Top 5 Portrait Drawing Mistakes

Here are the 5 top mistakes artists make when drawing portraits. (with a little help from Benedict Cumberbatch) Mistakes such as not addressing the skeletal structure of the face, adding details too soon, starting with the eyes, nose, and mouth, etc.

The reasons why these actions can be considered mistakes are explained and then followed up with simple solutions. Demo by Art Prof Clara Lieu.


Video Walkthrough

  • Mistake #1: obsessing over whether the portrait is an accurate likeness of the person.
  • People often get very stressed out about achieving the likeness in a portrait, this will never help you!
  • Portraits have a lot of psychological baggage.
  • Mistake #2: starting the portrait with the eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you start your drawing with the eyes, nose and mouth, it means you’re not thinking about the fundamental structure of the head.
  • There is nothing structural about the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Start your portrait by blocking in the shapes for the cheek bone, jaw bone, and where they intersect with the ear.
  • Mistake # 3: drawing details too soon.
  • Details in a portrait are what “dazzle” an audience, so often they feel more important than they are.
  • Don’t dive into the details too early, you need the fundamental structures.
  • Details need a structure to reside within.
  • The eye socket is a fundamental structure, people often underestimate how large it is.
  • Mistake #4: drawing exclusively from photo references.
  • There’s nothing wrong with drawing from photos, but you’ll be a much more versatile artist if you also have experience drawing from life.
  • If you don’t have a model to pose for you, you can do quick sketches of you family and friends.
  • Drawing from life will diversify your skill set and train your eye to see the form more clearly.
  • Mistake #5: drawing the hair last.
  • The hair in a portrait has a story to tell, don’t leave it until the last minute!
  • If you do the hair last, the hair will feel too separate and look like a wig.

Prof Lieu’s Tips

We are often as artists, so easily distracted by eyes/nose/mouth, those facial features feel so incredibly important to us (it’s like being asked to make apple pie without apples!)

However, if you can really focus on the structure of the head, later on you get to reap so many rewards. You’ll find that eventually, you won’t have to sweat as much with the eyes/nose/mouth. A good structure in a portrait really takes care of so many things that are tough to do when your sole focus is on the eyes/nose/mouth.

Films & TV Shows Mentioned

Anatomical Landmarks mentioned

  • Zygomatic Arch
  • Ear
  • Mandible

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