Graded Pencil – portrait

For this project my subject was Hedy Lamarr, the inventor and movie bombshell of the 1940’s. I rate this lady in my top ten beautiful women. I used 3H, HB, 2B, and 5B graded pencils.

I would normally use a 4H (hard) pencil to produce the basic layout but I chose 3H which is marginally softer so that the lines are easy to see for this demo.

1. I created an oval with lots of loose, rapid pencil strokes to achieve the correct angle of the head. I held the pencil high (like a paintbrush), to reduce excessive marking on the paper.

 A few vertical strokes create the central alignment.

 A long horizontal line in the centre of the oval represents the eye-line.

 Halfway between eye-line and chin a short line represents the base of the nose.

 One-third way between nose and chin–the lip-line.

This layout is created rapidly and with the lightest possible strokes.Only one of these original building blocks will be erased later, and the others will be absorbed into the drawing when ‘blending’ tones.


Continued with the 3H pencil.

2. The eyes should be approximately one-eye width apart, so I use a ‘three-eye’ method to judge spacing and size.

 I’ve added a few extra lines to emphasise location and size of nose and mouth.

 I held the pencil high up (like a paintbrush) and added several strokes to define the hairstyle and the area it should require.

 I measured where the neck should be by using an imaginary line drawn from the outer edges of the eyes.

As before, these lines are absorbed when shading and blending at a later stage.


I erased the ‘middle’ eye before continuing.

3. I changed to an HB (medium/regular grade) to define the main features and the shape of the face.

 When drawing in the pupils there should be a resemblance to the original–even without detail. The position of the pupils within the eye will determine where the subject is looking.

 The eyelids and eyebrows will further help to give an early resemblance–if positioned well.

 I used several more rapid strokes to establish the volume of the hair in relation to the face.

This subject has a heart-shaped face and the key to achieving the correct jawline is to study the original to see where the jaw draws inward.


I changed to a 2B (soft) grade for the next stage, but continued to use light strokes.

4. I gave more definition to all the facial features which tightened up their position and I added several strokes in different areas to represent the direction of the hairstyle.

 I introduced the shoulder straps of the dress which helps to maintain balance when dealing with the hair.

In this case, the neck, shadows, and hair length in view are all affected by the slope of the shoulders. The shoulder straps may not look much, but are invaluable here.

I used several darker strokes to define where the hair on the left side will end.


I continued with the 2B grade for this phase.

5. I studied the eyes in the original to locate where there was light. Unusually, in this subject, the centre of the eye is not black, due to the fall of the lights. 

Time spent getting the eyes drawn accurately is a serious investment–if done wrong, the overall work suffers, and the further you take the piece, the more difficult it becomes to adjust issues.

 Eyebrows and eyelashes are no less important and again, time should be spent to get them drawn in accurately.

 I defined the shape of the nose at the bridge and the nostrils.

 At first, the dark shadow between the lips appears to be on the lower lip, but it is on the upper lip. Naturally, the bottom part of the upper lip is in shadow.

If the features have been created with accuracy, there should be a definite resemblence to the subject before hair and tonal values are added.


6. I used the HB grade to lightly add areas of shade at the temples, cheekbones, and the main features, including the ears.

 I changed to the 2B to create volume and ‘direction’ in the hairstyle.

In cases where the subject has dark hair there are two important considerations.

– avoid shading whereever there is natural shine. It’s easier to add a few ‘strands’ of hair than it is to eliminate them.

– a dark-haired subject like this one will begin to come to life as the hair is improved.

A balanced approach is best–shading and drawing hairs on one side, and then the other–building up gradually and evenly.


7. I erased the vertical guideline from forehead to tip of nose–the line had been assisting with alignment of the features, but in this case the line the middle of the forehead has no shading and the nose is highlighted, so the guideline must be erased.

 I used the 2B in light strokes to create areas of shade on the face and neck and then blended the strokes to give tonal values.

– I also blended areas where the hair is more dense and then I went over them again with the 2B pencil.

Blending Stumps are used by some artists but I’ve always preferred to use a clean, dry, fingertip.

I emphasise clean and dry, because the slightest dirt or moisture will destroy the piece.

In the same way that I keep a clean sheet of drawing paper to ‘clean’ my eraser, I also have a towel handy to wipe my fingers before blending.

If you’ve never tried blending with a fingertip, practise on clean paper.


I completed this piece using a sharp 5B pencil to create definition in all features and to darken the hair. I lightly played the pencil over the  shadow on the areas which required darker tones, and once again used a clean, dry fingertip to blend.


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