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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.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

I use Prismacolor Pencils a lot. The colors are vibrant, and they are beautifully transparent when I use a tortillon to blend them, allowing the colors below them to show through. After going through quite a few tortillons over the years, I decided to make my own. Here is my process.

How to make a tortillon

First, I always use a template. You can see it below,. . . read more

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