I'm very interested in Fine Art.

I have taken a course on pencil sketching for about 3 months. So now I can draw faces of people from photos with the help of grid method. I am able to draw the faces or various shapes quite well with 100 percent likeness so that they look just like they are copied from the photos themselves.

The problem is that I can't draw live sketches or portraits from looking at the people's faces. I tried to draw but I couldn't get the likeness that I would get from my static drawings. So I want to learn live sketching just like a street artist who can draw in person.

Is there any special rules or techniques to learn to draw live portraits? Or is it something innate quality of a person?

  • I tried to break up the wall of text. I removed same to same as that is not a common phrase as far as I know. I'm sure I captured you intent still though. The title could use a touch up likely but I wanted to better summarize your problem.
    – Matt
    Aug 31, 2016 at 18:19
  • 3
    One thing just to be aware of when drawing from photos - the camera will distort perspective differently to how a human perceives a subject. This is because cameras are monocular - they have one lens; whereas humans have two. Also depending on distance from the camera lens and how wide-angle it is, some parts of a face portrait may look larger than they should. So be wary when drawing from photo references, even with a grid.
    – johnp
    Sep 2, 2016 at 17:57

5 Answers 5


The big difference is that when you draw from a photo the image is already flattened onto a 2 dimensional plane, however when drawing from life you have to deal with translating 3D to 2D yourself.

The way we see in 3 dimensions is rather more complex than you might imagine and the way we understand and visualise an object is very different from a photograph. When you first start life drawing there is a conflict between what you 'know' to be there and how to represent that on a flat surface.

This is especially true for portraits as most humans are innately good at automatically recognising faces but in the context of drawing this can get in the way of seeing the detail and structure of what is actually there because the recognition is an unconscious process.

There are a number of ways to approach this.

For drawing figures it can help a lot to have some understanding of anatomy, this will help you break down the complexities of the human form into their underlying structures of bone and muscle a particular pose can be easier to interpret and helps to start to see faces as a form.

Similarly practicing drawing 'standard' proportioned faces can give you a reference point to see how a specific face differs from an idealised one.

It can also help to practice drawing complex structures which are less familiar or even totally unrecognizable. This means that you no longer have your expectations of what is there to fall back on and you are forced to look very carefully at the subject. Things like piles of cloth, crumpled paper, driftwood, piles of stones are all common exercises. The point is that because there is no regular structure to them to fall back on you are forced to get all of your information by looking at the subject.

Also drawing portraits with extreme lighting can help.

In life drawing practice the real skill is not so much the actual technicalities of drawing as the ability to look properly at a scene and consciously identify its component parts and how they relate to each other. This is a very different skill from copying an existing image.


You are on the right path. You just need to take the next step and draw with a larger grid.

When people first start to draw the grid method helps the artist develop their ability to see what is in front of them. The mind has a habit of playing tricks on how we perceive an image, the brain places greater emphasis on what it "thinks" is important and less emphasis of on those things it doesn't care about. That's the reason why when people draw the human face they enlarge some parts, like the eyes, and make other parts smaller, like the distance from the brown to the top of the head. The brain likes to look at eyes. It doesn't care about the forehead.

The grid method trains the brain to more accurately measure distances between features. With the grid method you learn what the actual size of the features are with respect to all the other features. No guessing. The distance from the brow to the top of the head is not assumed or guessed at. To get the true distance of this feature all you need to do is count the grid spacing and you then know "exactly" what the distance is.

So in your case, like I said at the beginning, you are on the right path and all you need to do is take the next step by making your grid smaller.

The next time you do a study try making your grid twice as big, meaning less squares than there were before.

Slowly over time the grid will become bigger and bigger until at the end there is only one square and it frames your whole image.

Another thing you can do is instead of drawing from photos is to drawn using real people. And you can still use the grid method.

I might be assuming, wrongly, but from your description it sounds like you are taking photos and outlining a grid on the photo. Instead of putting the grid directly on a photo put that same grid onto a transparency or a sheet of plexiglass. Put the grid on anything that you can see through. Once the grid is drawn on the transparency hold that transparency up in front of you and look at the living model. Use the grid method to teach your brain the measure of the real features of a real person.

And again, slowly over time, make the grid bigger and bigger until you no longer need the grid to draw from.

Once the grid is gone you will then have taught your brain how to see what real people really look like.

Example of using the grid method to help draw a portraiture. Grid size increased over time as artist's ability to perceive features improves. Example of using the grid method to help draw a portraiture

  • 2
    ,But I have heard that some people can draw live portraits without any grid or graph. Do they use any techniques or it's their innate quality? Again, I haven't got you, what do you mean by "Plexiglass ,Transperensy " where can I get such tools ?
    – yubraj
    Sep 1, 2016 at 18:44
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    There are lots of people who can draw portraits without the use of any aids. And in order for them to be able to do that all those people went through a training process to develop that skill just like you are doing now. There are a lot of different methods to train your eyes and hands; grid method is one, sight line is another. You know the grid method so now you need to take the next step and change from working with photos to working with live models. If you don't have access to plexi then you can make a viewfinder by cutting a hole in a piece of cardboard and use string to make the grid. Sep 2, 2016 at 23:14
  • One trick many people use is to hold up something (usually their paintbrush or a thumb or both) and closing one eye to measure the various sizes and distances. In effect building an imaginary grid and also simultaneously "flattening" the 3D object by using monocular vision. Once they have the proportions right, they then look normally and use shading to get back to simulated 3D
    – Gwyn
    Mar 19, 2021 at 11:03

Working from a photo is easy. Working from real life is testing how well you can see. It is not easy to get past what you think something should look like and what it actually looks like. As someone said above, you are working from 3D to 2D to get the illusion of 3D.

Your tonal values will make or break you, because they are trick the eye into seeing 3D. I don't think anything is more important.

Some tips I have used successfully to help you see distinguish tones more easily:

  • Try squinting so so hard you only see the highlights, flick your eyes across to your work and back, and see if you have the same balance of tones ('values')
  • Use the app called 'See value' to turn a photo into three or four tones ('values')
  • Use a piece of red glass or perspex to reduce the image to highlights and shadows and midtones. This works extremely well. People who have painted for a while pick up my red glass viewer and are quite surprised by what they see.

If you can't establish these, you work will never have 3D effect.

It goes without saying that accurate draughtpersonship is important, but others have covered that above.

The original still life (my zoomed-in photo):

original still life

The original still life seen through the 'See Value' app, reduced to four values:

original still photo seen through 'See Value' app.(iOS):

My not so impressive still life from the class (oil)(I've just noticed have added too much highlight in the background.:

My not so impressive still life from the class (oil)

My image through red glass, would have been better for this explanation if I had taken this of the real still life:

My image through red glass, would have been better for this explanation if I had taken this of the real still life

My image using the 'See Value' app, reduced to four values:

My image using the 'See Value' app, reduced to four values


I am surprised to see that no-one has yet mentioned understanding and employing perspective.

Using the 2D grid recommended in other answers will enable you to achieve precise interrelation and proportions between the details of the subject. But it will not teach you about why those details are where you see and depict them. Thinking in 3D, according to the framework of linear perspective, does that.

For me, anything in life-drawing (and especially drawing from imagination) is getting conscious about the structure of the subject in 3D, and then demonstrating that structure on the paper as best as I can (translating it back into 2D). First comes demonstrating just the 3D structure, then comes building up the details of the subject on top of that preliminary sketch of the basic structure.

In the beginning, one does not need to make it overly complex and demanding, like a human figure & head.

Most often, people start learning and practicing perspective by drawing cubes and similar abstract objects. Even if it feels boring and uninviting, this part is hard to skip.

But one can quickly transition to some real-life subjects, which could still count as simple. Drawing a loaf of bread with a kettle and a teacup next to it could already be a helpful subject. Or, put half a pair of shoes next to a vacuum cleaner. Anything that's made up from few basic forms, but already has a lot of curves.

Look for, and reproduce just the basic shapes that they consist of. When you feel that you got their spatial arrangement and proportions right, jump into developing some detail on them. Create different compositions out of them, place yourself sometimes nearer, sometimes a bit further away from the subject.

After you have gained confidence disassembling these random objects in your head to their 3D essentials, then re-assemble them on the paper, you will have the basis to handle life-drawing, including the human head, with a similar thinking.

A few lessons from Stan Prokopenko to get you started:

After these, you could look up something on YouTube on the specifics of 2-point and 3-point perspective.

For life drawing specifically, learn to measure proportions with your pencil.

After you have developed a sense for thinking and sketching in 3D, and you can fit things successfully into a linear perspective framework, you can still bring forth the grid that others recommended: it may help you to achieve higher precision in quicker time. But experience in working in 3D will deliver an essential contribution towards more convincing results.

  • +1 This is essential - this, and 'practice, practice, practice'. I think the mention of a grid threw some users off.
    – Joachim
    Mar 17, 2021 at 8:43
  • You are talking about form in space yet left out the most important part of it, the modelling of light as it interacts with forms in space. The abstract concept of the 3d object and perspective theory is helpful in understanding foreshortening but it is not the key to drawing from life. That is light and shadow. Kudos for the idea of starting with rendering basic shapes...
    – rebusB
    Mar 20, 2021 at 22:28

To add onto John's answer - my art teacher taught us how to create a cheap and easy-to-make gridded frame to help us create still-life studies. The frame was simply a rectangular piece of stiff paper (e.g. cardstock) with a rectangular viewing window cut out in the middle, and thread stretched across at regular intervals, taped to the frame at the ends, as shown in the schematic below:

Drawing Frame schematic

This method can help you apply the skills you developed while working from secondary sources (photos) to real-life subjects, and can help you transition from photo sources to real subjects.

Good luck!

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