How to Plan a Colored Pencil Portrait

How to Plan a Colored Pencil Portrait

Over the years, I’ve talked about a lot of things related to colored pencils, especially the drawing process. But I don’t believe I’ve described how to plan a colored pencil portrait. Planning just isn’t one of the things I’ve considered helpful to readers.

But that changed in a recent email conversation with a reader who wanted help planning her first colored pencil portrait. It was quickly evident to me that if one artist had questions like this, others of you would, too.

But rather than just tell you what I do, I decided to describe the process in steps like a tutorial.

A Word of Caution

Before I begin, I need to tell you that my planning process isn’t always the same. Some portraits are very easy to do and require very little planning.

Others require a lot more planning than what I’m about to describe.

And although I’m laying out the process step by step, I sometimes skip or combine steps as required by each portrait.

In other words, my planning process is very flexible.

How to Plan a Colored Pencil Portrait

What follows is a general outline of how I get from the reference photo(s) to the line drawing phase.

Step 1: Decide how to do the portrait.

The first thing I consider in almost every case is how I want to do the portrait. Is the entire image good as it is or should I focus on the subject’s head and shoulders?

Quite often, I crop a copy of the reference photo to see different compositions. If one of those compositions has a strong appeal, that’s the one I use.

If more than one looks good or if they all have about the same appeal, I save them. I then review them all a few times over the course of a few days. Many times, it’s a process of elimination!

When I find myself looking at one image more than the others, that’s usually the best choice. Even if it doesn’t have a lot of appeal, something about draws my attention.

If none of the compositions appeal to me, I look for other reference photos. If it’s a paid portrait, I also sometimes ask the client for additional photos.

What if I can’t choose a reference photo or composition from my own photos and for one of my own projects? In that case, I set it aside and work on something else. Either that subject isn’t interesting enough, or I don’t have enough objectivity to make a good choice.

Step 2: What size?

This is usually relatively easy since I tend to work small and in standard sizes. A typical portrait is 6×8, 8×10 or 9×12. If I work larger, 11×14 and 16×20 are standard sizes. I don’t do many portraits much larger than that due to the time it takes to complete a colored pencil piece.

TIP: When you’re choosing a size, it’s usually best to stay with standard sizes. What are standard sizes? Look at the frames in your local frame store or online. Ready-made frames are standard sizes. You will need to take the mat into account for colored pencil work, but if you stick with standard sizes, that saves a lot of money when it comes to framing.

Step 3: Crop and resize a copy of the reference photo.

I always set up my reference photo so it’s the same size and proportions as the artwork I want to make.

For example, if my portrait will be 8×10, then I crop the reference photo to the same proportions. This helps me avoid making the subject too large for the portrait size or too small.

This is also a good time to do a little more work on the composition. Having the reference photo the same size as the final artwork makes it easier to create the line drawing, no matter how I do that.

Step 4: Decide how to do the background.

Do I want to use the background in the photo or make my own?

If I make my own, do I want to do a plain color and maybe use the color of the paper as the background? Would a tonal background be better. (Tonal is still pretty plain, but I’d use a couple of colors to create a blurred background.)

I used to use Photoshop to try different backgrounds with my subject. That can be helpful if you haven’t been doing portrait for very long.

Now, I can often look at the coloring of the subject and decide what colors will work best. Since I do mostly animals, my backgrounds are usually earth colors.

Here’s an illustration I made for a client concerning the Faithful Lucy portrait. I made this sample in Affinity Photo and made each background a color of paper that I had in stock.

How to Plan a Colored Pencil Portrait

The portrait ended up with a nearly black background, which suited it much better, but this sample helped me make that decision.

Step 5: Choose the paper type and color.

I often do this step as I’m doing some of the other steps. If, for example, I decide to work on colored paper and use the color of the paper for the background, I’ll make this decision about the same time as I do Step 1 or Step 4.

If I’ll be using white paper, then the only decision I have to make is the type of paper.

Sometimes a client has a preference, in which case they actually make this decision.

Step: 6: Think about color selection.

I don’t always do this step separately, but I’ve been doing portraits for so long that it’s almost automatic. If you’re planning your first colored pencil piece, it’s a good idea to do at least some basic color selection before you actually start drawing.

If I’m going to be using the umber under drawing method, I select a medium-value brown. I develop all of the shadows and forms with one color, then glaze color over that.

If I’m using a more direct drawing method, then I choose the base colors based on the lightest colors in each area.

How to Plan a Colored Pencil Portrait

After all this work is done, it’s time to do the line drawing and then the portrait itself. How those steps unfold depends on the drawing method I’ll use, and the time I have available.

Having said all this, I also have to remind you that planning a portrait is such a varied process for me. A lot depends on the type of portrait I’m doing and whether or not I’m doing it for myself. If I’m doing something for a client, then the client has more say in the process.

But I hope this little tutorial has given you an idea of my basic process for planning a portrait.

I hope it also helps you figure out the best way for you to plan your next (or first!) colored pencil portrait.

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  1. Ashley

    Thank you so much Carrie! For those of us out there who are just beginning or are getting ready to move out of the “tutorial following” stage of colored pencil painting, this will be extremely helpful! Colored Pencils are one of the most intimidating and, at times, overwhelming mediums I have ever taken on. Having an “overall” giude to planning takes some of that overwhelm out of the equation, for me at least!
    Thanks again, and as always, I look forward to every new post.

    1. Michelle,

      No, there isn’t a post describing that process, but it’s easy enough to do.

      If you have a scanner, you can scan the colors of paper you have, then open the scanned images in a photo editor. I use Affinity Publisher and Affinity Photo, but any photo editor that allows you to do layers could be used this way.

      Then add the paper color to one layer and an image of your subject to a second layer. You can try as many colors of paper as you wish.

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