Simple Drawing Techniques for Realistic Pencil Portraits

drawing of girl by graphite pencilThe desire of man to keep for himself a record of his everyday activities is so powerful that simple drawings were developed just to provide a solution to such a necessity. Cave paintings, hieroglyphics, and all artistic attempts to capture any moment quickly became a popular method of communication and thus enhancing human development. The art of drawing has been a part of human history ever since.

Today the skill of drawing people, etching onto paper or canvas a recognizable likeness, is not only a hobby for many, but its impressive aura is still present. In fact, people still stand in awe whenever they see someone drawing realistic images with ease. How do they do it? How do they make it look so easy? Are there complicated techniques involved? As I taught myself how to draw over the years, I learned and implemented techniques from other portrait artists that enhanced the realism in my own work. The more I learned, the more I realized that those techniques and concepts were not complicated at all, but rather simplistic. Today, we too will stand in awe as we peer into how these images are made and how some artists so easily capture reality onto paper. Let’s look at several simple drawing techniques used by professional artists everywhere.

Drawing Instrument Basics

It is very important that you know of the drawing instruments needed and how to use them in order to create a realistic portrait. There are several key drawing tools that professional artists use for pencil portraits. Here is a look at two of the most basic instruments: the pencil and the eraser.

The Pencil

artist pencilsFor the most part, people doing realistic portraits are fond of using graphite pencil (also called lead pencil), as it gives them the ability to focus on detail. Graphite pencils come in a range of grades (from 9H to 9B), but there are generally two types: hard and soft. Hard pencils, or H pencils, are used to create light, fine lines. Soft pencils, or B pencils, are generally used to create darker shades and texture.

Some artists find the need to have at least two types of pencils, one for drawing fine lines and one for drawing coarser lines and for shading. In most cases, the HB pencil (or something close to it) is preferred because of its versatility and ability to draw fine and coarse lines easily. Your traditional No. 2 pencil is an HB lead. I personally like to use a mechanical 2B lead pencil for realistic portraits. It allows for fine details, light tones, and deep shading all in one!

When using standard wooden pencils, the way you grasp them can affect the overall look of the portrait. A light hold on the pencil, with the use of the thumb and the pointer finger, is often used to ensure the lines are light, soft, and almost invisible. A full grasp can ensure heavier, darker lines for creating shades. A slanting grip makes use of the side of the pencil’s graphite to provide a soft thick shade and a good texture. Ultimately though, grasp is determined by an artist’s personal style and preference. Experiment with different ways of holding your pencil to find the best results for you.

The Eraser

eraser hair highlightsThe eraser is an important tool to use when doing portraits using pencil. Erasers are good for more than just getting rid of your mistakes. You use an eraser to complement your drawings. It can produce a wonderful effect, especially if you know how to use it properly. For example, you can use a kneaded eraser or an electric eraser to lift graphite off the paper and produce streaks that resemble wonderful highlights in hair, as seen in this example.

Choosing or Combining Drawing Styles

There are a number of drawing styles you can choose for drawing your portraits. Your choice depends on the level of detail you are going for, as well as the “look” or “feel” you hope to capture. You can use these styles in isolation, or you can combine them for more realistic results.

  • Line drawing — the use of definite lines of various widths to create shapes and boundaries. This is the style most commonly used by everyday people and some professional artists. It is often used to outline the basic shape of the figure. Line drawings are usually not as detailed as other styles, although some line drawings are very detailed.
  • Tone drawing — the use of the contrasting properties of light and dark to create visual boundaries. The resulting image is softer than a line drawing and is better suited to create realistic images.
  • Blending — the deliberate “smudging” of lines and tones, sometimes with the use of tissue, tortillions, or blending stumps to create “soft” shades. When attempting to create realistic portraits, you should focus heavily on perfecting proper blending to create realistic shadows to provide detailed texture and depth.

Getting Your Line Drawing Started

So before you actually put pencil to paper, you need to have in mind who you are going to draw (your subject) and what you are going to use to help you capture your subject’s likeness. If you are just practicing for fun without much concern for accuracy, your own memory or imagination is good enough. For a better representation, I would suggest using a reference photo. You can try drawing the reference photo exactly as you see it, or just use it as a “reference” and implement your artistic creativity to draw the same subject in a different pose, from a different angle, etc. Or for a real challenge, you can draw a live model who is willing to pose for you. Just remember, if you are going for the closest possible likeness of your subject and a very realistic portrait, then it is crucial that you take the time needed to get your line drawing right. Do not rush this step!

Most artists begin their line drawing by sketching basic shapes. Shapes such as circles, ovals, and rectangles are the most popular types of shapes in sketching people. Drawing these shapes can help you visualize the proportions of the body.

Traditional drawing uses these shapes as guides to better create the features of the body. For example, when you draw a face you can start with an oval or a slightly egg-shaped circle to represent the general contour of the head. Within this shape, you can draw additional guidelines to help you properly place the nose, eyes, ears and mouth. So, it is important to know how to use these basic shapes, as it is one of the most important portrait drawing techniques.

drawing techniques guideline sketch

An alternate method for creating a realistic line drawing is called grid drawing. Of all the portrait drawing techniques available, drawing with the use of a grid has got to be my personal favorite! Grid drawing is not “cheating”. In fact, it has been around for centuries. Basically, this technique consists of dividing a reference photo into a grid of equally-sized squares and drawing the same number of squares on your paper. Then it is only a matter of drawing what you see in each square. When I first began using this technique, it took the quality of my work to another level! Not only is this method perfect for beginners, but many professional artists still swear by it.

eyes of the bride grid example

eyes of the bride grid drawing example

Shading Techniques for Adding Tones

After you get your line drawing down, you may want to add tones for an extra layer of realism. Here are some tried and true methods to add shading to the people you draw and bring them to life.

Stippling — using “dots or points” to recreate shade and texture. Though rarely used in sketches, it has a vibrant effect, especially when viewed from afar.

Hatching — the use of diagonal lines to create the illusion of shade and shadow. Many caricatures and cartoon sketches have this kind of style to add depth. When done properly, hatching also contributes much detail and realism to pencil portraits.

Crosshatching – similar to ordinary hatching, but instead of using diagonal lines, you use overlapping lines “crossing” one another. This will add more volume to the shade in sketches and drawings.

Circulism (also called Scumbling) — the use of tiny little circles drawn or “scribbled” closely together and built up in layers. Artists who have mastered this technique achieve some excellent results with very realistic skin textures.

Try these different shading techniques out and find what you like best, or use a combination of them. I use a mix of the last three, but I probably do more hatching than anything else. Hatching allows me to draw lines at angles that complement the contour of the face, thus getting a more natural look when blending my tones together.

Applying Techniques in Your Portraits

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio one said “Recipes tell you nothing. Learning techniques is the key.” While I do think recipes are important, I also see where Tom is coming from. You may try to follow a recipe step-by-step, but if you don’t understand the techniques within each step, you may not be happy with what comes out of the oven.

So, it’s time for you to apply these simple drawing techniques and create a realistic portrait of your own. Consider the steps you need to take to finish your portrait. You can even use a tutorial from this website that lays out the steps for you. Just think of your steps or your tutorial as your “recipe”. As you work to complete each step from your portrait recipe, keep in mind the techniques you have learned: the best pencil choices and uses of erasers, choice of drawing style, creating the basic shapes for your line drawing, and how you will add tones to later blend. The more you practice the steps and apply the techniques to your portraits, the happier you will be with your results!


  1. Thank you very Much Jack Pearce, I just went through your tips for drawing a portrait and will try drawing according to them. I do sketching but not that good, I just wanted to improve my skills. A friend of mine requested to try drawing her portrait. .but couldn’t it cause I have to still more to improve and practice. Hope your points can help to achieve drawing more better have a nice day tc.

  2. i like it…………..

  3. Thank you. I am inspired by you as a self-taught artist. This article is helpful, and I am practicing the techniques you referred to.

  4. Thanks for your portrait tips. It’s very useful for the beginners. Do these kind of articles regularly because it’s very useful for many people. Thank you very much Mr. Jack Pearce.

  5. I’ve only been drawing a few months, sketching mainly. I used to write a lot. I didn’t believe I could draw, but one day out of words to describe how I felt I drew. I’ve since in the past ten months realized and so have many others that I have a great talent for portraits; however, wanting to seek advice to improve, I stumbled across this page. To my astonishment I learned about grid sketching, what a brilliant idea, especially for practicing different and more difficult poses. The one thing I do struggle with is teeth and mouths…any tips??

    • Hi Kimberley, and congratulations to you on your newly discovered talent! Grid drawing was a huge “a-ha” for me. Even after years of drawing experience, it took the quality of my portraits to a whole new level. When you struggle to draw teeth and mouths, even with a grid, I recommend you keep using a grid…just use a grid with more boxes!

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