How to sketch a convincing portrait

Getting portraits right is a skill outside the reach of the beginner. Or is it ?

One of the crucial factors in drawing a portrait that resembles the model is to get the exact proportions. It takes considerable talent to get these proportions right when sketching from real life (as one has to rescale and project from 3d onto 2d), and even from a photo this is a particularly frustrating endeavour.

But why do we always want to draw with the photo sitting next to our drawing and not draw directly on the photo? I guess that’s just historical technological constraints turned into ill-placed dogma. After all, if classical painters used grids and other contraptions to get their proportions right, why should we stop short of what the digital era allows us?

Placing the original photo in a separate layer below the sketch layer is exactly the same as drawing on a light box (if you do not have a graphics tablet, a light box is certainly cheaper – or you can tape the photo and your drawing to a window). Now this will not teach you where to put your pencil strokes, but at least the mouth will be in the right place, with the proper angle etc. The higher the resolution of the original picture, the best it is, even for a rough sketch, as there are always fine subtleties than you want to zoom into in order to get the pencil stroke just about right.

Once the sketch is complete, you can either carry on in the digital world, or print out your sketch as many times as you need to practice painting on it.

The portrait below was painted with this technique. I still have a long way to go to avoid the temptation of photorealism when painting from a photo, but I can tell you the model approved the final result.

Sketched from photo in mypaint


Naboo lake retreat

Naboo lake retreat, aka Villa Balbianello on lake Cuomo in Italy. Pencil and watercolor (digitally in mypaint). Watercolor paper texture effect added in Gimp, based on Zoe Piel’s video tutorial.

Naboo lake retreat digital watercolor

Watercolor paper texture effect in Gimp

The texture is not simply a texture layer set to multiply, which would show even in the white spapces. We want the texture to look like it introduces variations in pigment concentrations. Therefore it is used as a layer mask. Here is the process, in short, for Gimp nerds:

  • Open your mypaint export (or whatever you started from)
  • Duplicate the layer – set the top (new) layer to multiply
  • Right-click on the layer in the layers dialog ‘add layer mask’
  • Paste a (large enough) paper texture (greyscale is best) as the layer mask
  • Play with levels for the texture image until you get the dappled look you want
  • Play with the opacity level of the top layer until satisfied

An added benefit of this method is that it makes the watercolor more vivid (my Mypaint originals tend to be a bit weak).

Tiffanny’s tutorial

As I was looking for watercolor video tutorials, I found this exceptional video by Tiffanny Varga. The coloring style was just what I was looking for, and the instructions are extremely informative.

Therefore I decided I’d try my hand at it. Except that I did it digitally, with MyPaint. (view large image here).

A warm thank you to Tiffanny for allowing me to showcase my forgery skills.