13 December 2012

Tips for Drawing Portraits with Graphite

I am putting together a portfolio of portraits, which will include this graphite piece...drawn from a reference photo in 30 hours.  Graphite is a slow medium, requiring patience, especially for larger pieces.  If you want a faster drawing, use charcoal.

I started this drawing with a freehand lay-in on Strathmore vellum bristol board, series 300...a nice surface that accepts graphite well, and can be easily erased.  I always start with hard lead, which is easy to erase, then slowly work up from there...2H, then HB, 2B, 4B, and finally 6B for a few dark accents.  Don't use too much 6B, it's greasy and reflective. 

Amanda at Two, 14x11", graphite on bristol board

A few tips I thought of while drawing this piece:
  • Draw standing up so you can step back frequently to check values. Squint often at your reference. 
  • I map out the key values with a value finder before I start a piece, exaggerating some values for a more effective result.  I refer to this map often during drawing.
  • Mask negative spaces with tracing paper to keep them clean.  I lay a piece of tracing paper over the entire lay-in, trace around the face, then cut that area out for a quick mask.
  • Hold your pencil at arms length like a piece of charcoal as often as possible.  It produces strokes with more interest and energy.
  • I constantly correct my drawing, right down to the point where I sign it.  I make most judgments by eye, but for precise fixes, I use a cool little measuring tool called an Accurasee proportional divider.  Precision is often required for a likeness.

A detailed view...


  1. Beautiful portrait,Candance. Thank you for the tips,I also work in pencil but am yet to find the perfect paper that would yield smooth skin tones as well as contrasts.

    1. Have you ever tried velour or vellum, Arti? I just ordered some Hahnemühle Velour Board from Blick. It's supposed to accept pastel and charcoal very smoothly. I'm hoping it will work for graphite, too. I'll post my results in a future blog entry. Thanks for stopping by, Arti.

  2. Beautifully done Candace. Children are pretty hard to capture in a portrait. The Strathmore Bristol really does work well for graphite. I've used it quite a bit in the past and loved how it accepted the graphite and was usually easily correctable without damaging the surface.

    1. Hi, Michael. Thanks for your comments. You're an artist who's done a lot of drawing...have you ever used the Hahnemühle Velour Board with graphite? Just wondering how that combination behaves. Getting ready to try it. Have you ever used vellum? I've heard that's a nice surface, too. Candace.

  3. Hi Candace, your work is beautiful! I especially enjoy seeing the portraits from the Met, it's always fun to see what inspires other artists. And I feel the same way you do about landscapes, they're difficult! But you seem to have a mastery of them too!

  4. This is absolutely exquisite! I find so much inspiration when I look at your work. Have a Merry Christmas!