Being able to draw realistic portraits, or even just cartoon people, will give you a way to entertain yourself and delight others for the rest of your life. While it might seem like drawing people is really difficult, once you know how to simplify the human form (both the body and the head), you will be able to make quick sketches of anyone easily.
Newest Lesson: How to draw hair
A lot of you have told me that this is something you really struggle with when you draw people. Getting someone's hair to look right is important, and while it may not be as essential as getting their eyes in the right position, for some reason a lot of drawing of people end up with the subject's hair looking like a messy knot of wire.
The fundamental problem with drawing hair is we get caught up in the old drawing mistake of trying to include too much detail. And hair is REALLY detailed. That's why all those protrait drawings look so weird - the artist has tried to draw every single hair on the person's head. Its kind of like if you tried to draw every single leaf on a tree - your tree would look really weird.
So what's the solution? Well, like most things in drawing, the solution is to simplify what you are drawing. So instead of trying to draw every single hair, it is MUCH easier to "block out" the person's hair first.
Step 1) You start with drawing the hair at the same time that you are blocking out the rest of the head.
This will solve a major problem that people run into when they are drawing portraits - they add the hair last, only to realize that the shape of the hair does not fit with the shape of the rest of the head and face. And so suddenly they realize that not only has the hair not come out the way they wanted, but they can now see how they got, say, the shape of the subject's jaw completely wrong. They just never saw the mistake in their drawing until they added the hair. You can avoid this by drawing the hair at the same time as you draw the rest of the head. All the parts go together (duh), so draw them together!
Besides, being able to use what you know about how the shape of the hair works with the shape of the head and the face will actually give you more information about how to do the drawing. In other words, you'll have more "data points" about how all the different shapes work together. Use that information - draw the hair at the same time you draw the rest of the head. Have I emphasized that enough?
After you've got the hair blocked out, take a closer look at what its doing. Which way is it going? Almost everyone's hair has certain sections that kind of work together as wholes.
You need to see how those sections move and look, and then you won't get caught up in trying to draw individual hairs. (But, you'll actually be able to add individual hairs here and there without messing up the overall look of the hair and the drawing).
As you see how the sections of hair lie on top of each other, also notice which parts have the most highlights and the most shadows. You can actually draw hair as a tonal drawing - using nothing but highlights and shadows, and all good drawings of hair get these shadows and highlights down perfectly. Spend at least a moment or two lightly blocking out where the highlights and shadows are.
Now that you've done some pencil work to know how the sections of hair lie together, and where the highlights and dark parts of the hari are, you can often do a new drawing and get the hair bascially right from the beginning.
Here's why: take a close look at the "hair" in this study that's near the temple of the woman's head. Its actually not drawn in at all, but our eyes and brains know there's hair there, and that its the highlighted part. This is actually the secret to drawing great-looking hair: What you leave out is often more important than what you actually draw in.
Here's another study of the same head of hair. This one has a bit more detail drawn in. Notcie how the different sections of hair have different highlighting and shadow treatments? The section just over the ear has a dark accenuated spot that shows how that whole clump of hair moves over the ear.
There's another dramatic difference in lights and darks on the left side of the head, right at the top center of the woman's temple. The highlighted hair is left completely black, and then there is a hard black line and a very dark section that goes behind her forehead.
The difference between the two areas is so stark that the artist added in a bit of hair pattern right at her hairline. That particular pencil mark seems a little off to me, but it does show that if you're going to have a lightest of the light highlight in the hair, you need to surround it on all sides with at least some light tone.
I don't mean to imply that any of this is easy. Some people's hair is really not that complicated to draw. Men's hair, for example, can often be pretty straightforward, mostly because it is so short.
But while men's hair may be easier to draw, it reveals another problem that is probably THE classic mistake of portrait drawing: Mismeasuring the proportions of the head. The first rule of drawing a person's head is that the eyes are right at the halfway point between the top and the bottom of the oval that creates the head shape.
Because men's hair (and some womens' hair) is so short, it really shows off the shape of the head. If you've got that shape wrong, you will know by the time you try to draw the hair. There will be no fixing the problem by then - even if you draw "perfect" hair, it will be sitting on a malformed head. Don't worry though, that's what erasers are for, and why there are so many new, blank pieces of paper in your sketchbook.
Sometimes you have a portrait subject like the young lady to the right, who has beautiful, long, curling hair. Its gorgeous, but trying to draw it can be a little intimidating. This is a great example of how important hair can be to a portrait. To mess up the hair of this subject would be almost worse that putting her nose in just slightly the wrong spot.
Drawing this head of hair was intimidating enough for the artist that they decided to do a study of it. This shows a different approach than the "blocking out" technique.
Here the artist used a study of planes to show how the hair moved and is shaped, and how it caught the light. Notice how each plane has only one tone or shade to it - this helps the artist define and sort out the different lights and shadows. It is also an excellent way to recreate those three-dimensional shadows and highlights on two dimensional paper. Using planes like this is a classic approach to simplifying any drawing subject, so there's no reason it can't be used on hair, too.
Using planes like this is most often used to draw clothing and drapery. Drapery, especially, has many of the same challenges as drawing hair - lots of highlights and shadows, and much less form to work with than the bones and muscles of the subject's face and body.
You can also use the "planes technique" to simplify drawing people's faces, or their bodies. Using planes to show different muscles groups is used a lot, especially in drawing comic book action heroes. You can still see the accentuated planes of their bodies even in the finished drawings.