Portrait Pencil drawing step by step

Portrait pencil sketch of Sofia
Portrait pencil sketch of Sofia

First of all! If you want an in depth understanding of drawing and portrait painting. I have written a descriptive and thorough book thats available on:

Kindle HERE and Paperback HERE

Reference / model

First step to make a pencil portrait step by step is to find your model or reference. This process is always very personal and depends on what type or look you prefer your model to have. Personally I prefer if my reference has deep contrasts from shadow to light. This create depth and atmosphere. You can create these contrasts by directing artificial light upon your reference.

Light / Shadow

As explained in the previous paragraph I use artificial light upon my reference. I put a lamp above the head of my model in an approximately 30 degree angle from either left or right. As seen on the photo above this creates cast shadows from the eye sockets, nose and jaw/neck line. By creating these shadows you get the depth and atmosphere that I personally like. It creates the darkest dark ares, half tones, light areas and highlights. This contrast in light makes a the foundation for a good portrait.

For more descriptive information about how I adress shadows see this link: https://portraitpaintingblog.com/shadows-in-portrait-painting/


I used to use lots of materials for my portrait paintings including different blendering paper sticks. I liked them very smooth and very blended.

Along the way I lost that need. Now a days I like that you can see it’s a pencil drawing. Preferably i like when you can see lines and hatchings. I simplified my materials to only consist of a pencil of any type, a hard eraser, a kneated shapable eraser and my subject to draw on. I really like this simplicity and the challenge to it gives me with these few materials.


I say there’s 2 ways to measure your vital flag points in a portrait. Either you measure with materials like your pencil, your brush or even a ruler. Or you measure with your eyesight only.

Measuring with materials gives you an exact distance between pupils, nose, mouth etc. It is very important to have the distance between eyes, nose and mouth for the portrait to look exactly like the reference / model. If you get experienced you can measure these vital flag points with only your eyesight. It may give more variables and slightly different distances, but the alikeness won’t change so much that you can’t see the similarity.

The positive thing about this is that you still get an alikeness and similarity but your portrait is not totally alike the photo reference or model. It becomes more like a caricature without being to controversial. This on the other hand creates your very own and personal portrait. This is a personal position that I have come to feel over the years. When I first started drawing I coundn’t bear if the important distances weren’t totally correct.

As seen in the photo I have made a line that defines the center of the face. This is something I do sometimes, if there’s more than one flag point that seems to be on line with each other.

Start up marks

From my previous measurings I put down marks for the pupils in the eyes, the nostrils, maybe the nose flaps, the center line between the lips and the corners of the mouth. These are what I call the vital flag points of a portrait. Those marks are the foundation for the similarity between the drawing and the reference.


Detail of eye portrait painting

From the marks of the pupils I start drawing the eyes. I start from the center making small dots for the exact pupils. From the pupils I measure to the corners of the eyes. From the corners I draw around the pupil to mark the eyelid. Usually I mark the fold on top of the eyelid to. I may darken the white spots in the eyes a little. I do not like if the white contrast is to big compared to the other parts of the drawings.


Detail of nose portrait painting

I draw the nostrils darker. The lower part of the nose may actualy be all covered in shadow. In that case i’m very careful about the shape of the shadow and the visible part of the nose. I mark the side flaps of the nose with soft lines. I mark the side bridge of the nose that goes up towards the eyes in soft shadow. This defines light from the top of the nose from the sides


Detail of mouth portrait painting

I soften the center line between the lips. I’m carefull not to mark the upper lip and lower lip with to hard lines. The mouth area is a very soft area and if it’s drawn with to hard lines i personaly don’t like it. I may cover the hole upper lip in shadows with lines or cross hatching with the pencil. As the lips are oval in shape they will be less and more exposed to light. Where the lips curl more out towards the light the less i draw in that area. I may leave it white or blank as it create the illusion of light.

Near the cornor of the mouth there’s usualy half tones which makes a subtle change of form from mouth to cheek. Half tones is drawn soft similar to the sides of the nose. It needs to be a subtle transistion from lips to skin area.

Underneath the lower lip there’s usualy a shadow as the lower lip curls outwards an upper light source will create a cast shadow underneath the lip. Sometimes it’s enough to just draw this shadow to create the illusion of the lower lip.

The outer shape

I start to draw the outer shapes after the flag points are defines – the jaw line, hair line and the kranium. The outer shape is measured from my flag points. I measure the Jaw line from the lips and the corners of the mouth. Hair line is measured from the eyes. Cheeks are measured from the sides of the nose flaps.


I draw my shadows lose. Usualy it’s just lines very close to each other like you can see on the photo. In very dark areas I may cross hatch. Cross hatching is just lines overlapping each other from 2 angles. I like the simplicity of the shadows but still they define very well that’s it’s a shadow area.

The shadows are the last thing I define. Done with those I don’t take the portrait further. I could start blending everything together and I would have a very smooth portrait. As described earlier I like the portrait to look like it was made with a pencil.

A portrait pencil step by step post is about how I do it and how I learned to do it on my own. Other instructors would ssay that you have to build up a pencil portrait step by step by defining hte outer shape of the skull first. It’s all up to you as an artist and what makes you feel most comfortable along the proces.


To see other pencil portraits I have made follow these links:



For the materials I use follow these links:

Pencils and color pencils http://www.fabercastell.com/creative-studio/products/graphite-sketch-pencils

Kneaded rubber: https://www.prismacolor.com/accessories/premier-accessories

For drawing on paper I prefer this sketch book on 135 mg : https://www.stelling.dk/ami-sketch-pad.html

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