After completing my recent fan art of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, I started looking back at some of the things I’ve learned since creating my first couple of colored pencil portraits.



Scarlet Johansson

This was my first attempt at a human portrait in colored pencils. I was fine with fur and feathers but people in this medium were new to me. I worked in polychromos and prismacolor. This is one of those pieces that is a bit embarrassing for me mostly because I know I rushed it and didn’t complete my best work.


Problem #1 Bad Reference Photo

Choosing a good reference photo is HUGE. You can’t just take any photo and make it look amazing, especially when you’re getting started with something new…like drawing people in colored pencil. Getting used to the medium for creating skin is enough trouble without adding the problem of not having a decent photo to work from. Her skin was completely washed out in the reference so I couldn’t see the dimensions I needed to to make her look…uh…not like a flat cartoon character. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Problem #2 I rushed through the hair

The funny thing about this problem…I knew better. I’ve been drawing portraits in graphite for years. I KNOW that you need to slow down and take your time on the hair. At some point I lost interest. Part because I didn’t love the reference photo (see problem #1). Her hair doesn’t look natural at all! Never mind that she’s actually wearing a wig, the wig wasn’t this bad. Besides rushing, my pencils were NOT sharp enough for creating the finer details. I let them stay fairly dull thinking I would smooth everything out with my odorless mineral spirits when I blended. Turns out it doesn’t really work that way. You need super sharp pencils for those final layers and details to clean things up and avoid having fuzzy looking hair.

What I Would Change

If I were to use this same reference photo again, I would have hyped up the shadows on her face a LOT! It wouldn’t even look like the same reference photo. Her skin is too smooth and plastic looking. I would get all those little details. That might mean finding a second reference photo so that I could see where shadows should go. Of course, I would have spent more time on her hair as well. I would likely end up spending at least twice the amount of time that I did on the original. A lot of my problems with this one came down to rushing.


 Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen

This was my second attempt at a portrait in colored pencil. For this one, I worked in polychromos with a white prismacolor. I spent far longer on the detail work of this piece than my previous with Scarlet Johansson, so there was improvement there.



Problem #1 Grainy Skin

Whether or not you feel this is a problem depends on your personal taste. I prefer smoother skin on my portraits. I don’t want plastic, but I also don’t want a crayon look and I feel that this one is too close to the crayon side. After this portrait I adjusted how I create pale skin tones. Now I block everything in FAR darker than it should be and blend it out with odorless mineral spirits. I then take a white wax based pencil, either Luminance white or Derwent Drawing Chinese white and go over the skin. Next with just a tiny amount of paint thinner I blend that out. It creates much more realistic skin than I got here, making it look more like an oil painting.

Problem #2 I rushed through the hair…again

I see a pattern forming! And not a good one! Luckily this was the last time I rushed through hair on a colored pencil portrait. The hair really should take longer than the face itself if you want it to look realistic. It’s funny, I was just looking at this one in person earlier today and my pencil strokes throughout the entire piece are rushed. The hair looks like hair, but because I wasn’t keeping my pencils sharp enough again for that finer detail it’s just not as good as it should be.

What I Would Change

First I would SLOW DOWN! I would spend more time on the detail of her clothing and in her hair. I would also sharpen those pencils more. My second adjustment would be in making the skin a lot darker so that I could go over it with a white Luminance or Derwent Drawing Chinese White to soften it down.

The last thing I would change are the pencils I used. I primarily used polychromos for this with the single white prismacolor. I really like wax based, more opaque colored pencils for skin…the Luminance pencils have such amazing natural colors that work SO well when drawing people. Once I introduced those into my collection and used them along side my polychromos I saw a huge difference in my skin tones.


Little Girl in a Blue Hat

My next portrait in colored pencil was a HUGE improvement over the first two. I learned from my previous mistake and slowed the heck down! I also kept my pencils MUCH sharper for that fine detail. My reference photo was a much stronger selection for a portrait as well.

This was the first portrait where I used Luminance. I started with just a handful of tans, greys and white. WOW what a difference that made. Those pencils combined with my polychromos just work SO well for how I work.



w-pencils-jonI don’t know about you guys but I attempt to one up myself at least a little bit from one portrait to another. Jumping ahead by a couple of years and you can see I’ve slowed down even more, especially in the hair. I decided that the hair alone would be my project for several days. No moving onto the skin as I normally would have…just hair. I’ve also done enough portraits now in colored pencil that I feel more comfortable taking a few artistic liberties in my values. I’ve hyped them up just a bit from my reference photo in this piece.


The two things I want to leave you with are to first, SLOW DOWN!! Second is to jump in and start drawing! If I was too afraid to make mistakes or held onto the “I’m not good enough for portraits yet” mantra I hear from people so often, I never would have gotten to this point in my colored pencil portraits. While I don’t generally recommend portraits to be your first project, after you’ve gotten a few flowers or animals in your portfolio…go ahead and try portraits if they interest you! We all start somewhere with them.