Exercise: Draw a portrait

I love drawing – the feeling of making something appear on paper with a pencil is marvellous – and don’t do it enough. Drawings faces or bodies, however, drives me crazy as it’s so easy to mess up and can result something almost creepy because it is not quite right.  The Uncanny Valley!

I appreciated doing this exercise though as it really is an excellent way to slow down the looking and seeing process and fully understand a person’s face and how it interacts with the available light.

Sometimes what one thinks are the essential characteristics of a person are not what result in the success or failure of creating a likeness.  Of course the eyes are crucial but also the nose, mouth and – in my opinion – eyebrows.  The shape of the face and whole head often less so and I quite like portraits that are a little more suggestive rather than fully detailed.  This is something I aspire to as my innate style has always been to go for as much photorealism as possible.  My juvenile painting career started by copying photographs from National Geographic:


And this developed into paintings which were trying to look like photographs:


Which is pretty much why I decided to concentrate on photography instead of painting…

Of the three portraits I made for this exercise I think the more freestyle with the softer (6B) pencil works best. It has more personality and zest to it:


This of course is the opposite of the sfumato technique used by the Renaissance masters and most famously by da Vinci for the Mona Lisa. As Bate points out, that picture “… draws the spectator into an intimacy that ironically is caused by what we want to see (an issue that is at the heart of portraiture); the portrait reflects the viewer’s desire in looking. The picture appears to make us judge the mood of the figure in the picture, whereas it is we who have produced the signified meaning and effect.” [1]

The other two portraits show how easy it is to go a bit cross-eyed if you miss the mark by even a fraction of a millimetre:




  • Obviously, the angle of the pose is critical. People’s faces are far from symmetrical and a different aspect can change everything.
  • Use better paper – this was an old notepad. I should have used a proper sketchpad.
  • The light – and paying full attention to it – is essential as it defines the features which, in turn, constitute the likeness.  Where light lands on the face can alter all kinds of elements and the texture of the image is so important for the overall mood.
  • Taking time to sketch a person before photographing them is probably unnecessarily and certainly impractical but drawing from some test shots could highlight certain aspects of the face worth considering when planning the final shoot. I hadn’t noticed the hooded eyelids of the first person or certain lines/contours until I drew her although I have photographed her frequently and thought I knew her face well.
  • Even one or two wrinkles can age someone massively.
  • I am glad I don’t have to do this too often.

John Berger says of drawing portraits that, at the beginning, all you can do is make a ‘clumsy map of the face’ and he goes on, most wisely:  “When you’re trying to make a portrait of someone you know well, you have to forget and forget until what you see astonishes you. Indeed, at the heart of any portrait which is alive, there is registered an absolute surprise surrounded by close intimacy. I’ll certainly be misunderstood but I’ll take a risk and say: to make a portrait is like fucking.” [2]


  1. Bate, D. (2008) Photography: The key concepts. New York: Berg Publishers. (p83)
  2. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics. (p160)
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