7 Common Mistakes When Drawing a Portrait — And How to Avoid Them!

November 18, 2019

It's what you don't know that can hurt your drawings… Pesky mistakes, for example, don't always make themselves known, but their presence can be felt in a “something's off” kind of way.

The first step to overcoming these drawing faux pas is recognizing that they exist!

That's why we're going to give a name and face right now to seven of the most common (and elusive) mistakes artists face on the regular and provide some simple tips for moving past them!

Let's jump right in...

Mistake 1. “Plastic” Hair That Flops

Have you ever seen (or drawn) a portrait with hair that looks like a sheet of plastic glued to a scalp? Probably.

It's a portrait-killer, but it's not hard to fix!

Hair has volume, it's living, it's grows and blows in the wind, and unless your subject has been wearing a hat, scarf, or do-rag for days on end, their hair shouldn't be lying flat upon their scalp.

The key is light, or rather, the lack thereof…

As the hair grows up and out, the scalp beneath is going to see less light and shadows will be cast. It's critical that you show this darkening in value under the hair because that's what our minds expect to see! Even though it's just an illusion, it makes all the difference.

And to go past and deeper into the hair, we have to have clean edges to some of these darker values so that we can show depth and distance.

Take a look at this example from one of my recent portrait projects…

This is a shot from the early stages of a drawing where I was just starting to pencil in the dark spaces in the mustache. In some of these gaps, we're seeing straight down to the skin below the hair, but in others we're simply seeing other hairs that are being covered up. How dark or light these spaces are depends on their depth or distance from the light.

You can see that with just a few darker strokes on the paper, this mustache is starting to take shape and “lift-off” of the page!

Here's another example of hair from the same subject's temples and sideburns.

Do you see how I was able to create a sense of depth and dimension just by showing the spaces between the hair and scalp and the layers of hair?

Mistake 2. Out-of-Round Eyes and Misplaced Irises

This is a tricky one!

Since we can't see the entire iris of the eye inside of an eye-socket (thanks to the lids), it's easy to unintentionally draw them out-of-round…

But, if you were to open your eyes super wide for a closer look in the mirror, you would see that the irises are round and fall in the center of the eyeball. Getting this wrong is a subtle mistake, but it can make a huge difference in your final portrait.

Here's how to fix the problem:

As you draw the iris, think beyond what you can see and draw a complete circle to represent the iris as a whole. This way, regardless of how much is covered by the lids, you'll know that you've drawn the shape right!

Mistake 3. “Chiclet Teeth”

Have you ever chewed Chiclet gum? Those little white or multicolored rectangular tabs of chewing gum that keep their flavor for all of three chews?

Well, they serve as a fitting model for another common drawing mistake…

I see it all the time… Because of tricks our brain play on us, aspiring artists will represent the narrow gaps between teeth as a dark and scary-looking crack. Regardless of how light a touch they've used on the rest of the drawing, those gaps get the heavy hand! Many will even represent the entire edge of the tooth with a harsh line making the edge of the tooth seem sharp.

The result looks far more like Chiclets with gaps between them than a realistic set of teeth. Fortunately, this problem can be fixed fairly easily!

Teeth aren't flat. That's an important realization to come to because it dramatically changes how they're drawn. One of the principles that I like to repeat over and over is “anything that is all one value is flat.” This is just a fundamental visual principle that we can't ignore. When light hits a curved object, it will always be brightest at its highest point and will dissipate as the object curves. This creates a gradation, or subtle shift from light to dark and is the key to drawing teeth.

Since teeth aren't flat, we know that they can't be all one value. So, I like to start with my 4H pencil and lightly draw in the darker values on the outer edges of the tooth and slowly move toward the light at the crest of the tooth. This creates a smooth gradient and avoids ever creating a harsh line at the edge of the teeth.

Often there are no spaces and one tooth is casting a very light shadow on the other. This helps you to either set a tooth back or bring it forward depending on what is casting the shadow.

Take a look at how this principle plays out in the image below...

Mistake 4. Wrinkles vs Battle Scars

Wrinkles, or as I like to call them, “Character lines” can be amazing storytellers. They give us a glimpse into a person's life that few other features can. However, they aren't very popular among those who sport them, and if you're going to include them in a portrait, you'll have to get them right!

Often, wrinkles are drawn as a dark line and take on the appearance of cuts, scars, or cracks rather than the natural response to “growing up” that they are. Left unchecked, this confusion can completely destroy the illusion of realism that we're striving to create. Again, this is a problem of perception… We see a wrinkle and our tendency is to represent it with a line, but it's not that simple. The face, like a tooth, is contoured with a high point (where the light hits most directly) and gently slopes to either side (where the light dissipates as it moves further from the source). Below is an example of what that gradation might look like:

Notice how there's no “hard edge” or dark line? That's because I start in the darkest portion of the wrinkle (the part farthest from the light) and then lighten my strokes going lighter, lighter, lighter, until I've created the proper “range of value.”

This is a technique that you can practice on a scrap piece of paper any time. Simply draw a line and then practice softening the edges by creating a gradation (dark to light) in both directions.

Mistake 5. Spaghetti Head

Another hair related drawing frustration—and probably one of the most common!

I've seen breath-taking portraits, beaming with life-giving realism that fell flat because of this one glaring mistake…

It goes like this:

With the end in sight (or even sooner), an unwitting artist will set out to “crown” their portrait with hair. Sounds good, right? Except, instead of drawing groupings of hair with shadows in-between (more about that in a second), many will place their pencil tip right at the edge of the scalp and create one long strand of dark, noodle-like hair. That's where things go south and the illusion is lost!

Instead, I look at the hair not as individual strands, but groups of hair, and what I draw is the shadow space between those groups—does that make sense?

Check out the image below for a little more clarity.

In this way, I'm first saving time by not drawing every single hair on a person's head, but I'm also setting myself up for more depth and dimension within the hair as a whole. With this technique (or a variation) I can draw almost any color or style of hair that I want!

Mistake 6. Clothing/Neck Fusion

Have you ever seen or drawn a portrait where the clothing lacked dimension and seemed to just fuse right into the skin? You'll see it most often around the neck where the shirt collar rests against the neck. The problem this creates isn't just unsightly, it's a dimension killer. While the rest of the portrait may whisper “realistic,” this mistake screams “amateur.”

But, (you guessed it) there's a solution to this problem too!

This fusion can be fixed by simply creating some “space” between the two elements. Just like the hair from mistake 1, shadow and gradation can be used to show that the shirt is blocking the light from the skin underneath. Take a look at the example below to see this principle in action!

It's such an easy thing to do and the benefit to your drawing is huge!

Mistake 7. The “Lip-Tooth” Bond

And finally, a mistake that feels familiar by now…

This flub happens when the artist doesn't correctly separate the teeth from the lips. Again, we see one feature seemingly melding into another and completely missing the opportunity to boost realism.

How do you suppose we would create that separation?


A drop shadow!

We have to create space between the lips and teeth and only a gradation will show how the light is illuminating the teeth but going dark as the teeth go out of our sight.

And if there's not a space between the teeth and lips, there should still be an edge to the darker value, revealing what is casting a shadow on what.

Take a look at this example sketch from one of my drawing classes.

So, there you have it! Seven drawing blunders that could potentially rob you of realism…

My intent isn't to scare you away from drawing for fear of making a mistake—not at all! My hope is that this article will make you aware of some of the most common problems budding artists face and give you the confidence to take them in stride!

Thank you for reading! Subscribe below for new classes and articles!

Have fun drawing!

Darrel Tank :):):)

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Meet Darrel Tank

Darrel Tank is a professional artist and educator with over 45 years of experience. His greatest strength lies in his ability to demystify and declutter the art of drawing, making it fun, formative, and completely accessible to anyone!

His drawings and illustrations have been featured in over 400 publications and his unique 5-Pencil Method drawing DVDs and online classes have inspired countless artists from around the globe.

Darrel invites you to pick up a pencil, grab your paper, and discover the joy of drawing for the first time or all over again!

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