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The Best Way to Approach Portrait Drawings

April 1, 2010

approach-to-portrait-drawingYou’re sitting at your table with a clean, fresh piece of drawing paper in front of you. You draw your grid (or not) and then you outline the features of your portrait.

Now what?

All that white staring back at you can be intimidating!

 There are probably as many ways to start a portrait drawing as there are people who draw them. I’ve narrowed them down to two basic approaches: the all-over approach and the wallpaper approach.

The question is, which approach is best?


The Wallpaper Approach

When papering a wall, you start on one side and work your way methodically across. When you draw this way, it’s much the same; you start on one side of the page and complete the drawing in sections as you move across. Brian Duey demonstrates this in his portrait drawing tutorial.

While this approach almost ensures that you won’t drag your hand through your work, it can be difficult to create smooth transitions between the areas you’re working on. You also have to be spot-on with your values as you work.


The All-Over Approach

This approach takes the entire page into consideration. Each layer of graphite is built up gradually across the whole portrait. My portrait tutorial is a good example of this.

Drawing this way lets you respond to the portrait as a whole piece, rather than just rendering each area as you see it, but you need to be careful where you rest your hand. 


My Verdict

You can probably guess where I stand on this, since I used my own tutorial as an example! I am a fan of the all-over approach, and let me tell you why:

 By working on one area in isolation, you can lose sight of the drawing as a whole. This approach lets you evaluate shapes and tones and values in relation to each other. It’s not the darkness of a shadow that creates depth, but the comparison of the dark areas to the lighter ones.

It also gives you the chance to exercise your artistic license. It’s up to you to determine how faithful you will be to your reference photo, and it’s easier to make these decisions as you draw. When you use the wallpaper approach, you can end up blindly re-creating the photo without consideration for the final art piece.

Another advantage of this approach is that you are able to correct mistakes easily. If during the first stages of shading, you realize that your eyes don’t line up properly, it’s easy to erase it. With the wallpaper approach, your line drawing needs to be exact, because once everything is fully rendered, it will be very difficult to go back!



All in all, I find that the all-over approach helps to keep the bigger picture in mind. It’s a more fluid and responsive process, more flexible and easier to change.

That being said, you need to discover which approach is best for you. Brian Duey is obviously a very accomplished portrait artist and the wallpaper approach appears to be working for him!


From → Drawing

  1. I agree with this. A lot of my friends use the ‘grid’ and work top to bottom or inside to out. I like your explanations of the holistic view and not reproducing a photo. I can’t get on with a grid either – finding it too restrictive. Instead, a few strategically placed lines that bound shapes and follow angles work for me.

    • Hi Jeremy. While I do use a grid to render my line drawing, I take a more holistic view when it comes to the actual shading. Using a grid just gives me more reference points and allows me to get a recognizable likeness much faster. After that, I work on the drawing as a whole. Thanks for stopping by!

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