How to Draw People – Part 1


Drawing a person is no different than drawing a flower or a vase. It’s all about how you translate what you see. I know this may seem obvious but capturing a likeness is not as hard as it may seem.
You just need to understand a few rules about capturing the light, drawing the features and creating realistic effects. With a little guidance and practice you could be well on your way to drawing realistic people in no time.

Capturing a Likeness

The first time you pick up a pencil and attempt to draw a person it might not turn out very well. You may have the eyes too far apart, nose in the wrong place or even one ear lower than the other and it causes the drawing to look very strange. This is a normal process that all good portrait artists go through. It’s not because you’re a bad artist. We all have to start somewhere.

“Why is it that I have no problem drawing a tree or a cat but for some reason when I attempt to draw a person it turns out bad?”

It’s a preconception of the mind

Allow me to explain…

In a lifetime you have been exposed to numerous amounts of people’s faces from all different races and backgrounds. Your subconscious picks up on the key features of those people that you are in contact with the most and discerns recognizable traits. So you don’t have to give much thought to how far Sally’s eyes are from her nose in relation to her ears to be able to recognize who she is. But if you wanted to draw a picture of Sally you would certainly need to know these things.

So, just because you may spend a lot time with Sally and have seen her face every day for the past 10 years doesn’t mean you can just sit down with a pencil and draw her with a true likeness without understanding a few concepts and ideas first.

Know what to pay attention to.

When observing your subject you will need to pay close attention to their unique characteristics. Such as: their eyes, hairline, unique bone structure and so on. In order to capture a likeness of a person you are going to need to know how to translate these features effectively to your drawing paper.

Learn Proportioning Basics

The key to capturing a true likeness will happen in the layout phase of your drawing. This is where you will establish the proportions and the base layer of your drawing. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a proportional divider. Not only do they help get accurate proportions but hey can help you gage distances between lines and other features on the face.

See the video below.


Translating Tonal Values

When using a subject for reference you must be able to discern the various gradient tones in order to translate it to your drawing. At first this can be difficult but with some practice your skills of observation will improve greatly. Once you gain the ability to do this effectively you then need to be able to accurately reproduce it into your medium. To make this easier for you I have broken this down into a simple process that you can use to help you learn this process more quickly.

But first let me give you a crash course in the different shading values so that we can build on a foundation.

The Denman Ross Value Scale

This scale was developed in 1907 and by Denman Waldo Ross. It is used to describe how values change from black to white. He determined that the eye cannot discriminate between more than 9 gradations of value.

See below:


As you can see there are 9 distinct values between white and black. Starting at the lightest value “white” and going to “black”.  You can choose to range your values from 1 to 9 but I find it unnecessary.  If you can stick with just “1,2,3,5,7” you should have an adequate tonal range for your drawing.

Building the Layers

Full Coverage

Having a range of pencils to cover the different values in the Denman Ross Scale will aid you in creating your gradations between your darkest and lightest values. A good technique for doing this is layering. The basic idea is to start off with your lightest pencil and work up to your darkest by added one layer on top of the other while extending the gradient toward your light source. This will produce a smooth transition and will create a very nice rage of value for your drawing. For more details on how to do this check out this video on how to layout your drawing.

Interpreting Angles

Conceptually it may seem easy to translate the angle of a nose or cheek bone just by eyeballing it. But this is not always the case. Even a seasoned professional can mess up on occasion. It’s very difficult to obtain accuracy when interpreting an angle. But luckily there are a couple of techniques that can make it much easier without compromising the likeness of our subject.

Using Tools

Triangle squares, rulers and even your pencil can be used to translate an angle from your reference. In the video bellow I will demonstrate how you can do this with a photo reference.

Check out the video bellow:


Positioning Closer to your Subject or Reference


If you have watched any of my time lapse videos you may have noticed that I will occasionally move the reference that I’m drawing from really close to my paper.  In some situations I have found it much easier to translate an angle of a feature to my paper just by moving it closer so that I can use comparative observation to approximate the angle.

This method is not as accurate as others but it is much quicker than the other methods in the video and if used in less significant areas of the drawing it can save you time. Also if you are drawing from life you can position your easel to where the subject is directly to left or right of your drawing so that it is much easier to compare your measurements.

You can do it!

I know it’s a lot to take in. Sometimes just understanding a few of these ideas can help you with your drawings. At first it does seem very difficult and at times almost near impossible to master. ( Trust me I’ve been there.) But, the one thing that I’ve learned from drawing is patience.

It takes time to develop a great skill even if you have the natural ability. But don’t let these things deter you from your goals. A busy schedule is no excuse. Just think of what you could do if you take 2 or 3 hours out of your week to develop your drawing skills? Where would you be in a month? Six months? Or even a year?  Something to think about…. I did this and so can you.

In Part 2 I will continue to outline some more ideas and concepts that will help you on your journey. So if you haven’t already, be sure to use the box bellow to subscribe so that you won’t miss out.


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