Sketchbook Journal: First Attempt At People

“Sketchbook Journal” is a segment I came up with a while ago but haven’t yet put into practice. The idea is that I go back to my roots by sketching in pencil and specifically don’t take progress photos, so I can really just get into it and enjoy it. Unfortunately I do regret not taking the photos of this one because it changed so much in the process, after pretty much starting out as pure caricature. In addition to posting the sketch, I’ll share my thoughts as I worked on it and some process/material notes.

Why is drawing people so hard? I don’t think of myself as being able to do it. At least, not people that look like who they actually are. Some artists make drawing people look easy, like this guy (Jon Amdall). He really captures the personality of his subjects in realistic sketches that still have a nice loose/free quality to the lines. I decided it was time to try my hand at drawing some people, after avoiding it for so many years.

It’s always been pretty similar how my drawings of people come together, when I get up the nerve to try them: lots and lots and lots of erasing. Like, a LOT of erasing. I start with an oval for the head, then refine the shape to try to match what I’m actually seeing, and finally move on to the facial features, typically starting with the eyes. It’s so strange how when drawing other things I can get it right on the first (or second, or third) try, while when drawing people it takes more like ten one hundred. Honestly though, I don’t need the drawing to perfectly reflect what I’m looking at, as long as the people are recognizable. It’s the essence of the people that I want to capture.

Drawing people smiling (especially in a posed photo) presents its own set of challenges. Smiling eyes are often very narrow, which makes the positioning of the nose and mouth even more important. I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but my nose definitely widens when I smile, so I tried to capture that. Though I attempt to ignore it, I also have a crooked smile. Even if people don’t usually notice it, depicting it made me feel like I was getting a truer image of myself. I think that’s a big part of why it did turn out looking a lot like me. I had more trouble getting my husband’s face right, and I couldn’t tell which feature was awry. I revisited his left eye so many times that the paper started to wear a little thin. The sketch went through various stages in which it became more and then less convincing, and then (hopefully) went back to more…In the end, I had to finally give in and fully commit to the positioning of the facial features. I can’t imagine adding colored pencil to the mix when drawing people! (Yet.)

I think the sketch looks recognizable as us, but definitely not totally accurate. I came out better than he did; his eyes in the sketch look somewhat unharmonious. Man did I have a hard time getting it to look like we’re looking at the camera. Not sure that I actually achieved it. Side note: the light switch in my office died on Tuesday so I did much of this sketch with a table lamp—good thing I was working in black and white!

I don’t have a ton of complaints about how this sketch turned out. I might have made my neck a little too long, but I don’t think it detracts too much from the overall effect. The positioning of our heads is a little off compared to the reference, but like I said that wasn’t my main priority here. I wasn’t sure exactly how to show that I had a ponytail behind me rather than short hair, but I guess that’s not terribly relevant. In the future, I might give in and go for mechanical pencil (see material notes below) so I can get some more fine details in like the irises with a continually sharp point.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on background stuff in this sketch because that wasn’t the point of this exercise. I just really wanted to capture our faces—expressions and personalities. I hope that people who know us will find that I succeeded. And that people who don’t will find the portrait generally convincing. You know who thought I did a good job? My camera. When I photographed the sketch, it used those little squares to center the faces! That felt like a milestone in my people-drawing abilities.

As a semi-final note, working with pencil was kind of a nice break. I found not having to make any color decisions or do layering a bit of a relief. Not that I won’t go back to colored pencil, where I think I am making good progress!

Okay, you caught me. I did take at least one progression picture (although a bunch of erasing had already occurred to get to this point). Here it is, along with the final product again:




Final notes (on materials): As I said, I used a Mixed Media sketchbook (Strathmore, vellum surface, 90lb, 9×12). I started out with a 4H pencil but later added #2 to amp up the darkest darks. I used both a kneaded rubber eraser (to lift off color that went too dark) and a plastic eraser, the kind that comes in a cylinder case that you can click out as you use it up, which was better at precisely removing the all-wrong features I had to keep reworking. I also used a drafting brush to get rid of the bits the plastic eraser left on the paper and a piece of tracing paper to reduce smudging as I worked back and forth on the page.


  1. Looking forward to seeing what else you do with this series! Capturing people’s likenesses is soo hard, especially in a short amount of time. I think it’s partly because our brains are so familiar with how people’s faces look that it’s a lot easier for us to spot inaccuracies, however slight

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent work! I think you did a really good job on the smaller details of the face, especially the eyes.

    It’s also very true what you said about not taking progression photos; I often try to take them, but sometimes it is more fun to just dive into something without worrying about that. I look forward to seeing more in the sketchbook journal series!


    1. Thank you! I’m personally most pleased with the mouths 🙂 It’s funny, my blog started with progression photos as the focus but seems to be diverging. I’m excited about continuing the Sketchbook Journals, which will be sprinkled in between future posts


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