I enjoy drawing head portraits in pencil, but I've found that sketching an outline of the prominent features often lead me astray. For example, due to shadows my eye is sometimes approximating the feature boundaries. This then impacts shading, and may lead to an amateurish feel and mean having to rework large portions of the piece.

Most of the best portraits I've seen are not necessarily precise but instantly identifiable as the person and also capture their 'look'.

Is there a better way to start the portrait than trying to capture the outline of the features? Should I be trying to plot the shadows/shapes or start in detail in one area and work out?

5 Answers 5


I would begin by constructing the form and mass of the head, as often seen in figure drawing construction:

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Images from Andrew Loomis's "Drawing the Head and Hands". Loomis is a very well-known figure artist and illustrator with a variety of instructional books that are very helpful.

This construction, in drawing from the mind, is usually done by understanding some sort of system of proportions and then altering features to add character. Proportions would compare head height to width, or divide head height into sections to place features (seen in the images above), but it can get much more complex.

By understanding these general relationships of constructing a figure, you begin to see how real heads and faces compare and vary.

One popular method of achieving this development of form is called blocking-in. You can see a quality example of blocking-in using the Atelier method at GeorgetownAtelier.com. Depiction of bust of bare derriere in spoiler block, from that website.

enter image description here

You can start your base block-in similar to drawing an initial outline. But, instead of just focusing on the silhouette, think about the form in 3D. The outline will guide you on the proportions to use as you develop your other planes and shapes.

Then slowly add details, keeping your sketch light. You can measure placements of features, such as:

  • Where is the top arch of the eyebrow compare to the ears?
  • If you draw a straight vertical line on the side of the nostril wing, how far is the corner of the eye? (Or vice-versa)
  • Compared to the length of the nose, what's the distance between the tip of the nose to the bottom of the chin?
  • What degree of angle is it from the outside corner of the eye to the tip of the nose?
  • If you draw a straight vertical line on corner of the mouth, how does it compare to the center of the eye?

These are pretty limited examples. The key to getting an accurate portrait of a real person is by getting the proportions and placements correct for their anatomy. Since you can start with height or width, you can scale the other dimensions based on that, and then scale every other proportion on others you know you did "right".

The more you analyze the geometry, the more accurate you'll be.

Measuring this way can be done with classical techniques such as using your pencil as a measuring stick, which can also be aided by a plumb line for getting objective verticals. Or, if you working from a 2D source, such as a photo, you can take accurate measurements of distances and angles using rulers and protractors.

  • Great answer. Thank you! However, it is fundamentally the same as attempting to replicate the features. When working from a photograph, with heavy shadowing, you might still encounter the same issues I described in the original question. I suppose I was fishing for the creation a draft piece with the values pushed then using it to overlay geometric blocking you describe in your answer.
    – BeaglesEnd
    Jun 6, 2016 at 14:40
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    @BeaglesEnd If you're measuring shadow boundaries, instead of just feature boundaries, wouldn't that help?
    – user24
    Jun 6, 2016 at 15:27

Creating detailed outlines of features and then fleshing them out can often lead you to draw yourself into a corner - you'll put a lot of detail into a particular spot and find that it's off (I've done this countless of times, it never gets any less frustrating).

You asked if you should try to plot shadows and shapes and this is a great way to work -- instead of trying to find the outline of a face for portraits, which can be difficult with severe or unusual lighting, it can be far more helpful to hatch out shadows, thus more easily capturing the overall shape of whatever face you happen to be drawing.

  • I was going to say something similar. I draw blobby outlines of the shadows on their face and flesh out the placement of their features. This helps get both right which leads to more likeness in your drawing. I also do this with super fine lines so that when I start layering detail, it's easy to cover or move or blend out my old lines.
    – EmRoBeau
    Dec 29, 2016 at 13:10

The answers already here are great, but I want to call out one specific point that I haven't seen addressed yet.

We tend to think of faces as being 'made up' of the collection of features, and so when most people start drawing faces, they focus on putting the features onto the face first, in the correct places, and only relatively late in the drawing do they start shading the cheeks, jawbone etc.

If you look at the work of artists who are more advanced, you will find that they most likely don't outline the features at all - instead they focus on the shapes and shadows, which makes it more realistic.

The human brain has an amazing ability to detect faces and will see them even in random patterns, so don't worry about making your drawing look face-like. It's finding the patterns of light and shade that are unique to this specific face that will help you create a true likeness of a particular person.


I would advise against starting with the features or even the shadows first. I have found from experience that it is the "general shape" of the head that houses all of the other features in some kind of semblance. For instance, if the shape of the head is slightly widened, it will affect the length and shape of the nose in relation to other features. Which, in turn will detract from a sense of "likeness". Drawing from life or personally knowing them also helps.

If you're drawing in pencil, I would suggest fleshing out the beginning stages with a harder led (3H, 4H). Also, you could try this technique of gesturing the general shape(s) with your non-dominant hand.


Blocking in features will only take you so far. Use the Reilly Head Abstraction (also called the Reilly Method) to capture the rhythms and features of the face. This will give your faces dimensionality and the features will blend with each other harmoniously.

Reilly Head Abstraction.

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A good video demonstrating the Reilly Method.

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