How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Every portrait artist wants to draw more realistic portraits no matter their chosen subject. Dee is interested in learning how to draw more accurate human portraits. Here’s her question:


Still having issues with drawing faces. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with generic proportions, it’s more a question of how to modify the generic male/female proportions to more closely replicate a particular subject’s face and then, colored pencil color combos to better reflect various skin tones, including shadows.

Thanks, Carrie for your advice.


Thank you for your question, Dee. I can help you.

Dee has actually asked two questions, both of which would make complete posts on their own.

I also don’t do very many portraits these days and didn’t do very many people when I was doing a lot of portrait work. My subjects were usually equine in nature.

But the same principles that apply to drawing horse portraits also apply when you want to draw more realistic portraits of people.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Drawing Faces to Look Like Specific People

Drawing generic faces is good practice, but when you start drawing specific people, it’s probably best not to start with a generic face.

Those generic drawings and an understanding of the basic proportions of any subject is good practice and time well spent. It’s helpful, for example, to know that the space between most people’s eyes is equal to the width of the eye itself.

But when you start drawing a specific person (or horse or dog or whatever,) it’s best to keep those basic proportions in mind, but to pay more attention to the individual subject.

Look at the person you’re drawing and draw them from the start.

The reason is that there’s endless variety in the human face. Yes, most people have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but a mouth can be small or large with thin lips or full. The eyes can be large or small and close together or far apart. And noses can be long or short, wide or narrow, dished, hooked, or perky.

And then there’s all the possible expressions.

So rather than start with a generic shape and try to make it look like a specific person, start by drawing the specific person.

How to Draw a Specific Person

I have drawn a couple of human portraits in my portrait career. The most recent one was a large oil portrait of a horse owner without the horse. She was the subject. Since the portrait was pretty large (24 x 36 inches,) my model was also going to be quite large. There was no room for error either in drawing or in painting.

So I drew a series of studies of her eyes, her mouth and her hands (the portrait was full body.) I even sketched her handbag and some of the other props in the portrait.

Draw more realistic portraits by drawing studies of individual features.

Then I drew her. When I had the drawing as good as I thought I could make it, I made a tracing directly from the reference photo then compared the two line drawings by laying one over the other. That was a great way to see where my drawing needed improvement.

I continued refining the drawing and comparing to the tracing until it was as good as I could make it.

Because the final portrait in my example was in oils, I continued improving the likeness while I painted. You can’t do that very easily with colored pencils, so take extra time to refine the likeness at the line drawing stage.

Colored Pencil Combinations for Skin Tones

Drawing accurate skins tones is both complex and simple.

It can be complex because there are so very many types of skin color from very dark to very light. Lighting also plays a role in drawing skin tones, so there really isn’t a standard set of colors that can be used for drawing every skin tone in every lighting situation.

This gray and white cat looks gray and white in this photo.

You would expect to use white to draw this cat in this light, and you would be right.

But I’d use different colors to draw him accurately in this photo, taken in the golden light of evening.

The same cat in different lighting. I’d use no white (or very little) to draw this portrait.

The same principle applies to drawing human skin tones.

Yes, those select sets for skin tones are a good place to start, but also use other colors. Using six shades of flesh tones and pinks will produce reasonable skin tones for many portraits, but they honestly can’t produce the vibrant, life-like skin tones you’re probably looking for. Even a portrait of a fair-skinned person in good light benefits from additional colors.

How to Select Additional Skin Tone Colors

First, take time to study the colors in your reference photo, but don’t focus on the actual skin tones at the beginning. The first thing is the lighting. Remember the cat illustration above.

The skin of a fair-skinned person in subdued lighting will require darker colors than the skin of the same person in strong light.

If you can, forget that you’re drawing a person and look at the colors in each area. Enlarge your reference photo to show each area separately or use a color picker. Match a colored pencil color to the color you see in the photo, or shown by a color picker.

I used IrfanView to pick a color in this illustration. The color picker tool is circled in black. I used that tool to click on the place in front of the cat’s eye and the color appeared in the box marked by the arrow.

Using a color picker helps you isolate individual colors, and that helps you match them more accurately.

Repeat the process for each part of the face, then blend those colors in with the skin tones when you layer.

Learning to Draw More Realistic Portraits Takes Practice

The more portraits you draw, the better you’ll get at seeing shapes accurately and accurately drawing what you see.

The same applies to seeing and reproducing colors, too.

So don’t give up. It looks daunting at the beginning. I know. I remember the first horse portraits I painted. Wanting to get them right but lacking the skill and know-how was agonizing!

But I did enough portraits to learn what worked and what didn’t.

You will too!

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