Artist demonstration: how to start a portrait

Artist Robin-Lee Hall explains some of the principles behind planning a portrait starting with simple shapes and lines, and an unusual prop. She gives some tips on getting the proportions and angles right, demonstrates how she observes her sitter and structures her portrait, and explains how she makes changes before adding shading and detail. 


  • Hello, I’m Robin-Lee Hall and I’m an artist. And I’m going to show you how to start a portrait.

    If you want to have a go at this as well, you will need … paper, a soft pencil or charcoal, a putty rubber, a reference portrait or a mirror.

    I will use this portrait of Jem Wharton by William Daniels as my reference. Jem Wharton was one of the most successful boxers in Britain over 200 years ago.

    Now, let’s start by thinking about the face as a 3D shape, something as simple as an egg.

    And you can see that it’s not a normal looking egg, it's actually got black lines on it. And the black lines are really to show you the centre line of the features, where the eye line is, where the nose and the mouth line is.

    When I turn it, you can see the centre line moves away from you and you see more of this side than the other side, as you would with a real head.

    Well, everybody is different, so every portrait is different.

    When I’m drawing a face, I like to use simple shapes and structure lines. Here’s how you do it.

    So, I’m going to start off with a circle, a basic, very simple circle, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m drawing very, very lightly. And the next thing I do is draw a dot in the middle of the circle and that’s actually showing me where half the circle is.

    So, I’m going to take my pencil, put the tip where the dot is and put my finger where the edge of the circle is and I’m going to move it down one and then I’m going to mark roughly where my finger is, like that. And then I’m going to join it up and make an oval shape, a bit like our egg. So, I’ve not got a rough oval shape.

    What I’m going to do is rub out my circle and start to think about the actual portrait of Jem.

    He’s got his head down a little bit, but also his head is tilted.

    I’m going to draw an angle line that kind of goes through the middle of his features, a bit like the egg that I showed you.

    So, I’m going to put in Jem’s eyeline. Normally the tip of the nose is about halfway between the eyeline and the chin and, again, it will be tilted because the head is tilted.

    The mouth is roughly about halfway between tip of the nose and the chin. So I’m going to draw in that mouth there.

    Now, at this stage, I’ve got the basics down, but I need to stand back and have a look and check a few things.

    Now, looking at this, he’s too long at the moment, so I need to make him a little bit more squat. And I’m not really worried about that because it’s so easy to change.

    So, I’m going to try and make him a little bit more compressed.

    I’m going to use my rubber to rub that out so I don’t get distracted by that line.

    I have roughly marked out where the facial features are, I’m going to now sort of focus on the hairline and the ears.

    His hairline is actually quite low, so I’m just going to get the basic shape of the hairline.

    Now when you’re drawing, you try and draw whilst keeping an overview of everything.

    So, even though I am drawing the hairline, I’m trying to look at the hairline in relation to other parts of the head.

    I’m also going to draw the side of the neck and the shape of that shoulder. And if you look closely at the picture of Jem, you’ll see the shoulder sort of starts level with the bottom of the nose.

    So then it’s me looking at one thing in relation to another and it really helps if you do that.

    It’s quite important to get the structure right and the position of the features and the tilt of the head as well.

    In my other videos, I also show you how shading and highlights makes things a lot more realistic.

    Just keep drawing and you’ll find that you really do improve day by day.

Learning objectives

  1. Explore artists’ creative practices and techniques.
  1. Make drawings from reference images.
  1. Gather inspiration from a variety of sources.

You will need

  • Paper
  • Soft pencil or charcoal
  • Reference portrait or mirror
  • Putty rubber
  • Pencil sharpener