Art, Learning how to draw

Drawing a Portrait – Stage 1

Hi and welcome back.

This blog shows stage 1 in my portrait process.

I’m going to try and show:

  • How to frame a picture so that its central and the same size as the original.
  • How to draw the face, hair and shoulder outline.
  • How taking a break can improve your judgement when reviewing your drawing.
  • Why rotating the paper as you draw can make drawing easier.
  • Why you should try to avoid short cuts.

If you’ve been following this, you’ll know I’m doing a portrait of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s bride to be, not for me because of this but rather because I liked her in Suits, a TV serial based on a legal firm in New York.

meghan pop 1

Firstly you need to decide what size of picture you’re doing.  I’m doing this as an A4 picture, i.e. magazine page size.  Although the final picture will be A4, I actually draw it on A3 paper.  The reason I do this is so you can maintain some distance between your drawing and the edges of the paper, and also so that you can change the size of the border to fit any frame you like.  If you draw on A4 paper, it means either you have to draw right up to the edge of the paper, or you have to scale down the picture so that you have an edge and it makes the process I’m going to show you a little more difficult.

If you don’t have A3 drawing paper, thats fine because you can glue your picture to any A3 paper you can get hold off.  If you can’t find any, just sellotape together 2 A4 sheets end to end and then glue your A4 drawing paper in the middle.

If you’re fortunate enough to be using A3 paper, how do you work out where the drawing should go?

You can do this is one of two ways – roughly by plonking a sheet of A4 on top, where you think it’s central, or if you want to be a little more exact, use an origami trick and fold a sheet of A4 in half both ways, then fold it the reverse way until you have two distinct folds.  Measure 148.5 mm along each of the short edges of your A3 paper and place a mark.  Then draw a short line either side between the marks.  Do the same with the long edges measuring 210 this time.  Place the A4 sheet down on top of the A3 sheet and move it so that that the creases line up with the marks you’ve made.

You should end up with this:



Now simply hold the A4 in place and draw around it.  Then remove your A4 sheet and you’ve got your working area:


So, why go to all this trouble?

It makes transferring what you see in your A4 photograph a lot easier,because you can be confident that the portrait in the picture will end up in just about the same place on your drawing paper.

Now position your photograph where you can see it, and get your drawing paper in front of you, held at about 45 degrees.  I find the easiest way to display the source photo is to run an HDMI cable to my TV and display it there.  There’s a couple of reasons for this and I’ll go in to those in the next blog.

Got your pencil and eraser ready?  Time to do some actual drawing.

This at the moment can be very very rough – all you’re after doing is placing the figure’s outline on the paper.  Look at the photo and find the top of the face, where the hair starts.  Mark a short horizontal line on your paper where you think it should be.  Do the same with the bottom of the chin.  Something like this:


Next, do the same with vertical marks for the middle of the left and right hand edges of the face.  You should end with this:


You now have four rough edges of Meghan’s face, sure its the start of a Lego face, but bear with me, that will change.

Reality Breaks

Next, check that the marks are in the correct place.  I’m going to ask you to do something odd now.  Put the drawing down somewhere safe, and do something else for 30 minutes or so.  Don’t look at it at all during this time.  For reference we’ll call this a reality break.

30 minutes gone past? Compare the marks on your paper with the hairline, chin and left and right hand sides of the face.  Everything where it should be?  If its not use the eraser and adjust the marks.  When you’re happy they’re correct we can move on.

Why the reality break?  The reason you do this, and should continue doing it with your drawings as you improve is that you decide in your mind that the picture is correct and no amount of looking will convince you any different.  I don’t know why this happens but you’ll find that you’ll be absolutely convinced that you’ve got it right, even if you haven’t.  Looked at a bright light longer than you should? You get an imprint of the light on your photosensitive retinas and it won’t shift for a while.  Coming back after 30 minutes is similar to your retinas going back to normal, but with the drawing you think properly and see errors in the drawing almost immediately.  The error is in your mind.  Getting your eyes and brain the opportunity to reset your view lets you see much more easily what may be wrong.

It can feel a little devastating to have worked tirelessly on your drawing only to have someone come up and suggest it might need changing.  They are able to do this because they’ve either never seen the drawing before, or haven’t seen it for some time.  They are sometimes much better judges of your work than you are.

Next, with reference to your photo, join the lines up so that you have an outline of Meghan’s face.  NB: Although I said in an earlier blog that the photo we’re using is centrally positioned her head is canted at a slight angle, as people do when having their photos taken.  You’ll have to allow for this when you add your outline:


I’ve dashed the lines I’ve added so that you can distinguish them a little easier.  You now have a solid foundation for the rest of the picture.   I always try to add an outline for the the hair at this stage.  It persuades me that the picture is more done than it is, and I find it easier to carry on working on the face.  I don’t know why, I just do.

To do this yourself, draw a line for the top of Meghan’s right shoulder, and then add three marks for the left, top and right central edges of her hair.  Then join the marks up as we’ve done with the face.   Lastly add a line for the neck and the left edge of the right hairline.

Turning the drawing to make drawing it easier


One thing that is handy to know is that, if you’re right handed, it helps you draw curved lines if you turn the paper so that you’re drawing left to right, so for example, if you’re drawing the line for the right hand side of the face, turn the paper as shown below so that you’re drawing left to right.  You should find this a lot easier than drawing away from or towards you.

If you’re left handed then the reverse is true and you should try to turn the drawing so that you are drawing right to left.



This is my version.  Its not correct yet, and I’ve strayed from my top guideline, but its a start point.  You may have to have a few reality pauses while you finalise the guidelines.
(Its worth stressing that getting the outline as correct as you can before drawing really commences is very important).


You should have something similar.  Congratulations! You’ve started your first picture and you’ve employed no tricks to do it.

Why not use tricks?

Tricks (or shortcuts) are fine, like using tracing paper, carbon paper, grid squares or light box, and they save a lot of time, but they don’t help you learn to draw.

Imagine for a moment, you’ve got friends or relatives visiting and one of them asks you whether you could draw them, just for a laugh.  If you’ve used the techniques on this page, you are part of the way to being able to do this because you’ve simulated the process, albeit without all the inevitable movement, however slight, of a real model.

You will eventually be able to have your friend or relative sit down in front of you and freehand draw them. (don’t get me wrong here – relatives can be friends too!).  Its a bit like playing the piano without sheet music.  You know where to place your marks on the paper rather than having to use photographs.  For twelve years I used short cuts to do the basics but never got a sense of accomplishment from the early stages of a drawing.  Now I actively try to avoid doing this, I get more from my pictures, and this is part of what I’d like to pass on.  I bet you can guess where the relative story came from.

So, this time, you’ve learn’t:

  • How to frame a picture so that it’s central and is the same size as the original.
  • How to draw face, hair and shoulder outlines.
  • How taking a break can significantly improve your judgement when reviewing your drawing.
  • Rotating the paper can make drawing easier.
  • Why you should try to avoid short cuts.

Next time I’m going to show:

  • How you place the eyes, nose and mouth so they don’t look just plain weird.
  • How your TV can help you draw better.
  • How you use mathematics to recognise people and why this is important.
    (Don’t worry the maths bit really isn’t boring)
  • Why its better not to draw with your paper flat on a table.
  • How to define the pattern of the hair and not have to go to the trouble of drawing
  • every single strand.
  • How to start applying tone, and what effect this has.
  • What a picture turning three dimensional tells you.

If you want to skip ahead as it were and have a go at doing more with the picture feel free, but before you do, trace what you’ve done so far – I call this a stage tracing.

Why do a stage tracing?

If it does all go wrong, a stage tracing will allow you to go back in time, and start from a known good point.  If you want to proceed with the picture on your own, but want to see how different it might have looked when the techniques in the next blog are used, it will allow you to do one or more versions and compare them.  I’ll demonstrate how you use the stage tracing next time.

If you’ve liked this article please hit LIKE, and if you’d like the next blog hot off the presses click FOLLOW and WordPress will send it right on as soon as it’s complete.

I’m happy to receive critique good or bad if you have time to comment.  During the week I’ll try to improve the quality of the stage photos here so they’re a little easier to view.

How can I LIKE / FOLLOW this article?

I’ve changed the theme of the page so that it looks a little more trendy but at the cost of hiding all the LIKE and FOLLOW buttons and links.  If you click the button with the three horizontal lines at the top of the blog, you should then see them.


I hope you can join me next time, and best of luck with your drawing.

All the best.  Ian.


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