


I thought I would do a new portrait of myself using the above-mentioned methods. I worked from a photograph, using pencil. I chose an HB, as it is always best to draft with a light lead, as if corrections are needed the line can easily be erased. Keep the touch soft, avoiding heavy marks in the paper. I like to start with the hair, as it helps get a sense of the head shape, while relaxing into the sketch. Gently I plot the other components, looking all the while between the image and my drawing, mentally measuring. A mark here, a mark there and slowly the whole face takes shape. It is now time to add tone and texture, and this is where I bring out a range of sharpened pencils. I like using a B as I begin to form the shading, working in graded line, and soon see the face as a solid, taking form, new meaning. To soften the line where needed, I use a finger tip. When it is time to add the fine detail, such as the eyes, I use a harder, sharper  pencil, an H perhaps. I check and double check my measurements visually. I stand back from my work, squint, to check the tonal values and keep going. I again use a B, or a 2B for darker tones, and gently work these up around the face. I end where I begin, with the hair. Accenting the short cut, with light and dark strokes. I stand back one last time. Finished!


finished pencil sketch

There is always a point when you dither and wonder whether a sketch should be worked on more. It is a skill to throw up your hands, and leave the artwork alone, knowing it’s done. But, there will come a moment where you pause, leave the room, return, look at your work and consider it done. Go well with your art.

8 thoughts on “An approach to portraits

  1. Vivienne this is interesting…and of course I recognized you! Actually I enjoyed the other portraits that you have included as well…the coloured one is delightful..



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