How to Improve your Portrait Drawing Skills


‘Why Don’t My Portraits Look Like the Sitter?’

This is a familiar cry from my workshops. Everything is more or less in the right place but yet the likeness continues to elude. The answer is that the difference between a good likeness and no likeness lies in the precision of the angles.


The Problem – Going Round in Circles

We naturally tend to see things in curves and instinctively exaggerate them when we draw. While exaggerated curves may work in some instances – a gesture drawing for example – in portraiture, where precision is needed, you are on a hiding to nowhere. It is much better to break the curve down into series of straight lines and angles. All well and good. But if one angle is inaccurate, all angles relating to that one are also inaccurate. (It is rather like doing a series of maths questions which are all based on the first answer and the first answer is wrong.) If we can learn to be more precise we spend less time going round in circles and can produce a drawing that is more accurate but with more energy and far quicker. No brainer!


The Solution

The solution lies in a piece of humble photocopy paper and a pencil. And 10-20 minutes a day of your time before starting work in the studio. Just as you would do a few warm-up stretches before going for a run.

The Materials

You will need:

  • 1 piece of A4 photocopy or printing paper to crumple
  • 1 sharp pencil (any hardness)
  • 1 piece of paper to draw on (any size)
  • Something straight to use as a ‘level’ guide (optional) – could be another pencil, a ruler, the edge of your mobile phone.

The Exercise

Crumple up a piece of paper – photocopy paper is ideal.  Position it in a place where you can ideally leave it for a few days and where the folds and creases are most interesting. Slowly and carefully, starting from any point, with a sharp pencil map out the angles and lines you see. This is just in line. You will need to be cross referencing and gradually building up your drawing of the piece of paper.

You can start by making points where the lines intersect. Or by drawing one small line. You can concentrate on one area  of the folded paper or you can tackle the whole piece of paper. The process is up to you. Just make sure you are constantly working the whole drawing so it all fits together.

Do not get too involved with the detail and small folds and creases. Plot out the bigger shapes first and work the detail within as you progress.

Tip: You can use your pencil, or anything with a straight edge to work out the angle by holding it out in front of you in the same angle/degree as the line you are looking at. This can help as the eye tends to deceive.

With each line or mark ask yourself:

  • How long is this line?
  • What angle is it in relation to the adjoining lines?
  • How does it relate to other lines or points on the paper? (ie how far is it from, what angle is it to etc)
  • At what point does it change direction?
  • What is the distance of this line to that (whichever) line above/below?
  • Where would the 2 lines intersect if they continued?
  • Is it a soft or hard line?

Spend 15-20 mins a day as a warm-up exercise, gradually building up the various folds. Vary the strength of the line to reflect the hardness of the folds and creases. There are no real rules. You may want to do a different drawing every day, or you may want to push on the same drawing until you feel it is ‘finished’. It might be a good idea to photograph the piece of paper and your drawings so you can document your progress.

Practice Makes Perfect

It is very hard work and your first attempts will probably not be that successful. If you have misjudged the angle or length of the folds, the bits probably won’t join up as they should as you continue to develop the drawing. But  it’s well worth persevering with this exercise and the rewards will come quite quickly. It is very satisfying when the lines do start to join up and you can see your progress.

Instant Gains

It is an excellent warm-up exercise at the beginning of a day’s work in the studio. You will find that it gets the eye/brain/hand synapses firing superbly and you should feel the effects instantly, even if your drawing has not been very successful, as you have warmed up your artistic muscles.

Long Term Benefits

Practiced daily, it will improve your drawing skills exponentially across the board. In portraiture you will notice an enormous difference as the accuracy of the lines and angles is what gives you a ‘likeness’.



PS – A Note of Thanks

I would like to thank the irascible but talented portrait painter, Michael Reynolds, member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, who taught me this exercise when I had the luck of studying with him back in the 1990s.



3 thoughts on “How to Improve your Portrait Drawing Skills”

  1. Great article Rosanna!

    My grandfather was an artist and so was my uncle, so I have drawing in my veins. Just the other day I was thinking “lines and angles”. I’m so glad an artist as fantastic as you has confirmed this,


    • Thank you very much, Craig.
      I’m glad you found the article interesting. It never ceases to amaze me how the slightest adjustment of an angle can impact the entire drawing. This is undoubtably the most useful drawing exercise I know (even if not the most enjoyable!).

  2. I am so glad I have found your site and love the portraits ,all your work, is fantastic. I learn so much be just studying your work.
    I like working with pastels.

    Thank you
    Gloria Clout


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