Drawing a Self-Portrait with Pencil
How to draw a portrait, or a self-portrait
How do you draw a self-portrait? I was pondering the question because I wanted to draw my portrait for my About page in this blog, and I felt really scared of drawing portraits.
Why? you may ask. Well, when I draw a cloud, a tree or whatever inspires me, I draw my idea of a cloud, my idea of a tree and so on. If it does not resemble the original picture I am drawing, I don’t mind as long as I find my drawing interesting.
Let’s take a tree. I might draw fewer or more leaves than there actually are on the tree. It may be by mistake (I was not paying attention and drew more than I should have – oops), on purpose (I wanted to cover a mistake in the underlying drawing of a branch I did not like) or for aesthetic reasons (it looked better that way). Does it bother me that the tree on my paper is not the exact representation of the tree I have in front of me (or on a photograph)? Absolutely not.
But with portraits or self-portraits this reasoning does not work. I may still have to correct mistakes, and I certainly want to make my drawing aesthetically pleasing, but on top of that I have to capture this person’s features in a way that those who know her will instantly recognise her face: “Oh, that is so her!” What a challenge!
Flash back to my childhood, when I used to borrow my mother’s book about Ingres all the time. I even kept it in my bedside table. This French artist of the 19th century is known for several famous masterpieces, but the book was not about them. It was about his drawings, and more specifically about his portrait drawings. I was mesmerised by his portrait drawing technique because:
The drawings are very … simple – or minimalist. I cannot find the right word to describe the economy of means this master demonstrates in those portraits. Not one line too many.
They are very realistic … but in fact they are not at all. Yes, he drew tiny realistic details but also impossibly round faces, impossibly long arms and so on. Have a look at the portrait of Madame Armand Bertin on the left: notice how unrealistically long her arms and shoulders are.
They are very detailed … but they are not at all: usually only the face is detailed and the rest of the body and the outfit are roughly sketched.
Let’s be inspired by Ingres and draw a self-portrait from a photo (or any portrait, for that matter).
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, a French artist (b. Montauban 1780, d. Paris 1867) who was a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, was steeped in the academic tradition. His portraits were also influenced by Italian art, particularly the work of Raphael. He became director of the French Academy.
For this drawing, you don’t need a lot, just:
a pencil (I use 2B)
white paper (I draw on 250 gsm/90lb grained A4 paper).
Once again, I wanted to draw a self-portrait from a photo. Let’s say that I am a bit too shy to ask anyone to model for me, so it is easier to be my own model . But getting a reference picture of myself definitely requires some more organization. You may already have a photo you want to draw from, or you may know a nice person who is willing to take that photo for you.
That is the simple way. Which is not mine, of course! I did not want to take a selfie, so I switched, once again, my camera to video mode, put it on a table, focused and went to the other side of the table. I struck different poses, then went back to the camera to stop the video. Back at my computer, I chose my favourite pose and extracted a picture from the video. It’s a bit like taking a thousand pictures to be sure there is one you like!
Step 1 – Sketching a portrait with the right proportions
This may be the most difficult step of all for me. It does not look that way, however. You might think it’s just a rough sketch. That is true, but I feel this step is crucial because this is where I have to get my proportions right, otherwise the next steps, with more details, will never look good (at least to me).
So, basically, in this step I want to sketch a portrait with the right proportions. How do I do that? First, I look at the whole picture as a composition of several very simple shapes: circle, square, triangle and so on. In this case, I have an oval (the face) and a triangle (the folded arms and torso). I notice that the length of the oval is the same as the distance between the oval and the bottom of the drawing. And that the width of the arms is twice that. And so on.
Then I look at all the other geometrical shapes, and I see how they intersect. There is a line for the eyes – how high up the face is it? Where do the shoulders connect to the face? And I refine and refine and refine, with lots of erasing and re-drawing.
I do not refer to general theoretical proportions of the body or the face. I try to observe the proportions on my reference photo and almost forget what it is of, zooming in only on the geometric shapes. This is basically the same process as drawing a manikin.
In the short video above, this runs from 0:06 to 0:57. It actually took me 15 minutes.
Step 2 – Drawing the face
Did I say the first step was the most difficult? I have changed my mind. The second step is the most difficult for me. This is where I carefully draw the face. You may have noticed that I very deliberately avoided that when drawing from selfies … Well, no more hiding now – let’s do this!
My personal technique at the moment is to draw very very lightly, with tiny strokes, and to erase a lot. I look very closely at the reference photo, and that is why you will not see me a lot in this part of the video: my head was literally right above the drawing in most shots.
It is very much a trial and error process, in three steps:
I look intently at a small part of the reference photo, as if it were some abstract shape.
I try to reproduce it on paper, looking back and forth a lot between the photo and the drawing. Do the shapes look the same? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.
Then I look at my drawing again, not as geometrical shapes but as a portrait. Does it look like me? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.
What I find difficult is that sometimes (if not all the time) someone else appears. By that I mean that I draw the eyes, or a nose or a mouth, and I feel that the drawing is good. Even very good sometimes! But it is not me. Or it is not the portrait I wanted. There are two possibilities here:
The photo may have been just a reference for the idea of a person, like the idea of a tree in my first example. If so, that may be fine. It means that this person in the portrait is a happy accident.
I may have really wanted to draw a self-portrait or the portrait of someone who would be recognisable. In that case, I erase the drawing. I erase very quickly – first, because it’s a bit heartbreaking and, second, because if I look at it for too long I will have a hard time going back to the original model.
In the short video above, this runs from 0:57 to 2:08. In real life, it took me 40 minutes.
Step 3 – Drawing the breton
Final step: the breton! I found this the easiest and most rewarding part. I drew it with great pleasure while listening to a podcast.
I took a three-step approach:
I sketched every stripe where it should be. It does not have to be as precise as the drawing of the face (well, you are not supposed to recognise a stripe!) but it has to be quite precise still because the stripes are really what renders the volume in the drawing. So I did not want to draw random stripes but realistic stripes placed the same way as in my reference photo. It includes wrinkles, light, shadows, etc. If you are inspired by this drawing but are not particularly fond of bretons, I would advise you to choose a top with a pattern, because it brings something very interesting to the composition.
Then … I erased everything. Yes, you read that right! Erased, but lightly, so that I could still see where the stripes had been drawn, but there were no visible construction lines on my drawing. Have you noticed that on the right arm (the left of the drawing) there is no outline? The stripes give the shape, and light does the rest.
Finally, I coloured each stripe. It is like colouring in a colouring book!
In the short video above, this runs from 2:08 to 4:00. In real life, I would say it took me around 1 hour.
With this portrait drawing technique, I drew three self-portraits in a week:
The first one is on my About page, where I stand with my hands in my pockets. It is from a bit further away, hence the face is less detailed (I also enjoyed roughly sketching the legs, à la Ingres!).
The second one, with a slightly different pose, is shown below. I liked it overall but not as much as the third one.
The third one looks a lot like the second one, but with a different pose and facial expression, which looks more like me (I think). It took me surprisingly less time to draw than the second one. Practice does make one faster!
At first I was scared to draw a self-portrait, but it was not as difficult as I had feared. The most important lesson that this drawing taught me is – patience!
Sometimes I just want the sketch to be good right away, or I get discouraged. This drawing taught me that, even if it does not seem easy at first, a little patience and determination can go a long way. Drawing this portrait step by step, without rush, was a very good exercise for me.
I hope you enjoyed this post. As always, I do not pretend to be a teacher, a seasoned artist or an expert in anything. I am just a very motivated learner who finds a deep joy in regular art practice.
If you want a step-by-step guide to how I draw a self-portrait, with even more detail, check out this course, a simple guide to creating an elegant portrait or self-portrait, which will be ready to frame or gift in only 7 days.
If you liked this post, you will certainly like some of the other portraits you can find on The Daily Atelier. Enjoy!