Pencil Portraits Step by Step



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My art style and methods are always changing as I learn, but this will give you a general idea of my portrait art technique. I don't pretend to be an expert, and I am always learning. But perhaps you will find some information here you can use as you learn how to draw pencil portraits.
I pick out my paper - usually Strathmore Bristol 400, smooth. Even though it's 'smooth,' I gently feel each side and pick the one that is smoother. Usually one side is more toothy in texture. I draw on what I feel to be the smoothest side of the paper. 
The general areas are sketched in lightly using a 2B mechanical pencil. If a 3B or a 4B is what I have in my hand already, that will do the job just as well! Some shading is done to determine the dark areas. A light gray colored pencil or a lighter graphite pencil like H is used if the final artwork is to be done in colored pencil. Colored pencil doesn't mix well at all with graphite.
Shading/blending is begun, using only tissues (like Kleenex, no lotion type and/or a chamois). Usually I  work in  specific direction on each piece, to match the skin tone/shading.  Dark areas become more defined. I blend dark areas into the light, some missed details here and there are noticed and touched up.
If deeper darks are needed, I rub tissue on some of the darker area (in this instance, hair) to apply as needed in parts of the face. 
This is the stage in drawing I have nicknamed the 'muddy' stage, because if my customers saw it right now, they'd wonder why on earth they hired me - it looks pretty awful right now!
More dark areas of the hair are added, hair is filled in - noting the geometric shapes of dark versus light areas.
Once more of the dark is put in, I turn both the reference photo and the artwork upside down to be able to identify shapes that need adjusting.  Some detailing of the eyes is done at this time. Many times I'll turn the art and the reference photo sideways also.
I try to look at them from as many views as I can.
Now I'm thinking - 'do I have a likeness?'
This part is harder for me to explain, but I'll try. If my reaction to the artwork is a little ho-hum, I realize I haven't attained a's missing the spark of that person - so I think and look - what makes that person unique?  Is it the little dimple, do the eyes need a little more sparkle, a little more crinkle at the edge...? If it doesn't have that spark of the person or animal in it, I keep looking for that special 'it.'
I'm looking for the personality.
I touch up small dark areas with a tortillion (like a loose blending stump - a rolled up paper used for blending) and I touch up light areas with the kneaded rubber eraser.
Highlights in hair and face are brought out. This is where the 'painting with graphite' comes in.
I use several types of erasers to create desired look for the different features of the face and hair. Staedtler drafting pencils, Sanford typewriter eraser, and DeSign kneaded rubber erasers, and an eraser pen made by Pentel called ClikEraser. I erase lightly some areas of hair and then draw the detail hairs back in, usually with a harder pencil and/or mechanical pencil. I have also found that the edge of the clickeraser will make very fine and clean lines for highlights in hair - just snip the eraser off straight with scissors or a razor blade to get the sharp edge. These clickerasers are so affordable, it's nice to have several handy and prepared for different uses in your portraits.
Final details are added or finetuned, like eyelashes
and highlights to the lips and eyes. Eyelashes are usually done with a mechanical pencil because it's wonderful for the small details.

pencil drawing steps advice shading

~ Final Notes & Basic Drawing Tips ~
How to draw without smearing: Always work in pencil from left to right if you are right handed.  If you are left handed, then do the opposite.  This is to keep your hand or arm from smearing the pencil as you work.
Use a clean sheet of paper (I use typing paper) to rest your hands on as you work, so you won't have direct skin contact with your paper. If natural oil from your hands gets into the paper, then your pencil will not blend well, it will look splotchy.
Kneaded rubber eraser is a great tool, but don't use the same one over and over! Again, the oil from your hands will transfer to the eraser and then go on your paper.  Simply pinch off pieces and form them to the shape you need.  Kneaded rubber erasers are about $1 apiece,  but look for them in bulk for a much better price.  You need to not be afraid to throw it away.
Same thing with your tissues and chamois...make sure you are working with a clean area, and make sure your fingers don't work their way through the tissue, or you end up with the skin oil problem on your paper yet again. Minimize handling of the paper as much as possible. Even when your skin is clean, there is natural skin oil in your fingers and hands that will transfer to the paper. When the graphite is applied, it will be darker in that area - much like you have been fingerprinted! The graphite is trapped by the oil you applied to the paper accidentally.
No eating or drinking within 8 feet of your artwork. This is a firm rule I have set for myself.  All it takes is one practically microscopic crumb, one tiny speckle of water, to ruin an artwork you've spent hours on. This is why I don't draw when my toddler is awake!
The last tip I can give you is to buy quality art materials. Look for paper that is at least acid free. It will resist yellowing and last for a long time. If you are going to expend your talents and energy, think enough of your art to only use good quality supplies, from the paper all the way to your pencils, it does matter. I have provided a link below to the supplies I use and recommend. Don't forget to check out the great drawing books I've picked out that can help you develop your skills.
This is just to show some of  the steps I usually take in making a portrait - every artist will develop his or her own style and technique.
Good luck and have fun drawing!
~ Darla

Darla Dixon, Artist

Darla Dixon Portrait Art & Illustration

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