drawing

Beginning with the Basics for Colored Pencil Portraits

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Stop Beginning At The End!

Portraits are some of the most striking pieces in colored pencil. When done properly, the realism is breathtaking!

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Is that colored pencil? But the people look so real!”

Many artists (myself included) see colored pencil portraits and feel inspired to try to draw one themselves. They race off to the bookstore or start searching YouTube for a great tutorial, then wonder why their portraits fall short.

Why don’t my colored pencil portraits look realistic? Where did I go wrong? Can I learn how to do this? What am I missing?

That last question is the most important! Most portrait tutorials are missing some of the most fundamental information needed to draw a truly realistic portrait: anatomy of the skull and face, angle and positioning variations, ideal proportions, and more.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out for myself.

But once I headed back to the beginning and did some of the necessary pre-work, I became comfortable with portraiture and love the results. My portraits started to come alive the way I had always wanted plus I was way more confident throughout my drawing process.

That’s what I want for YOU.

Welcome to the Portrait Prep Drawing Series!

In this series of lessons, I want to lead you through the all-important fundamental information. If you’re anything like me, you might think you can skip all of this stuff.

How to draw a line?? Anatomy? Head construction? Sounds like a waste of time-- I’ll just study photography and find great reference photos instead.

Not so fast, my friend! Learn from my mistakes, and begin at the beginning.

To create an appealing house, it’s essential to first build the frame before putting up the walls, painting, and decorating, right? Portraits are no different. To create a realistic portrait, you have to understand the underlying structure of the head before rendering the skin and hair and other features.

Follow along through the next few posts as I share with you some of the information I wish I’d had when I started drawing portraits. By the time we’re through, I want you to be so familiar with every possibility (face positioning, angles, and foreshortening of the features) that when you finally pick up your colored pencil, you will be ready to paint that final layer on a well-constructed head.

Bookmark this page and check back next week for the first installment of the Portrait Prep Drawing Series!

Want an even deeper look at drawing portraits? Sign up for my FREE Portrait Prep Drawing Course!  

Portrait Prep is a video course delivered straight to your inbox each week. Together we’ll walk through the core fundamentals of drawing incredible portraits.

Sound good? Click here to signup


What are your biggest challenges when drawing colored pencil portraits? Share in the comments below!


 

​​​​​​​Are You Drawing Backgrounds That Don’t Work?

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Let’s have a little chat about backgrounds, shall we?

Most new artists feel the need to have a background in their drawing. That’s all well and good. 

An effective background can:

  • Add depth and interest to your subject.

  • Create context and keep the viewer engaged longer.

  • Help establish the focal point and allow the subject to stand out.

But an ineffective background can actually compete with your subject for attention. (Not good.)

Let me use a few photographs to explain what I mean.

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When you look at this photo of a little girl, your gaze is automatically to her eyes-- that’s the focal point. The dark irises are starkly contrasted to the white of the eyes (sclera).

What do you notice about the background?

It’s just a few blurry shadows and barely there at all. In fact, you probably didn’t notice it until I asked about it. That’s the sign of a background done right.

Can you imagine what would happen to the impact of this photo if it had one of those “use all the circles” backgrounds I’ve been seeing lately?

Let me show you:

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(You’ll have to pardon my quick photo edit, but I think you get the idea.)

Now instead of a realistic portrait, we have some sort of new-age space photo. The circles are incredibly distracting and the eyes no longer have our full attention.  Why?  Because the background has just as much contrast as the eyes do.

The entire tone of the portrait has been altered--and not for the better.

Here’s another photo example with an ineffective background:

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Notice that the level of detail in the background is similar to the level of detail in the subject. The colors are similar across the board, too.

We see similar values in the skin, hair, and face of the subject as we do in the background of the rock, stairs, and leaves. The reason this doesn't work is because our eyes are naturally going to focus where there is more contrast.   The brightest, or lightest value, of this picture is the dress.  So our eyes are immediately drawn there.  It does nothing for the overall balance and composition and the focal point is uncertain.

A simpler background with less contrast would have created more focus on the portrait itself.  I've done this in the edit below.

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The same problem is happening in this photo:

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The background in this shot is WAY too distracting.

Now that you’ve seen how this works in photography, you can apply the same concepts to your art.

My recommendation?

Don’t force the background.

If you can include a background that makes sense for your piece--one that is NOT distracting-- then go for it! Otherwise, just leave it out. Let the subject be the focal point no matter what!

 

***NOTE: All photos in this post are free to use commercially or personally without attribution.

Is There A Right Way To Draw?

I can answer this question quite emphatically:  No, there is not a “right” way to draw.  But I think there are some more effective ways to draw and I think there are some less effective ways to draw.  What do I mean by that?  Allow me to explain.

If you think about the mechanics of drawing then you’re probably visualizing a writing instrument, a paper and maybe a reference or at least an idea that is being executed, right?  Yep!  Those are the base requirements to get started.  But drawing is so much more than this.   

I hear artists, especially young artists, talk about how they like to just draw from their memory.  If you’re attempting to just get a quick sketch (concept) on paper then that’s a good way to do it.  But if, on the other hand, you want to develop a drawing that is dynamic and full of life, then I suggest putting more planning and thought into it.  Drawing from memory is not wrong, but it could be described as less effective.

Start with this checklist that you can walk through in your mind:

What are you wanting to convey?  Try to be as detailed in your response as possible.

Do you have a reference for your drawing?  If so, is it detailed enough for you to see what you need to see?  

What tools in particular are you going to use?  What about pencils, paper, size of paper and placement of the subject on the paper?  Are you going to allow a lot of negative space around your drawing or are you filling the paper entirely?  Are you going to draw a background or not?

Once that preliminary planning is done, there is a second part to getting started.   At this point you could dive in and probably be fine.  But ask yourself, is there anything about this process that involves something brand new?  Maybe you’re using different pencils or paper that you’ve not drawn on before.  If that’s the case then you will want to test on a separate page to determine what will happen so you can eliminate any surprises.  

Now you are making your first marks on the page.  You want to start with a light hand so that you can erase anything that you may want to alter later.  This is the reason I always start with a dark pencil or at least a middle tone color so that I can see what I’m drawing and so that it can provide a skeletal framework for me to work inside of.  

As I progress in the drawing process I am constantly refining my line drawing and I am erasing the line drawing where I may have made incorrect marks.  Specifically, I’m looking for incorrect proportions in a face, I’m looking for a form shadow that is too overbearing, and I’m looking for something in my drawing that is starting to draw too much attention.  When you’re just beginning you probably do not want to draw more than 15 or 20 minutes without taking a break.  Why?  Because you will grow mentally tired and may make a decision that is not in balance with the entire drawing and you may inadvertently create an eye-sore that you will have trouble removing later.  But after a 5 or 10 minute break your perspective will be fresh and your vision will be clearer.  Remember that drawing is more about seeing than it is drawing.

If you draw with a heavy hand at the beginning and you develop one area (like a neck for example in a portrait) and you’ve left the forehead alone, then you will need to remember exactly how you executed the neck.  It is so much easier to go ahead and do the layers all at the same time.  If you lay a base layer of “brown ochre” down in one area of your drawing, then just make sure you layer that color everywhere (of course the coverage will vary according to subject).  Once that is done, then move on to the next layer.  

What about the stroke?

The stroke that you use should be something where you are holding the pencil with a comfortable grip and with a motion that you can sustain for a long time without tiring.  You can also use a variety of strokes, but they should always be controlled and not strained.   The pencil should be able to rest comfortably in your hand to allow you to make the mark you intend to make.  You never want a situation where you are wondering where the tip of the pencil is going to end up connecting with the paper.  

Finally, once you make a mark please never think that you have to live with that mark.  If you don’t like the mark you just made then erase it and do it again.  You will get better at making marks and it will get easier to control.  But don’t make the mistake of waiting until an hour goes by, thinking in your mind, I’ll just correct those mistakes later.  Do it now.  Take care of it while you remember what you need to correct.

Is this the only way to approach a drawing? Absolutely not. But this is what I have found to be more effective time and time again.

Stay Sharp!

Ready to get started using colored pencil?  Download my getting started guide!