How to break down a portrait


Today’s lesson will feel daunting, but don’t fret. I mostly want you to think about the process of taking a person’s portrait and breaking it down in a way that keeps you from being focused on the features of the face. It’s a little bit like math, a little bit abstract (if we can do it correctly).

We are going to draw a portrait. You can click on the above image to see a larger version, and you can draw the same person I chose, or do a different one if you choose to.

I chose this woman for two reasons – I wanted to draw hair, which can be challenging, and her hair is close enough to her eyes that the eyes feel anchored against something, rather than just floating in the space of her face.

To begin, I want you to think back to our drawing of the chair. I want you to define the space around the person’s head. You don’t have to fill that space in, I just want this to be the start of your drawing, I want you to be aware of it.



From there, you can break down the interior into sections. I chose to define the hair first. That made framing the face easier. Think of each area as a shape, and what does that shape look like?

Draw lightly, because as you go you will realize some things are off, you will want to correct as you go, and that is totally fine.




Once all of the spaces have been defined, you can start the tough parts by dividing the face down the middle (not always the literal middle of the space, if the person is turned to the right or left, that line will start at the top of the forehead and curve over the nose down to the chin. In this case it is pretty much the dead middle).

Then draw a line along where the eyes will rest. I determined where the line is by looking at where the corners of the eyes are closest to the hair.


Very lightly put eyes down, this shape will change as you continue, most likely, but a rough guide is necessary.


A general rule of thumb is that there is one eye worth of space between a person’s eyes. This is not always true, but works well most of the time.


For the nose, one way that often works is to draw lines down from the inner corner of each eye to define the width of the nose. Also generally, you can make a line halfway between the eyeline and the chin, and that can be where the bottom of the nose is.


Once you have the line for the nose, the mouth line is generally halfway between the nose line and chin. I am marking lightly since her mouth shape is quite large.


Again this is not always true, but one thing I notice about this particular face is that if I draw a straight line down from the middle of her eyes, it lines up well with the corners of her mouth/smile lines.


At this point I have done about all the calculations I can make, so I need to start making some decisions and commit to drawing. I start with the eyebrows.


Then I tackle the mouth.


Don’t define the teeth! leave it as a more or less open space, unless you are doing a hyper-realistic portrait. All those lines just look weird, even when they are technically correct. It draws unnecessary attention to the mouth. I am also using a clunky pencil that won’t handle details well, so I shape that area in shadow as much as possible but do not draw individual teeth. Try it, you will become a fan quickly.


So then I define the eyes. Again by using a big clunky pencil, I am unable to drill down to the details of the eyes, which is good, because there is no sense in stressing out about this right now. There is more drawing to do.


So the linework of the face is done, let’s move on to the hair.



Hair is a chaotic monster, but often you can deconstruct hair into shapes the same way you can deconstruct anything. I look at her hair and do my best to pull out the important shapes, which I will render more fully later. If you don’t get every part nailed down don’t kick yourself, it’s a nearly impossible task to do depending on how chaotic the hair style is. This woman has fairly wild hair so I do what I can and don’t stress the minutiae.


When the hair is broken up into shapes, you can render each section individually. Always render your lines along the same direction that the hair is going. If you refer to the Ink Shading lesson, it’s sort of like a contour hatch line, but with longer strokes of the pencil/pen.




So the rendering of the hair is done. Doing this helped me shape the face and neck a little more than I had before, I am glad I did that on it’s own first. Time to shade the face.



And that’s it! I have a drawing I like, though it’s not a true likeness. Getting a likeness comes from practice, recognizing when the rules I just went over in this lesson need to be broken, depending on the face (the person had a large nose, small eyes, etc). We may get into likenesses later, but for now, what is important to practice is breaking down a face into shapes, and stop thinking of them as individual pieces. If, when you get to the point where it is time to draw the face, you want to turn the image upside down like we did in Assignment 2, go ahead and do that, as it will help you to look at what you are drawing without making symbols.


-Pick one of the portraits above and draw it using the direction in this lesson. I would recommend choosing a face that is looking straight at the camera rather than turned to the side or looking down/up, because those faces represent their own challenges that we can tackle later.

-Post the result in the Facebook group! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!


1Draw a portrair
2Share it to Facebook