There are many practical advantages to drawing from photographs. From the artist’s point of view photographs don’t move, and from the subject’s point of view, they don’t have to keep still. Less flippantly, it is not always possible to arrange for someone to sit, even for the few minutes that may be all that is needed for the portrait drawing. There is less pressure for the sitter (indeed none if the photograph is selected from several taken informally) and for the artist, who can work at his own pace.

The subtleties of colour, not always captured by a photograph, are not a concern in a monochrome subject; so drawing is an ideal way to practise your tonal work without the additional complication of colour. When drawing from photographs, tonal values can be altered as you see fit. Similarly, the background can be included, varied or omitted.

Gathering photographic reference

Social occasions such as parties or weddings can provide opportunities for informal shots that make great reference for portraits. However, lighting conditions in such situations may not be ideal for a good photograph. Naturally there is a relationship between the quality of the photograph and the quality of the resulting drawing. A photograph taken in poor light, or with poor definition, for example, will never lead to a highly finished and detailed drawing.

Fortunately, modern cameras, even some phone or tablet ones, can extract usable material from unpromising situations. In fact, almost any camera can be used to get source photographs for your portraits. The critical thing to develop is an eye for a good potential shot. From here, you can learn how to adapt to hindrances such as poor light or great distance. In these events being equipped with a camera that can be adjusted to increase its sensitivity is advisable.

Using reference for drawing portraits

When working from photographic reference, ensure that it is as clear as possible and that you get as much information and detail as possible about the subject. My camera’s card, on which the pictures are stored, can be slotted into my computer. I sit astride my folding easel and draw and paint from a large high-definition screen. Alternatively, I can sit in my study and work from a large image produced by a digital projector. Both approaches give me ample information from the photographs.

You may prefer, or need, to work from prints of your photographs, in which case I recommend you get your pictures printed to at least 210 x 297mm (8. x

This is an example of a good photograph from which to draw. The light is clear, the sitter has been carefully composed, and everything that I want to include in the finished artwork is present.


I always prefer working from my own photographs and this is one taken in my study. I had been commissioned to produce a drawing of Zoe and her sister, of which this was the more successful. In comparing the photograph to the result, you will notice I have omitted any background – often a distraction in a monochrome subject – and vignetted the image. This simply means that the detail in the portrait is kept in the centre, and gradually fades out to empty space at the edges, rather than being continued to the edge of the paper. This compositional choice is a good way of using a photograph that has an awkward crop that mean some minor details are missing from the edges.

The original photograph is a little blurry, but because the image captured Zoe’s character so well, such a minor drawback could be ignored. There was sufficient information remaining to produce a pleasing result.


This studio photograph was supplied to me by the subject of it, and I was commissioned to produce a portrait drawing which would feature in his forthcoming book. In the event he used the photograph, though he assured me this was no reflection on the drawing. (I believed him, since he then commissioned an image for a book cover from me).

The photograph was of good quality, with the face and features clear and composed. In contrast to the photograph of Zoe, the background here is blank and dark, with nothing in the way of distraction. The lighting, however, is a little stark, resulting in high tonal contrast. When producing the portrait drawing, I made sure to even out the light and dark tones a little, in order to ensure the detail was not lost.

Knowing that the resulting portrait had a specific purpose – as an author’s picture – I changed the format from landscape to portrait, which made better use of the space. In changing the format, I made sure to keep the face central: a suitable choice for a formal portrait such as this.


A good subject for charcoal, because of large dark areas, which are not easily rendered in pencil. Although the figure is centrally placed, the symmetry is disturbed by the background treatment, and interest added by the hands and spectacles.


Reference photo

This short demonstration is intended to show you how to use some basic drawing techniques such as varying pressure and hatching to draw a simple portrait based on a photograph. It utilises just one graphite pencil – a tool with which we are almost certainly very familiar and comfortable. The pose and lighting are prompted by the reference photograph, so there is no need to worry about these elements; concentrate purely on drawing.

The finished portrait shows just how quickly a recognisable image of a person can be built up using just a single pencil and a small piece of paper. With no background to complicate it, and by making sure we made good decisions in choosing a photograph with a suitable format, pose and lighting, the result is simple but pleasing.

Basic lines and establishing the features

The pencil is used lightly for these initial marks as we ‘feel our way’ around the portrait. While the marks will be virtually invisible in the finished portrait, the likeness will gradually be refi ned and built up from these first marks, so it is important to get them right. You might like to think of them as the foundations of the finished work.