Drawing portraits with colored pencils: tips and techniques

Are you interested to know how to draw people? If drawing portraits with colored pencils is your passion, consider following these principles to improve your art:

  1. Light quality on your subjects
  2. Anatomical accuracy
  3. Paper’s smoothness
  4. Softness of your colored pencils
  5. Gradual layering of your colors

Let’s look at every point in detail.

1. The quality of the light is paramount to your success.

Here I set my model against the evening light. The colors of the sunset illuminate her hair and skin beautifully. Instead of looking at facial features, I focus on the distribution of light on a person when I take pictures.

Since most colored pencil artwork is done from photographs, you must become a good photographer to catch the right light with your camera. Study other artists and photographs to see how the light shapes the form. Don’t use flash to observe natural shadows, and take pictures at different times of the day to understand what lighting conditions work best for you, making the subject look exciting. Spend a considerable amount of time arranging and posing people.

I love the glowing light one hour before the sunset. Its pinks, golden yellows and purples make the skin look fresh. The shadows are much softer and don’t cut into the face as much as in the afternoon light.

I also like the Rembrandt lighting that’s easy to set up in a room. All you need  is a single light source, like a table lamp or a floor lamp to create an abstract pattern of strong light and shade on a person. Set the person up against a plain background, put the light on one side of the face and shoot.

Here a single light source with red filter covering the lamp illuminates my model.

Vary your point of view. Besides having good lighting conditions, consider the person’s character or personality. There is a reason why you want to draw people. Find a special angle that sharpens the character, makes him or her look attractive. Zoom in to the face and crop it on purpose with your camera, giving you a fresh point of view. Stand up or look down, don’t just take pictures at an eye level.

Here my camera looks down at the model to capture her from a different angle.

2. The anatomical accuracy

This is Leonardo’s study of the anatomy of the head. Understand the basic proportions first, and then apply them to your drawing of a particular person.

Yes, anatomy matters. If your aim is to draw a portrait realistically, you’ve got to become observant and catch all the elements you see particular to that person. It’s important to start drawing from the basic structure of the face, rather than relying on a contour line, however. Get the scale and proportions right, and then break the face down to unique features.

I place a line at a diagonal first and then draw the eyes on that line, keeping a one-eye distance between the eyes. This way both eyes are placed correctly on the face.

I always draw the eyes first. I make a straight line to line up the eyes on it, and then strive to make the eyes of the same size and shape, so they appear identical. For that I draw equal circles first and then partially cover the circles by the eyelids. The upper eyelid has a different shape from the lower eyelid. Both eyelids don’t make a corner, like you see in the Egyptian eyes. It’s a very common mistake to draw the eyelids of the same size and shape converging in a corner. Always keep a one-eye distance between the eyes.

I draw the face on a sketch paper and then transfer the outlines onto my good drawing paper. When you work in colored pencil, the surface must be clean of any residue or excessive graphite lines. Don’t be tardy. Shading over the graphite makes the color look dirty and flattens out the space.

3. Paper’s smoothness and color

colored papers

Never draw on a textured paper with colored pencils! Textured surface “eats up” the colored pencils, and the colored pencil blending becomes a real nightmare. Pick the drawing paper that’s smooth to the touch, and avoid using the sketch paper as your primary drawing paper. Sketch papers are too thin to layer the pigments, and are not archival to work on.

I often draw on Stonehenge colored papers pad, Strathmore Bristol Smooth, and some other printmaking papers that have similar properties to Stonehenge. Many artists use mat boards because they are archival, very thick and smooth. There is very little burnishing needed to achieve the desired blending effect, if you draw on a smooth surface.

I prefer drawing on colored surface, and thus I often use a somewhat textured, colored pastel paper –Canson Mi-Teintes drawing papers.  One side has vellum texture great for pastel drawing, and the other side is much smoother that’s acceptable for colored pencil drawing. It’s noticeably harder to draw on such paper, but it offers very vibrant colors as opposed to Stonehenge papers. Drawing on colored paper helps me with the correct distribution of values, and lets me get fun color combinations. Colored pencils ‘react’ to colored paper, giving me vibrant, almost neon hues. Although I do realistic work, I’m not a photo-realist and my color application is liberal that serves purpose to heighten the emotions.

4. The softness of professional colored pencils

You will achieve a much better result, if you begin drawing with professional colored pencils. What makes them different is their softness, lightfastness, and durability. In general, I use three brands of colored pencils that have these qualities: Prismacolor Premier, Caran d’Ache Pablo and Caran d’Ache Luminance.

I pick most of my colors based on their lightfastness rating, buying them as open stock. I & II are known to be lightfast. Avoid using III & IV because they’re fugitive colors that fade off the page within very few years even when protected by the varnish. Prismacolor’s blue-violets, some reds and greens are fugitive colors. I substitute those hues with Luminance. Luminance is the most expensive brand of colored pencils out there running at about $4 per pencil. It is the Cadillac of colored pencils in quality and softness. I also have a basic set of 18 Pablo colored pencils that are great for detailed work, but again not all of them are lightfast.

Beware that many artists encounter problems with Prismacolor Premier colored pencils since they’ve relocated their manufacturing facility to Mexico. While I have never had any problems with this company, many artists claim that these pencils break easily these days.

5. Gradual layering of colors

drawing portraits with colored pencils
Here you see the steps how I begin drawing the eyes in colored pencil. I pick the darkest brown to begin drawing the eyelids. Controlling the pencil pressure I draw the eyelids. After that I begin layering color paying close attention to the light passing through the eye. Always leave space for the highlight. The color of the iris is lighter at the bottom and much darker at the top because the upper eyelid always casts a shadow on it.

Skin tones

There is no defined formula for the skin tones. I don’t use the same palette of colors from one drawing to the next. The skin tone of each person depends on his/her general skin color, the reflected light, and the color temperature. Students often feel timid about the color, and try to pick them based on the demo’s directions, instead of studying the color by looking at a real person and paying attention to subtle shifts between warm and cool hues.

Stand in front of a mirror and look at the color around your eyes. Do you see the light purples, pinks or greens? Look at the area around your nose. Is it warm or cool? Most of the time the nostrils have a very warm color. What’s the color of a shadow on your neck? These are the check points that give you ideas how to study color.


Instead of shading one area with all the colors you’ve got, try to layer your colors slowly, mainly one at a time. This way you pay more attention to values and shadows as opposed to random shading all over the place without a plan or consistency.

Finally, just have fun with it! Not every drawing is a masterpiece, but every drawing brings you closer to success. 🙂

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