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Creating an Accurate Outline ~ 3 tips for drawing what you see

There’s a lot that goes into creating a realistic portrait. You can master shading and learn how to draw hyper realistic skin and hair. But what will it matter if you don’t have a base to start with?

So, what kind of base is best for your drawing? That’s up to you to decide. Some like to start by blocking in their shading, some are able to just skip the whose base step and go right in with details and actually pull it off. I can’t do that, so I nearly always start with an outline.

I’m going to be using this picture of Itzhak Perlman as reference. The angle is a little more complex, so it should make things more interesting

51JGrkcd4aL - Copy

There are so many different ways to make an outline. You can freehand it, use the grid method, a projector, a light box for tracing, the list goes on… I personally prefer drawing my outline freehand, so that’s the method we’ll be covering today.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

…A very good place to start.

I start by sketching in the basic shape of the head. This is the base of our outline, so if we don’t have this fairly accurate it can throw off the rest of our drawing.

I’m going to sketch it a little bit smaller than I want the final drawing to be, because I know my outlines tend to grow a bit as I fill in the details.

So here’s my outline so far:


It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Next I’m going to mark a couple more guidelines. One down the center of the face and another one across the face where the eyes are.

Here’s where those lines would be in the photo:

51JGrkcd4aL - Copy - Copy

And here’s my sketch:


Alright, now the we’ve got a good base, we’re ready to jump in with the details.

But first, there’s an important skill you need to learn….

Drawing What You See

We all have the tendency to draw what we think we see, rather than what we actually see. That’s because we’re actually drawing symbols.

Our brains are full of symbols. We’ve got symbols for eyes, symbols for noses, symbols for mouths… and the list goes on. We see an eye in our reference picture, and our brain connects it with the eye symbols that we have in our heads. We put our pencil to the paper and draw that symbol. Because it’s an eye, right?

Tony Stark Face GIFs | Tenor

Wrong. This is how so many artists get stuck, staring at their drawing, wondering what they did wrong.

So it’s time to let those symbols go and see your reference as it really is. That’s easier said than done, though, so let’s look at three ways to draw what you’re actually seeing.

1. Copying Lines

I think I can safely say that everyone who draws uses this method at some point. You look at your reference and then copy down the lines you see. It’s so simple even a child can do it.

So, going back to my drawing. I’m going to start in with the details of the eye. But when I look at my reference, instead of seeing it as an eye, I’m trying to break it apart and see only the individual lines that make up the eye.


A lot of people also find it helpful to turn their reference upside down, in order to help see past the symbols and get they’re lines accurate. (I, personally, don’t find that helpful at this point, but whatever floats your goat. πŸ˜‰)

2. Negative Space

Now we’re going to talk about shapes and space. First of all, what is negative space? I think this is the most common example:

What is Negative Space? β€” the negative
The shape here is supposed to be some sort of fancy goblet, but in the negative space, you can see two profile silhouettes.

The space outside of the shape you’re drawing is the negative space.

Here’s a little trick I use, when I get stuck drawing a certain shape. Say I’m trying to draw the nose, and I can’t quite get it right. So to switch things around, instead of drawing the actual shape of the nose….

51JGrkcd4aL - Copy - Copy (2)

…I’m going to draw the space around it.

51JGrkcd4aL - Copy - Copy (2) - Copy

It seems like such a small difference, but it works wonders!

I like use this method to double check my shapes, edges, and make sure everything is perfect.

pacha gifs | WiffleGif

3. Comparison

This is a technique I use all the time, all throughout the sketching process. When I’m unsure how long to make the nose, or how far the mouth is from the nose, or how wide to make the mouth.

Measuring Art - Tangled GIF - Tangled Rapunzel ThumbsUp GIFs

The gif above pretty much sums up how it works.

I’ll use a measuring stick, or my fingers, or my pencil to compare the size of the mouth to the eyes, or nose, or whatever is roughly the same size as the mouth in my reference photo.

I will also use comparison for placement. For example, in my reference I can draw these straight lines to see where the mouth is placed compared to the eyes.

51JGrkcd4aL - Copy - Copy (3)

That’s why I end up with a bunch of lines like this in my drawing as well.


*ahem* I wasn’t joking when I said my outlines seem to grow a bit in process. I’ve officially hit the “this looks ridiculous” stage.

Simon Cowell No GIF by Got Talent Global - Find & Share on GIPHY

You will almost always reach this stage when drawing your outline (I’ve talked about this before). But never fear,Β keeping using these three methods to draw what you see and hopefully, you’ll be able to come back out of that stage.


….Or, you know, maybe not. That’s okay. I’m going to be honest, some outlines just don’t look right until you fill them in. (Don’t let this be an excuse, though. If something’s not quite right in your drawing, find out what it is and fix it!)


One of the most annoying things to happen when drawing your outline, is to have something that looks wrong, but you can’t figure out what it is. This happens to even the best of us. So what can we do to find our problem?

Look at your reference

This sounds like a no-brainer, but hear me out. Put your drawing and your reference side by side… and look at them.

Cat Looking GIF - Cat Looking Back GIFs
^Me trying to figure out what’s wrong with my drawing.

This actually works better than you might think. Seeing your drawing side by side with the reference will make inaccuracies more obvious, and you’ll realize, “Oh, I just meed to make the nose a little straighter,” or most of the time for me it’s, “Oh, I made the eyes too far apart.” πŸ˜›

Look at your drawing upside down

I mentioned this little trick before, and now is when it really comes in handy for me. By turning my drawing (and reference) upside down, I’m able to break it apart again and just see the lines and shapes.

Look outside of the box

Sometimes the problem isn’t where you think it is. For example, if you think the problem lies in the eyes, but you’ve double checked your lines and shapes andΒ still can’t figure out what’s wrong. Maybe the problem isn’t in the eyes. The eyebrows, nose, forehead, even sometimes the mouth, or face shape can affect how the eyes look. It’s weird, but true. So don’t forget to look outside of where you think the problem is.

Get another’s opinion

I have a lot of siblings who are always willing to point out what’s wrong with my drawings. (But they can also be very encouraging, so it’s all good.) When I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s wrong with my drawing, I take it to one of them.

If you’re feeling stuck, remember, no man (or woman)Β is an island. Send a friend whose opinion you trust a picture and ask them for their thoughts.

Finishing Touches

Alright, you’ve finished your outline. You’re ready to jump in with the shading and all that good stuff.

But wait! Don’t do that just yet.

If you just finished your outline, it’s never a bad idea to let it rest for a while without looking at. I try to wait at least an hour. (Though, I admit, I don’t always do this. And I regret it when I don’t.) Get it out of your head, off your mind. Then come back to it later with fresh eyes.

You’ll almost always notice little mistakes that you didn’t see before.

Tony Stark Face GIFs | Tenor

Things that looked fine before, might look a little wonky, now that you’re seeing it with new eyes. I assure you, that’s totally normal. Just make sure you fix it now before you add in all the shading.

Well friends, I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful! I’ll be back sometime in future with a post on shading, and finally finish my portrait of Itzhak Perlman… maybe. *smirkety smirk*

I’ll see y’all around!

~ Chalice


15 Replies to “Creating an Accurate Outline ~ 3 tips for drawing what you see”

  1. AAAH this was exactly the sort of help I need. I loved the example pictures, and those gifs…hilariously perfect. πŸ˜‚

    And don’t you smirkety smirk me. You’d better finish that portrait and show it sometime in the near future, or else I’ll [insert scary threat here.] πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is so awesome because I can spend HOURS just getting the correct proportions of the face.
    *and i can confirm that holding your drawing upside down is one of the best things you can possibly do*
    power to the local dreamer ||-//
    p.s. … i found you on instagram, and you are so incredibly talented! thanks for inspiring me to take the next steps with my own art ❀ ❀


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