Ballpoint Double Portrait 🙂🙂

This drawing represents a few ‘firsts’ for me;

  • First double portrait.
  • First time trying fine shading with a ballpoint pen (no erasing)
  • First time I’d been told what to draw, I left the decision to someone else.
  • First time I’d drawn from a 1″ square Instagram picture and added imagined detail.

So, the subject matter was a tricky one, the portraits I may struggle with so would naturally gravitate to something easier probably.  Usual human trait of taking the line of least resistance.

How this came about was because I’d picked one of my loyal followers on Instagram and said “pick something for me to draw for you, anything at all from your own IG feed”.  Now I must admit I’d looked in advance and was hoping to draw a scooter, or a building or something I’m more used to.

What I hadn’t counted on was for a new picture to be added to his channel, and furthermore for it to be not only a portait but a double portait !!  Crikey, this was going to be tricky.

However, this is exactly what I needed.  For commission work there’s almost certainly going to be a time when you’re asked to work on something which wouldn’t be your natural choice of subject.

It’s good to push yourself outside the comfort zone, push the boundaries and really develop that skill.  So that was the subject pushing that comfort zone…

Something else I’d decided beforehand was also to push the comfort zone and try a medium I hadn’t used before, or rather a very familiar tool but in a way I hadn’t used before.  In fact you’d be very familiar with it also – a regular Bic Biro ballpoint pen, only I wanted to figure out how to do fine shading with it.  Which by the way, you can’t erase (did I mention that?)

One mistake I made up front was to start drawing it on A5 size paper.  Given the thickness of the ball on a pen “borrowed” from the office rather than something with a finer ball it was a bit restrictive in terms of trying to get some of the finer detail.

If it was on A4 then it would’ve been easier to have more detail.  Obviously, this would’ve taken longer to cover the extra paper and bear in mind that the reference shot was only a 1″ square on a phone so on reflection, perhaps A5 was the right choice after all.

As I didn’t know how those expert artists managed to do fine grade shading with a biro I did the usual thing of asking Professor Google.  One thing that came up from a couple of the results was to use smooth paper, I did try this at first but didn’t enjoy the result much so I used a sketchpad with more grain – this seemed to suit me better.  Perhaps as I build up more experience then I’ll be able to go to smoother and find the benefits.

Here’s a couple of close-up shots which give an idea of the size of the drawing against the size of the pen.  The part I most enjoyed about this whole drawing was the folds in the patterned cloth.  It was fairly challenging but I liked the result.


Another progress shot.  Notice the piece of paper I’ve put inside the barrel of the pen?  I did this because I found that the two supposedly identical pens I was using dried to a slightly different tone.  One of them had a distinctly bluer tinge to it, perhaps you can see it on comparison of the skin tones between the left and right faces?  So… to make sure I always stuck to the same pen I just put something in it to identify it.

Several hours in (spread over days rather than one session) and here’s both faces well established.

My beaten up mobile phone providing the reference shot and a couple of “scribble” sheets.  Also a piece of tissue to wipe the end of the pen occasionally – this prevents too much ink “blobbing”.  If you get a blob then it’s possible Game Over – did you know you can’t erase !!

And here’s a comparison of adding more shading afterwards.  There is an element of the photo processing bumping up the contrast a bit but I’d added more definition to the face from the edges and eyes, and also darkened the t-shirt quite a bit.

As I was going along, I kept a vague record of how long each step was taking me.  These are my notes of the minutes spent on each section.

It was for my own reference really to give me some idea of costing up future projects, cost as in time at this stage rather than monetary cost.  However at some point in the future it may become a factor, it’ll never be the one defining factor but nevertheless it’s important to bear it in mind.

To save you adding it up, I’ve accounted for 860 minutes, or just over 14 hours.  This was spread over a number of days and in fact start to finish was over a month due to Inktober getting in the way !!

Now, think about the square cm’s covered here on an A5 sheet of paper.  How is it possible for it to have taken so long?  I don’t know but all I can suggest is that I was being extremely cautious – there’s no erasing and once you’ve invested so much time into it then the last thing you want to do is muck it up.

To get the fine shading it’s a case of brushing the surface so gently that for the most part it doesn’t look like you’re even making a mark, but after many passes that shading starts to build up.

I’d imagine that with more experience you get to the stage where you know when you can push harder, make less strokes and thus reduce the time taken.

And finally, at some point you have to say it’s finished and call it a day.

I could’ve carried on adding more contour contrast but I just knew that at some point I’d make a mark and… I think I may have mentioned it already… but you can not erase – if you stuff it up then you rip it up and go down the pub.

Quite happy with how it turned out in the end, especially the patterned cloth – I enjoyed doing that.

Lessons learnt?  Well I’d challenge anyone to draw for 14 hours with a ballpoint pen and not learn something.  Surely everyone would right?

For me I think it was handy to get a feel for the lighter areas, building up the tone (value for the American audience) gradually and aiming to convey the contours.

Next time (oh yes, there’ll be a next time) I’d probably have a go at less fine shading and some more visible expressive lines.  That should certainly be quicker at least.  Quicker to fail = quicker to learn :o)

Hope you enjoyed my lengthy write-up and can take away something useful from it.  I’d encourage you to give it a go, and if you do please share the results with a link in the comments, etc.

I’d also welcome any tips you have if you’re proficient with a ballpoint – I certainly see this most common of office implements in a whole new light now.  Art materials are too expensive?  Phooey!!



  1. I did a bit of pen shading, a very long time ago, but never quite this ambitious – or successful! What a total joy this is; you can really appreciate the time and care you’ve taken with it. Love it, Steve. Looking forward to more of this 🙂


    • Thank you Jacob – I think the next one will be considerable “rougher” in terms of the shading as I’d like to try and do something with more visible and expressive lines to see how it goes.

      It’s been a worthwhile exercise though, and over that 14 hours I’ve actually seen a small degree of improvement – though it was starting from a base of next to nothing. That low-hanging fruit is easy to pluck but it’s not often I’d be able to say I’d improved the process over a single drawing haha.

      Now that Inktober is out of the way I’m going to be “clearing the decks” of all my half-done drawings. A couple of them are at least two years old so it’ll be interesting to see if any parts I add to them now are improved in terms of technique. The tiny changes go unnoticed generally otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’ll be interesting to see how it works with a rougher approach. The no erasing (!) element of it will probably be quite liberating once you get into it, encouraging you to just go all out.

        I’d say spending fourteen hours on a piece is reaching for pretty high fruit 🙂 And it paid off, clearly. Keep up the great work, mister!


  2. Well done! I enjoyed reading about your process (fears and all). Kudos for taking such bold steps with a new tool. Both portraits are precise and well rendered. I’m sure the shading was a bit tedious, from what I’ve read you can’t erase that stuff! (LOL)


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