How to Create a Tonal Portrait Using Pencils

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
In this tutorial I'm going to show you how to draw a tonal portrait from your own photograph. No drawing skills are required for this. If you love to draw, you can skip sections 2 through 4 and simply sketch the portrait onto the paper freehand. If you want to draw a portrait with a bit of help, just follow along.
This tutorial creates a portrait the same size as the original photograph. If you'd like to create a large final portrait, you can follow the steps in my tutorial: How to Use a Grid to Enlarge an Image While Drawing. So let's get started!
Materials for a tonal drawing
  • Black colored pencil
  • White colored pencil
  • Eraser
  • Drawing pencil, preferably an HB to 2B
  • Ruler
  • Sheet of Canson toned paper in a neutral, medium grey
Before we can start sketching on the paper, we need to first alter the original photograph on the computer to make things a lot easier.
Open your photograph in Photoshop and open the Adjustments tool bar.
Opening the adjustments tool bar
Choose the Hue/Saturation button and move the saturation bar over to the far left. Your photograph will now be in black and white. You can also do this by simply choosing Image > Mode > Grayscale.
Changing the saturation
Now we're going to boost the contrast a bit to make the shadows and highlights easier to discern. Go back to the Adjustments tool bar and click on the Brightness/Contrast button.
Opening the contrast tool bar
Play with the contrast bar until you have a wide range of values in your photograph. Depending on how high the contrast in your photograph was to start, you may not have to move the bar much.
Adjusting the contrast of your picture
There are two easy ways to do this. The analog way is to print out your portrait and draw a grid with 1/2" boxes right on it with a pencil or pen. You can also create a grid in Photoshop with guide lines, which I will walk you through below.
Pull guides in from the top and left side to create a grid with 1/2" boxes on your portrait.
Use guide lines to create a grid
Now that you have your portrait ready, it's time to prep your paper. I like to have a 1/2" or 1" margin around the outside of my portraits, so make sure your paper is the appropriate size to allow a border.
Draw in 1/2" or 1" margins around the outer edges of your drawing so that the inside rectangle matches the measurements of your reference photograph.
Adding margins to your paper
Mark the sides of your drawing with pencil marks every 1/2". You are making the markers for your grid. Now, draw lines from the top markers to the bottom markers and from the left markers to the right markers. You should have a grid identical to the one on your reference photograph.
Drawing grid on paper
Now that you have identical grids on your photograph and paper, you can easily transfer the portrait.
Moving left to right, draw the outlines of the face using the grid to help you know where you are. I usually work left to right and slowly make my way around the head first. A good tip is to look at where the outline starts and ends in each box. Is it touching the middle of the outer grid box line or the corner? It becomes a bit more mathematical when you do it this way, but you won't get lost and you'll be closer to the actual image. Once you go round the head, you can go in and add some inner lines like eyes, ear ridges, etc.
Sketching the portrait in the grid
Carefully erase the grid lines, making sure to redraw any portrait lines that you accidentally erased. Don't put too much pressure on the paper as it will rough up the surface.
Erase the grid
Look at your photograph and determine where the whitest whites are. Squinting your eyes will help you see them even better. Taking your white colored pencil, draw in the bright highlights.
Pencil in the highlights
Now we'll do the exact same thing but for the darkest shadows. Look at your photograph and determine where the darkest darks are. Squinting your eyes will help you see them even better. Taking your black colored pencil, draw in the darkest shadows.
Pencil in the shadows
Now that we have the brightest highlights and darkest shadows colored in, you can see that we need to start pushing the values because it doesn't really look like a portrait yet. Remember that the color of your paper represents the middle value of your picture. For me, that is a nice grey. Thus anything in my portrait whiter than that nice grey value will be colored in with the white colored pencil and anything blacker than the grey will be colored in with the black colored pencil. The harder you push the pencil and the more times you go over the area, the brighter or darker that area will become.
Squinting at your photo reference, begin to draw in areas that are lighter than the middle value of your paper.
Push the highlights
Look again and push the white even further. The more you look at your portrait, the more you will begin to see lighter areas. Go over areas you penciled in before if it's not quite bright enough now.
Push highlights even further
We're going to do the same thing now but with the darker areas. Anything in your portrait that appears to be darker than the middle value of your paper will be colored in with your black colored pencil. By now, it should definitely look more like a person than it did when we just had the darkest and lightest spots penciled in.
Pushing the shadows
If your portrait has a lot of the grey still showing, then it's a good idea to consider coloring in the background. The rule of thumb is to color it in with the color that will most push your portrait forward at the viewer. So if you have a lot of shadows round the edges of your subject's head, a light background will make them pop. For me, I'm using the black colored pencil because my subject's hair has lots of highlights round the top.
Pencil in the background of your portrait. Start with just a single, even layer of the color of your choice.
Pneciling in the background
Push your background even further by brightening or darkening several areas. Again, the rule of thumb is to do this where it will most make your portrait pop forward. Thus darkest areas are usually found beside the lightest areas.
Pushing the background
Step back and squint at your portrait. If there are areas that need to be pushed darker or lighter, go in and pencil those appropriately. You want to match your beginning portrait in terms of the range of values whilst covering up any remaining grid lines. This is also the time, if you're like me, that you carefully pencil in the teeth. Teeth can tip a drawing into a cartoon very fast, so if the opening between the lips is small, sometimes it's best to just leave it empty.
Now you have a beautiful portrait that would make a great holiday gift for a family member or friend. Once you have the technique down, you can expand on it by trying different colors. Use a tan paper with cream and brown colored pencils, or a blue paper with baby blue and midnight blue pencils. The possibilities are endless!


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