A Few Simple Tips to Draw Better Portraits

A Few Simple Tips to Draw Better Portraits
People are one of the most challenging things for an artist to draw. To capture the unique appearance and personality of a person by using the right lines and shading takes patience and practice. Even as a professional portrait artist who loves his craft, sometimes after drawing dozens of faces a day at live events, it would be much easier to draw the tree behind the person sitting in front of me!
From childhood, we learn to draw people a certain way, an expected way. But it is not the most realistic way.
Far from it.
Here is a picture of how most of us learn to draw people.
"A Strange Face", pen on paper, by Matt Philleo

“A Strange Face”, pen on paper, by Matt Philleo


Even if you are not an artist, I’m sure you can tell this isn’t a very good drawing. I can say that freely, because I’m the artist who did it!
Here we have the eyes, with extra long cartoony eyelashes at the top of the head, an inverted “L” for a nose, and a funky-looking mouth.
Probably the biggest mistake people make when trying to draw a face is putting the eyes at the top of the head. Actually eyes are somewhere in the middle.
Next, the nose is best drawn by observing the contours of the nostrils and the thickness of the nose bridge and drawing those lines instead.
Finally, the mouth, especially when smiling, needs the cheekbones and wrinkles, along with squinting eyes to give the appearance of actually smiling.
"A Better Face," pen on paper, by Matt Philleo

“A Better Face,” pen on paper, by Matt Philleo


Here is that same face, drawn with more lifelike proportions and shapes.
To draw realistically, you have to strive to draw what you see instead of what you think you see.
Your brain will play tricks on you.
It still does on me.
For example, I will find myself subconsciously smoothing out the shape of a crooked eyebrow, because smooth things are usually better. But if a person has a crooked eyebrow, it’s better not to try to be smarter than the photograph (or the person in front of you) or it won’t look right.
This takes practice, and a training of your eyes and mind to observe what you see in the three-dimensional world (or even two-dimensional rendition of the three dimensional world, a.k.a., the photograph) and transfer that onto paper. Although some people are more gifted with this ability and this skill comes more naturally, I think everyone that wants to learn how to draw can benefit from training in this way.
As an artist, your talent is not in your hands; it’s in your mind and soul.
I can become a better artist without even having to pick up a pencil or paintbrush.
As I see people in various settings, with interesting expressions and lighting on their faces, I make a mental note and think of how that could be rendered on paper or canvas. When the time comes to draw or paint, my mind already has some visual material to to work with,  and I have part of the technique already ironed out beforehand.
By the way, I will be teaching a drawing course at my studio at Artisan Forge Studios, where we start off at beginning level and move to more advanced techniques. Using your own photos as references, you will be able to create some portraits you can be proud of and show your friends and family at the end. The cost per two hour session is $40 and the class runs for five weeks, starting Monday April 25th, 6-8pm and going every Monday after that until May 23rd.
If you’re interested or have questions, let me know.
Here is a sketch I did of my brother and his family for Christmas. It took about 2-3 hours. Once you learn how to accurately draw proportions using line, you can get into shading and detail. That is something I plan to cover in another blog post.
Portrait of Mike Philleo and family, 11 x 14, pencil on paper by pencil portrait artist Matt Philleo

Portrait of Mike Philleo and family, 11 x 14, pencil on paper by pencil portrait artist Matt Philleo

Meanwhile, if you like to draw or are interested in learning how people draw realistically, I hope these tips help you. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to know more about!

Share Your Thoughts!

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please leave me your feedback below! I will personally get back to you. Can you help me spread the word? Please share this post with your family and friends by using the social media links on the side or below. Thank you!

"I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands."

Inscribed6a 500px

"Inscribed," Pencil on Paper, by Matt Philleo

One day, when I was discouraged I read a verse in the Bible, in Isaiah, 49:15-16, where it says, "Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands." This verse brought such encouragement, that I created this original work of art to share the incredible love of God with others, including you!

Get a free 8 x 10 copy of this drawing that you can use to print, share, or as wallpaper!

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  1. Thanks for the tips Matt. As always, I love your posts. It is interesting to hear how visual artists can “practice” without pencil or paper as I know musicians practice without instruments. Since I am committed to a Bible Study on Monday nights, I do hope you repeat this class sometime in the future.

    • Matt Philleo

      You’re very welcome, Sheila. Glad you liked them. I do plan on repeating the class during the summer and I will most likely choose a different day, maybe even Saturdays. Thanks for your interest in my work!


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