Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Draw a Portrait?


Lithograph by Kathe Kollwitz

“I would like to ask if you have any tips for drawing the human face? I tend to have a hard time with proportions (I often draw the eyes way too large) and placement of different features in relation to each other.”

The human face is hands down the most intimidating subject matter for most artists.  There is so much psychological baggage that comes with a human face that just is not there with other types of subject matter. We see and interact with human faces every day, and for many of us, it’s our primary form of visual communication when we talk in person. All of us are capable of knowing when something is “off” in a portrait drawing, although many of us wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate exactly what it is that needs to be changed in the drawing. For this reason, we generally hold portraits to a much higher level of scrutiny, and are far more critical when it comes to getting results.

This charcoal drawing tutorial I did on the Art Prof Youtube channel shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from direct observation (see below) I wrote this article which provides detailed explanations of the numerous tools needed to make charcoal drawings.


The major mistake that I see when approaching the human face is simply calling it a “face.” In actuality, you are drawing a human head. Artists spend so much time isolating their attention to the face only, that they miss out on establishing the bulk of the head, which is the supporting mass for the face.  The face is actually a very small percentage of the head.  Tell yourself that you are drawing a head, and that mentality will set the stage to have a more comprehensive understanding of what you’re doing.


Etching by Lucien Freud

The key to drawing the human face is to think about the underlying structure first,  not what’s on the surface. This means really understanding the essential structure of the skull.   I recommend starting out by drawing skulls before even beginning to draw the human face. Buy a plastic skull (you can get a decent one for about $40) and draw it from every point of view that you can come up with: three quarters view, straight on, profile, back, from below, etc. This process of careful observation of the skull will greatly improve your understanding of the human head.

The next step is to develop an understanding of where the subcutaneous areas are. Subcutaneous means “directly under the skin”, so you’re searching for areas of the head where the bone is directly under the surface of the skin. This would include the brow, the forehead, the cheek bones, the jawbone, and the chin. These subcutaneous areas are the sections of the head that you want to focus on and highlight in your drawing, as they will provide the structure for everything else to lie within.

The most common mistake that I see is when artists start out a portrait is by drawing the eyes, nose, and mouth first.  Actually, the eyes, nose, and mouth should be the last forms that you draw. This is because there is technically nothing structural about the eyes, nose, and mouth.  The eyes are soft squishy spheres, the nose is just cartilage, and the mouth is simply soft tissue.


Portrait drawing by Pontormo

Start out by blocking in the bulk of the entire head first, and then the basic masses of the subcutaneous areas. (the brow, the forehead, the cheek bones, the jawbone, and the chin) Once these sections are established, very briefly block in loose shapes for the eyes, nose, and mouth.  Then quickly move onto developing the supporting structures and muscle forms around the eyes, nose, and mouth. When these structures are well established, drawing in the eyes, nose, and mouth, should as easy as dropping sprinkles on a cupcake.

Proportions of the human head are another issue that many artists struggle with.  The best advice I can give is to never spend too much time fussing over a single area.  Instead, keep your arm moving from section to section, making adjustments along the way and constantly evaluating how one section relates to another. Allow all of the various parts of the draw to grow and develop at the same rate. Look at the nose in relation to the eyes, the eyes in relation to the ear, and so forth. If you work with a loose, gestural manner, and initially draw with very light, fluid lines, you’ll have a greater chance of knocking in the proportions properly.

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Portfolio Video Critiques for Art Students & Artists
Prof Clara Lieu offers 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for students working on a portfolio for art school admission, and for artists of any age working on their artwork. Watch a sample below, and get more info here.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories, and post select submissions on our Instagram  and other sites throughout the month. Use #artprofwip and Prof Clara Lieu might just stop by and give you some feedback! We have a special prize for art teachers who assign the Art Dare to one of their classes. More info is here.

Ask the Art Prof Live was a weekly live video broadcast on our Facebook page where Prof Clara Lieu provided professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  See the full archive of columns here. Prof Lieu discussed being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more.

Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

Related articles
“How would I go about studying the human figure?”
“How can I learn to draw noses?”
“What is the best way to simplify the human figure?”
“How can you learn to draw hair?”

3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Draw a Portrait?

  1. I’m only 13 but I tought myself art sence I was 5 ,but I won’t say I’m very gud but I am pretty gud for my age.U inspired me even more to learn art and creat and because of u I found a role modle. (:

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