How to Draw a Portrait of the Head

Published Nov. 17th 2009

The most important part of a drawing is the start, not the finish. This tutorial will focus on how to start a portrait drawing, using basic blocking-in techniques.

When drawing a portrait from life, you don’t want to just jump-in and draw. I always walk around the model to get a better understanding of the model and plan out my composition.

In addition, whenever I do a head study, or a portrait, I don’t start out by trying to capture a “likeness.” Instead, I try to construct a solid head, focusing on the volumetric forms. By constructing the underlying forms first, you’ll be more able to achieve a credible likeness in the end.

Here is my process for drawing portraits:

1. Establish the over-all volume of the head

Mark the top of skull, not the hair, then locate the line of the chin, mark the back of the skull and two lines for the angles of the front of the skull.

Look for the bone structure of the skull not the features of the face—that will come later. Your initial lines just need to accurately depict the volume of the head.


2. Position the features to resemble a realistic head

Divide the head into thirds: one third is from the top of the head to the top of the eye socket; the second is from the top of the eye socket to the base of the nose; and the third is from the base of the nose to the bottom of the chin.

Next, locate the position of the eyes and the middle of the ears. Add the structure of the nose and lips, based loosely on your model.

3. Outline shadow shapes to refine the structure

Make use of the shadow shapes to define the structure of the eye socket. Important: find the over-all structure—don’t worry about drawing in the eye lashes or any other little details at this point.


Locate the shadows down the side of the head, down the forehead, past the zeugmatic bone, down the cheek to the jaw. Also, find the shape and structure of the hair (as though it’s solid too). Keep the drawing simple!

4. Loosely fill in all the shadows

Now it’s time to mass-in all the shadow shapes together, including the hair. This shadow will define the light structures of the head. Already you will have a credible solid head with simple well defined shapes that should begin to resemble the model.


5. Create different values within the shadows.

In step 4 you simply found the differences between the light and shadow. Now you can start to develop different values within the shadow shapes, separating hair from skin, and dark shadows from lighter ones.


As you can see, the drawing is well on it’s way to being finished.

If you want to improve at drawing from life, you will progress more quickly by drawing basic block-ins over and over until they become second nature.

Practice these five steps until you can consistently draw the volume of the head—then move on to the finer details. Your completed drawings will be much better for it.


For more drawings and tips from H. Edward Brooks, please visit his drawing blog.

Did you like this article? Share it!
Then check out the related posts below.
As I worked through my latest Craftsy class, Drawing Facial Features (which you can enter to win until next Saturday) I was once again impressed by the wonderful teacher and high-quality instruction that is offered by Craftsy. The instructor for this course is Gary Faigin, founder of the Gage . . . read more
If you work with colored pencil for any length of time, chances are good you’ll be drawing hair at some point. Being able to create beautiful, realistic-looking hair is a must. . . but how do you get it right? Well before we get to specific examples, here are a few general tips that apply to a. . . read more
A few weeks ago, I shared some pointers on how to draw realistic hair with colored pencils. If you missed that article, you may want to click the link and read it before continuing here, since those methods will provide a good foundation for today's walk-through. The focus of this article is a. . . read more
For today's tutorial I will be demonstrating how to render a finished drawing in graphite. The images used below were taken from a portrait study done on Stonehenge printmaking paper. 1. Build up the shadow areas Once you have established your line drawing, you can begin the rendering process.. . . read more
As with any drawing, the beginning of a painting is the most important step. Successful starts lead to good finishes. In the next few paragraphs I'll explain what I do to start a painting off on the right foot. Phase 1: Blocking in the initial drawing I'm starting with a gray (neutral 5) toned. . . read more
Stay current.
Subscribe to EmptyEasel's free weekly newsletter for artists. Sign up today!
Art Contests
More art contests. . .
EE Writers
Cassie Rief Niki Hilsabeck Brandi Bowman Michelle Morris Lisa Orgler Adriana Guidi Carrie Lewis Aletta de Wal

If you'd like to write for EmptyEasel, let us know!

We love publishing reader-submitted art tutorials, stories, and even reviews.Submit yours here!