[GUIDE] How to draw a portrait from a photo? 10 easy steps from the expert

[GUIDE] How to draw a portrait from a photo? 10 easy steps from the expert

Kolorheaven frequently receives inquiries about the approach taken in crafting hand-drawn portraits, how to draw a portrait from a photo?. Confronted with a blank canvas, the question arises: where does one initiate? Various artists employ distinct techniques; some opt for a grid system or a ‘lightbox’ setup to superimpose the reference image onto their drawing surface. Conversely, others eschew aids, relying on their intuition and visual measurements.

Diverse methods and styles characterize each individual, emphasizing that there isn’t a definitive right or wrong approach to portraiture. The following is an elucidation of the technique for replicating reference photos, which forms the foundation of portrait creation. However, the majority of these insights remain applicable even if one is sketching a live subject before them. A strong conviction underpins the belief that anyone can cultivate drawing skills by honing their observational abilities. Let’s commence the journey as we guide you through a step-by-step procedure.

First step to draw a portrait from a photo: Print out the photo at the same size you want to draw

First step to draw a portrait from a photo Print out the photo at the same size you want to draw
First step to draw a portrait from a photo Print out the photo at the same size you want to draw

The initial step in creating a portrait based on a photo is to print the image at the desired size you intend to draw. This crucial step sets the foundation for the entire drawing process. Printing the photo at the correct dimensions ensures that the proportions and details of the subject are accurately represented in your artwork.

Printing the reference photo at the right size serves as your guide throughout the portrait creation. It allows you to reference the proportions, shadows, highlights, and other elements while you work on your drawing. By laying this solid groundwork, you’re well-equipped to move on to the next steps of the portrait drawing process with confidence and accuracy.

Step 2: Draw a pair of axis lines on one of the printed images

Draw a pair of axis lines on one of the printed images
Draw a pair of axis lines on one of the printed images

Next step of drawing a portrait from a photo is creating a pair of axis lines is a fundamental technique that helps establish the overall proportions and placement of key features in your portrait drawing. These axis lines act as a guide to ensure that your drawing remains accurately aligned with the reference image.

To begin, take one of the printed images and lightly sketch a vertical line down the center of the face, from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin. This vertical line serves as the central axis and aids in positioning facial features symmetrically.

Next, draw a horizontal line that intersects the vertical line at the approximate level of the eyes. This horizontal line acts as the eye line and helps in aligning the eyes, nose, and mouth correctly within the face.

Remember, these initial lines are meant to be faint and easily erasable, serving as guidelines rather than permanent markings. Once you have these axis lines in place, you’ll have a structured framework that will assist you in placing facial features accurately as you progress with your portrait drawing.

Finally, let’s take a sheet of tracing paper and place it over your photo. Trace over the axis lines before turning over your paper and slightly drawing over them again. Then turn the tracing paper back, place it on your drawing paper and gently rub over the lines to transfer them.

Step 3: Using the axes, visualize the head in four quarters to perceive the overall shape

Visualize the head in four quarters
Visualize the head in four quarters

Starting from the vertical axis line, visualize two halves of the head: left and right. Then, envision two more sections created by the horizontal axis line: upper and lower portions. These four quarters offer a simplified representation of the head’s structure.

By mentally segmenting the head in this manner, you’re able to identify the relationships between various facial elements and their placement within each quadrant. This step enhances your ability to capture the subject’s unique features and proportions more effectively.

As you progress with your portrait, this visual breakdown of the head’s quarters will serve as a guiding framework. It allows you to maintain balance and consistency while refining the details of the eyes, nose, mouth, and other facial attributes.

Step 4: Measure all facial features against the axis lines and create faint sketches

Create faint sketches
Create faint sketches

Incorporating precise measurements is a crucial aspect of capturing the subject’s likeness in your portrait. With the axis lines as your reference points, carefully gauge the distances and proportions of each facial feature in relation to these lines.

Starting with the eyes, measure the space between them and their distance from the horizontal axis line. Note the size and shape of each eye as well. Move on to the nose, observing its length and width, while considering its alignment with the vertical axis line. Measure the distance from the bottom of the nose to the chin as well.

Subsequently, focus on the mouth, paying attention to its width and position relative to the axis lines. The axis lines will help you ensure that facial features are symmetrically placed, contributing to the accuracy of the overall portrait.

While measuring and sketching, maintain a light touch with your pencil to create faint outlines. These initial sketches will serve as a foundation for the finer details you’ll add in later stages. Remember that these sketches are still in the refinement process and can be adjusted as needed.

By adhering to this methodical approach, you’ll achieve greater precision in depicting the subject’s features and their relationships. The axis lines will continue to guide you, ensuring that your portrait remains consistent and true to the reference image.

Step 5: Start shading to the darkest and brightest parts of your drawing

Shading to the darkest and brightest parts
Shading to the darkest and brightest parts

To make your portrait look real, you need to capture the different shades of light and dark. Begin by checking out where the really dark parts are and where the really bright parts are in the photo. Use a soft pencil or shading tool to gently add darker shading in places like the eyes or shadowy spots.

On the flip side, focus on the lightest spots too. Use a lighter touch to add light shading where the bright areas are, like on the forehead or cheeks. Remember to make the changes between light and dark look smooth. You can blend them by gently smudging with your finger or a blending tool.

Taking your time to do this step will give your drawing depth and make it look more like the real person. This is a foundation step that helps you get the person’s likeness right and show how their face curves.

Step 6: Layer the tones using hatch marks

Hatch marks
Hatch marks

In this step, we’re going to add more details to your portrait by using a technique called hatch marks. This involves creating layers of lines to build up different shades of light and dark.

Start by using your pencil to make a set of parallel lines close together in a certain area. These lines can be light or dark, depending on the tone you want to create. Then, make another set of lines on top of the first, but angle them slightly differently. Keep adding these layers of lines, each time changing the angle a bit. This method adds depth and texture to your drawing.

Remember, the closer and darker the lines are, the darker that area will appear. And the farther apart and lighter the lines are, the lighter that area will be.

Take your time and be patient as you layer the hatch marks. This technique might seem simple, but it’s powerful for creating realistic shading. Keep looking at your reference photo to guide you in placing the lines where they need to be.

Shading is accomplished through light hatch marks in one direction, often followed by cross-hatching in another direction to deepen tones. Occasionally, cross-hatching is applied with an eraser pencil to soften and blend the lines. When working on skin, avoiding finger-smoothing is key. This prevents dirt or skin oils from mixing with graphite and creating oily marks, while also maintaining vibrancy.

Preserving the texture of the paper and gaps between hatch marks retains tiny white specks, infusing a radiant quality into the skin even within shadowed regions. Similar to watercolor paintings where white paper shows through transparent paint, this technique imparts a glow.

This method suits all skin tones, including darker shades that are particularly light-reflective. For darker skin, shadows are more heavily hatched using softer pencils, maintaining bright paper specks. Like with paler skin, avoiding heavy shading ensures accurate mid-tones, while lightly shaded bright areas convey the skin’s natural shine.

Step 7: Shift focus from the face to finalize the hair.

Finalize the hair
Finalize the hair

Caring for the hair is very essential when drawing a portrait from a photo. Begin by examining the reference photo to understand the hair’s texture, color, and flow. Keep in mind that hair is made up of individual strands, and capturing this detail contributes to the realism of your portrait.

Start by lightly sketching the basic outline of the hair’s mass and direction. Then, using controlled hatch marks, build up the volume and texture of the hair. Consider the areas of highlights and shadows within the hair and replicate them with your shading.

Remember that hair has a certain pattern and direction it flows in, so observe the reference closely to replicate this flow accurately. Be patient and take your time to layer the hatch marks, gradually achieving the desired depth and texture.

For lighter hair, you might use lighter pencil strokes and fewer hatch marks. On the other hand, darker or more textured hair may require more pronounced and frequent hatch marks to capture the intricacies.

As you work on the hair, remember to maintain the same level of observation and dedication that you applied to the facial features. This step adds another layer of dimension and brings your portrait closer to its final form.

Step 8: Revisit the face and further refine the shading

Further refine the shading of the face
Further refine the shading of the face

Now that the hair is taking shape, it’s time to return to the face and enhance the shading to bring out more depth and realism. Look closely at the reference photo to identify areas where shadows and highlights are more pronounced.

Using the same hatch marking technique, gradually build up the shading in areas that need more contrast and definition. Pay attention to the subtle shifts in tones and use hatch marks to create smooth transitions between light and dark areas. By layering the hatch marks carefully, you’ll be able to capture the intricacies of the skin’s texture and contours.

Step 9: Review the drawing upside down

At this stage, it’s advisable to take a brief break. After the break, you can return to evaluate it. Sometimes, upon revisiting, you’ll notice that you’ve captured the likeness; however, there are instances when something seems slightly off. Identifying this challenge can be tough, as pinpointing the minor inaccuracies that affect the likeness is not always straightforward.

In case troubleshooting is necessary, a useful approach is for you to flip both the reference image and your sketch upside down. This alteration in perspective offers you a fresh viewpoint, rendering the copied image unrecognizable as a face. Instead, your perception is reduced to an abstract arrangement of tones. This altered perspective makes it much easier for you to discern discrepancies between your drawing and the original photograph.

Areas that are too dark, too light, or not properly placed will stand out to you more distinctly. This technique allows you to spot and rectify these issues with greater clarity. By seeing your work from a different angle, you can ensure a closer alignment between your drawing and the reference image, refining the overall likeness.

Step 10: Proceed to shade the hands, shoulders, and remaining elements

Shade the hands and others
Shade the hands and others

At the last step to draw a portrait from a photo. With the face and hair well underway, it’s time to focus on the other parts of the portrait. Begin by examining the reference photo to understand the tonal variations in the hands, shoulders, and any other elements that are left to be shaded.

Using the same hatch marking technique that you’ve been using, start building up the shading in these areas. Pay attention to the way light falls on these elements and the shadows they cast. Gradually add hatch marks to create texture, depth, and a sense of three-dimensionality.

When shading hands, observe the curves and angles of the fingers, as well as the areas where the skin folds and creases. For shoulders and other clothing or accessories, consider the fabric’s texture and how it interacts with light.

Completing the shading of hands, shoulders, and any remaining elements ensures that the entire portrait comes together harmoniously. Each section contributes to the overall likeness, and this step adds the finishing touches that bring your artwork to life.


In conclusion, draw a portrait from a photo is a step-by-step process that requires careful observation, patience, and technique. Remember, practice and dedication are key to mastering this art form and creating portraits that truly resonate.

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