With a Little Technique (and a Fistful of Pencils) You CAN Create a Realistic Portrait

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You might think that you can't create a lifelike portrait without having a good eye. That's partly true. But mostly, portrait painting requires technique. And luckily, that’s something you can learn.

We're happy to share some basic guidelines. But once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you’re free to make up your own rules as you go.

It helps to start with a good set of color pencils. Faber-Castell Polychromos are fabulous, and the colors mentioned here are the ones in the Faber-Castell set. But if they cost more than you want to spend (they are pricey), you can also look up the colors online and match them to pencils from any brand you like.

Now, let's get to work!

Make a sketch

First, draw the outlines of your subject’s face. If this step makes you nervous, create some preliminary sketches — maybe draw just the nose or the ears. Draw quickly, but focus on lines, curves and shadows.

After a few rough drafts, start on the real sketch. Draw in the details of the facial features. Then outline the face with a medium flesh-colored pencil.

Using a color pencil instead of a graphite pencil lets you blend in the outline when you shade in the face with other hues. A graphite pencil creates a harsher line that can't be blended, so your portrait won't look as realistic.

Paint the eyes

Lay down the first layers of color. Keep them faint, since the goal is to build up color as you go. Use medium flesh, Van Dyke brown and burnt sienna.

After that, pile on more colored layers to increase the intensity of the tone. Add depth to the color of the iris with a darker shade. Draw shadows around the lids to create depth and contours. A reddish shade makes these blue eyes pop.

Paint the top and bottom lashes with black and brown pencils. Sharpen the pencils so that you can draw thin, tapered lashes, which will add a lifelike touch to the eyes.

Paint the skin

Slowly begin to move away from the eyes, shading the area under them and around the nose with darker shadows. Stick to the colors you used for the eyes. Depending on the subject, you can include some red for the cheeks. Burnt ocher is also a good way to balance out some of the pink from the medium-flesh and cinnamon-colored pencils.

Now define the main planes and tones in the face by adding sky blue and cream to play up effects from the light. Blend the cream into your flesh-toned pencils in the lighter areas of the face. Use sky blue to add shadows under the lower lip and on the right side of the nose.

Keep building the layers in the darkest areas and finish off by pressing down harder with some of the lighter flesh tones to blend every layer of color together.

Paint the eyebrows

You’ll want to use a lighter tone as well as a darker color to add depth. For example, you can use a light yellow ocher pencil for some of the eyebrow hairs and Van Dyke brown for the the darker ones and shadows.

Paint the ears

Here you can see the step-by-step layering process. Paint the dark areas of the ear with a dark brown pencil. Lay down the color in soft strokes, without pressing down too hard. These shadows should remain faint, since you’ll be adding color later.
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Then select a mid-tone — medium flesh, for example. Draw over the shaded areas as well as the lighter ones. Again, don’t press down too hard.

Now add some accent tones. Depending on the lighting and your subject’s skin, you could choose blues, greens or orange. Pick up the dark brown pencil and color some of the darkest areas a second time to emphasize some of the shadows.

Finally, go over the whole area with the lightest flesh tone you used and blend every layer by coloring in circular motions. This is when you’ll press down harder than you did before.

Paint the hair

Start by drawing over the flesh-colored outline with a darker color, like Van Dyke brown.

Use the same shade for the shadows.

If your subject has blond hair, you could mix the following colors: nougat, caput mortuum violet, light yellow ocher and cream. To capture the texture of hair, paint a series of straight and curvy lines in the same direction.

Keep layering colors to add mid-tones and shadows. You could even try adding a little gray for highlights.

Finish with the mouth

For the mouth, you can apply the same flesh tones you used for the skin along with rose madder and fuchsia to give the lips a rosy hue.

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With a Little Technique (and a Fistful of Pencils) You CAN Create a Realistic Portrait