tools for drawing portraitsI have been drawing portraits for the past 25 years. During that time I have used many techniques and tools for pencil and ink drawing.

I do prefer drawing from life, but most of my portraits during the past few years have been from photographs. Because of the economy where I live, it is very difficult to get clients around here for portraiture. I get a local commission about once a month. So, I have had to make use of the internet, and now I receive most of my commissions from people who live too far for me to travel.


Drawing from a photograph is obviously very different from drawing from life. A photograph is only a representation of a subject interpreted by a camera. So, conventional techniques of drawing do not apply, such as squinting. The photographic portraitist has to re-interpret the photograph and use his/her own talent to create a drawing that is unique.

For sketching from photographs, I have experimented with varying techniques, from drawing directly from the photograph without visual aids, to using a projector. I will talk about some of these methods below.


Drawing Tools for Sketching Realistic Portraits from Photographs


  1. Drawing without visual aids

    Drawing without visual aids may help to achieve a reasonable likeness, but the outcome sometimes is distorted. This is because you are drawing a flat image, instead of a three dimensional one. For portraits, most clients want a very good likeness, so any distortions may annoy them. I have achieved a good result without any drawing aids, but it usually takes me much longer.

  2. The grid method

    grid paper notepadThis involves drawing a light grid on the reference photograph and the drawing paper. It is useful for scaling up the photograph. Some people fill in each grid individually with whatever is in the corresponding square on the photograph.

    I personally dislike this method as it is way too technical for me. When I used the grid method, I preferred to get initial placement by grid, then erase the lines, and work more freely with the drawing from there.

  3. Using a projector

    I purchased a projector a few years ago, and although it was expensive, it was the best investment I have ever made as a portrait artist. It saves loads of time for drawing the portrait, and the placement of everything in the drawing is exactly like the photograph. I only do the initial sketch with a projector, then work on the drawing directly from the photograph after that, blending and shading until I get a good likeness, and using some of my creativity in the process. Before using the projector, I have had to adjust things in drawings many times because something was a tiny bit out of place. I have not had one single incident of that since purchasing the projector.

    If you have been wondering how those sites for portrait commissions get those “perfect” portraits… well this is how they do it.


Art Projectors for Artists


There are a few options for projectors that artists can use, some of which I will list below.


  1. Artograph Designmaster Projector

    Artograph DesignMaster Projector This is the one I own. It suits my purposes perfectly. An extendable arm and a clamp attaches the projector to a table. The Artograph projector can easily be adjusted to different distances from the paper, until the image is completely in focus. The actual projector can be removed from the stand for larger portraits or paintings.

  2. Overhead projectors

    These are useful for larger pencil portraits, paintings, and murals. The photograph or transparency is placed on the projector bed, and the image is projected onto a large sheet of paper, canvas, or even a wall. I have personally not used an overhead projector, but some of my classmates in art school used them.

  3. Other projectors

    Kopykake Kobra K5000 Artist Opaque Projector There are various other projectors available for artists. The brand I am most familiar with is Artograph, because I own one.

    But, if I ever purchase another one, it will probably be the Kopykake Kobra K5000 Artist Opaque Projector! This projector is especially designed for artists and illustrators, and though it is not recommended for muralists, it can serve that purpose.

    The projector costs a hefty $541. I know this sounds like a lot, but with some portrait commissions, this can be easily paid for.


I am looking into getting the Kopykake Kobra K5000 in the future, but am open to recommendations from others. A projector is a big purchase, so I want to ensure I buy something that suits my needs perfectly, will last a long time, and be ok for preparing portrait drawings. If you have a projector that you have had a good experience with, please let me know.

Thanks for reading, and if you are interested, please check out some of my pencil portrait drawings.

Post a Comment Blogger

Thank-you for your comment!