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Creating a Portrait with Copic Markers

Posted On: 11/05/14

Copic artist and art teacher Alex Bodnar walks us through his step-by-step process for rendering a tonal female portrait from start to finish.

Within this demo, I refer to my process as “marker painting” since they do release a liquid with tonal properties that, in their nature, happen to dry quickly. This appeals to my sensibilities, because many times I do not have the patience to wait for traditional paint to dry.

Copic markers are wonderful because you can complete a painting on-the-go with no major set-up and clean-up.

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers


  • Copic Marker Warm Gray set ranging from 0 to 100

  • Canson Marker Pro Layout Pad 14” x 17” (only an area of 8” x 7” was used for this demo)

  • DecoColor Extra Fine Opaque White

  • Uni-ball Signo White Gel Pen

  • Colored Pencils Warm Gray Set

  • Col-Erase Blue Pencil 20044


Step 1: A Solid Under-Drawing

 Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Before you begin a marker painting, it is imperative that you have a solid drawing to work from. No tool, color, or “shading” can help a weak drawing. I can not stress this enough. Place all of your efforts on your initial drawing and the rest becomes dessert.

If you do not, you’ll struggle with the drawing as you paint. Each stage should build on itself with very little structural change.

TIP 1: You can check your drawing by: 1) drawing it upside-down from time to time, 2) looking at it from a distance 3) taking an hour (or more) break, 4) looking at it in the mirror, 5) seeing it on-line. I have found #4 and #5 to be the best for me. For whatever reason, I can see all of my mistakes objectively on-screen.

I do my structural under drawings with a Col-Erase pencil. There are many different colors to choose from, but I prefer using the blue because I like the subtle contrast it creates with the warm grey markers.

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Make certain that your under drawing is very light. If your drawing is too dark you’ll run into problems while blending your light values. I’ve purposely enhanced my drawing above using a Photoshop filter just so you could see my base.

TIP 2: If need be, use a light box to trace from your original drawing and create a simplified, clear, and light drawing. In fact, I recommend NOT painting directly onto an original drawing. In case you mess up, you can always retrace from an original which can save you much time and frustration.

TIP 3: The Asaro Head that I showed in an earlier image is a useful tool that helps in visualizing the planes of the head. You can also observe the way shadow shapes are grouped. Andrew Loomis‘ book entitled Drawing The Head & Hands is also a great resource that details such topics.

Step 2: The Initial Marker Lay-In 

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Even though I’ve done quite a few marker portraits, I still suffer from the fear of “messing up a drawing.” To alleviate this, I initially began with a W0 Warm Gray marker and I covered my surface avoiding the rim light on the left.

Step 3: Warm Gray #2 Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Next, I used a W2 Warm Gray marker and began blocking in all of my shadow shapes within the hair and face (above). I made certain to group these shadow shapes to create unity within the face. I have a W0 on hand to blend my values together.

If you allow the painted area to dry and reapply the same marker, then it will subtly darken.

I used this to my advantage and created slightly darker areas within the portrait. (See Below) Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Step 4: Warm Gray #3

I used a W3 Warm Gray marker and applied a darker value to the core shadow, cast shadows, hair, and any other area that was extremely dark. Notice how the hair value on the right fades into the cheek and jawline. This is what I meant by grouping my shadow shapes.

I also treated the light on the right side of the face like a waterfall that cascades from the forehead, onto the eyelid, cheekbone, tooth cylinder, and chin. (See Below)

This build-up looks almost triangular going from a large area (forehead) to the smallest area (chin). I had my  W0 and W2 markers uncapped and in-hand to assist in blending values (always towards the light).

Pay attention to your reference source to assist you in determining the soft edges (like the cheek and forehead mass) from the hard edges (cast shadows, plane changes, and material changes).

TIP 4: It’s a good idea to use a permanent marker to annotate the value number of each marker on every side of each marker and cap. This prevents any accidental value applications in the wrong areas as you quickly apply blends between values.

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

After I applied the W3 Warm Gray the painting felt solid at this point. This was a perfect time to do a mirror check and an on-line check to see whether or not something was off in my drawing.

This may sound harsh but if your marker painting looks really off at this point, I would recommend starting over immediately. I’ve done this in the past when my marker painting of Marilyn Monroe began looking like Scarlett Johansson. Without giving myself time to mourn, I simply crumbled my paper, retraced my drawing, and started over immediately.

Step 5: Warm Gray #6

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

After the marker work dried, I found my initial drawing difficult to spot. I immediately jumped into the darker values, specifically W6 Warm Gray. Just as before, I used the lighter values to assist me in blending my edges together.

In the case of the image above, I used a W3. Be aware that as you apply more and more layers of marker, especially the darker values, the pigment will begin to stick. You can see this beginning to happen within the neck area below.

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Step 6: Warm Gray #8

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

At this stage, I used a W8 Warm Gray Marker on the hair and shirt popping out all of my darkest darks. When the pigment began to stick I simply used my finger to smudge this down to prevent texture. I used a W5 as a blender within the larger dark masses.

The background was treated with a W4 so as to ground the subject into a space. The W4 marker began picking up the pigment from the hair value (W8) and created a happy accident of streaks. I tend to like these kinds of accidents because they create a bit of variety within a piece.

Step 7: Accents and Highlights

 Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

If the under drawing is the main course and the Copic marker painting is the dessert, then the color pencils and DecoColor paint marker portions are definitely the candy. I tell myself that there’s no way I can mess up a painting until I start applying my blacks and whites (DecoColor Paint Marker).

Since there is no value darker than black, I tend to save these for areas where I want my viewers to look. As polished as a piece can look, using a spectrum of W8 to W0 Warm Gray markers, the human eye can detect subtle value changes.

The eye is also drawn to areas of the highest contrast. For this reason I’ll typically put black and white together in the eye area, lips, and jewelry.

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

Final portrait

Coloring a portrait with Copic markers

I will be publishing a book filled with marker paintings, figure quick sketches, and watercolor paintings mid-2013. The book will also include brief demos and a video tutorial! To get updates follow my blog! Some of my marker paintings are also for sale. Please inquire via email:

Alex also does small monochromatic portrait commissions (no larger than 6” x 9” and unframed) in either pencil or Copic Marker. Feel free to contact Alex via email ( if you are interested. We hope this demo was helpful!

Find Alex on the web

Tags: Alex Bodnar, Artists, Fine Art, How To, Illustration, Inspire, Guest tutorial, Portrait, Technique