Learn how to draw a self-portrait using your MFA art kit or materials from home.

Many artists in the 17th century made their living by painting portraits. These works were commissioned to celebrate an important event in someone’s life or to showcase their status in society. In addition to creating paintings of other people, some artists also used mirrors to paint self-portraits, or pictures of themselves. Landscapes, buildings, clothing, and objects were included not just for decoration, but as clues for the viewer to learn more about the person in the painting. Artists also used self-portraits as an advertisement to demonstrate what they like to paint as well as their process.

In the 17th century many Dutch and Flemish women were writers, musicians, and scientists, while others became professional artists. Take a look at this Self-Portrait of the Artist in Her Studio by Maria Schalcken. Sometimes artists choose to paint themselves in the moment before starting a painting or when they are halfway through. This one shows the completed painting. The way she is holding her palette, brushes, and maulstick—her artist tools—directs the viewer’s eyes to the finished work. What else can you discover?

This painting was once attributed to her brother and teacher, Godfried. However, conservation treatments in 1998 revealed her signature in the upper left corner, making it clear that it is a self-portrait. This is one of only two known paintings by the artist.

This art activity was inspired by the opening of the Center for Netherlandish Art and the New Galleries of Dutch and Flemish Art.

Photos and instructions courtesy of Gabrielle Eisenberg.


completed pencil-drawn self-portrait in sketchbook

You will need:

  • graphite drawing pencils in variety of hardness grades (see “About the Materials” below)
  • a kneaded eraser
  • a sketchbook or drawing paper
  • mirror
  • a pencil sharpener
  • a pencil case (optional)
  • Portrait Drawing Guide (PDF)

About the Materials

demonstration of different lightness of pencil marks as a result of pencil hardness

Graphite drawing pencils can be found in varying grades of hardness. The pencils in the picture above are 2H and 6B. “H” pencils have harder lead and make lighter marks, and “B” pencils have softer lead and make darker marks. H pencils are excellent for sketching and B pencils are great for creating darker values in your drawing.

eraser in an unkneaded state on left; eraser kneaded into ball on right

This grey rubber eraser can be kneaded to form different shapes. It works by absorbing lead particles on your paper. First, unwrap your eraser. Then, try smooshing, squishing, and stretching it to make it softer.

using eraser kneaded into sharp point to draw lines within pencil-shaded areas

Once the eraser is softer, you can make it as wide or narrow as you like. The eraser in the picture above has been shaped into a point and used to “draw” into the shaded area!


Step 1

open sketchbook with oval shape drawn on page; pencil nearby
To start your self-portrait, use one of your H pencils to draw an oval with the rough width and height of your face. I am using a 2H pencil for my drawing. Don’t worry about getting the shape perfect—the outline can be adjusted later!

Step 2

vertical and horizontal lines drawn on oval face shape in sketchbook
Let’s add some facial features! It is often helpful to map out where facial features are typically positioned in relation to one another. Download the Portrait Drawing Guide (PDF) and follow along using the steps below. Start by drawing straight lines down and across the middle of your oval outline.

Step 3

eyes drawn on initial sketch of face
Draw your eyes on the horizontal line going across the middle of your face. You will only draw two, but there should be room for five imaginary eyes along the width of this line. Look at yourself in the mirror and start drawing the shapes you see. You can always change and adjust it later!

Step 4

nose and mouth drawn on sketch of face
Draw some more straight lines following the Self-Portrait Drawing Guide. The bottom of your nose should rest between the eyes and the chin, and your mouth should rest above the midpoint of your nose and chin.

Step 5

Refinements to the mouth in the sketch of face; shading on cheeks added
Think about what expression you’d like to have in your self-portrait! I decided to draw myself with a smile because I am typically quite cheerful. Make the expression in the mirror, and draw your lips.

Step 6

shape of hair added above the face in the sketch
Take a look in the mirror. Are your eyes, nose, and mouth where you’d like them? Once you are happy with the placement of your facial features, you can start working on refining the shape of your face. Remember, you can continue to adjust anything you want as you’re drawing. At this step, you can also start adding the shape of your hair.

Step 7

waves of hair added to sketch of face
Now it’s time to add shading! Still using one of your H pencils, draw where you see any shadow, dark or light. Be sure to leave any illuminated areas of your face untouched!

Step 8

using eraser to lighten shading on facial features
Pro tip: If you’ve made any shadow on your face too dark, you can lighten it by dabbing it with the kneaded eraser. You can also lighten any illuminated areas of your face.

Step 9

much more shading added to flesh out facial features on sketch of face
Start using one of your B pencils when you are done finding the outlines of shadows. I am using a 6B pencil for my drawing. Look at the darkest areas of your face and deepen the shadows with the B pencil. Go slowly at first—you may be surprised by how much darker it is!

Step 10

finished self-portrait drawn in sketchbook
You may consider your portrait “finished” whenever you like. Feel free to write the date and sign your art. Congratulations on your self-portrait! I hope you enjoy drawing in the rest of the sketchbook!

About the Artist

Gabrielle Eisenberg is an educator and artist living in Boston. Originally from central Massachusetts, she received her BFA in painting from Boston University and currently enjoys making pen and ink creations. Gaby has a demonstrable commitment to arts accessibility and community arts. Her professional experience includes an internship with the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, teaching an after school art class at the East Boston Early Education Center through ARCK, and working as a Summer Arts Instructor at the United South End Settlements in Boston. At the MFA Gabrielle is the Community Arts Liaison with the Vine Street Community Center.


These art kits are made possible by the Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The founders of the Center for Netherlandish Art are Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie.