Sprouls Method — the Hedcut


all illustrations, Kevin Sprouls

All right, everyone, gather ’round! I’m going to show you all how I create those iconic portraits, in the style I introduced to the Wall Street Journal, still seen around the world today.

The required tools include:

a soft pencil (I actually use a lead-holder, like the old draftsmen used back in the day, HB grade lead.)

Ink for the technical fountain pens (you can use a dip pen like this, but I wouldn’t recommend it— hard to control, and messy!)

and you’ll need one of these (pictured is an eraser known as a “pink pearl”— I prefer the kneaded rubber type, which is superior.) A fine, high-quality paintbrush and some white designer’s gouache will take care of any “adjustments” which might be necessary.

Many of my clients send photos to work with that, I must say, can be challenging. The following illustrates one case of a recently produced portrait. Step one, The Client sends me the photograph. It looks like this:

Not great, but it has just enough detail to work with. Step two, get the image into photoshop, and convert to grey, size image to my liking, and crop.

Step three, I print out the greyscale image, and transfer the photo’s information onto illustration board by tracing on the photo. The resulting contour drawing is like a map for me to follow, as I “ink” the finished product.

Everything’s done by hand, one mark of the pen at a time. Once the portrait is inked, the pencil lines get erased, and I’m ready to “touch up” any visual issues with the paint brush. And the final result…

This is a large image, to show detail. Below, the portrait as it might be used on the web or in print.

    I hope you enjoyed my tutorial. I understand that the folks over at the WSJ use a slightly different process to get their hedcuts into the paper, but the hallmark style remains the same, Picturing Business.

19 thoughts on “Sprouls Method — the Hedcut

  1. Amazing, Kevin! And so generous of you to share your technique. You make it look easy, but I know it takes a great deal of talent, skill and patience.

  2. Fantabulous post Kevin! I shared it on Facebook. Love the top picture (I can’t imagine how long it took you to set up the background for that picture, nice touches).

  3. Great post Kevin. No possible way I could pull that off! Your immense talent makes this look simple…but I know it’s not!

    • Hi Heather! I normally spend about 6 hours of actual production time on a typical portrait.
      Doing the associated office chores, billing, and getting the art sent out is on top of this.

  4. Thanks, Kevin, for the informative post. Loved to see the evolution, too. I have been writing a javascript for an svg filter, but to little benefit, given the quantum improvement that handwork gives.

  5. Thank you for sharing your technique. I dream of my own hedcut portrait appearing in WSJ one day. Thanks for being an illustrator of my dreams!

  6. Pingback: What about those Wall Street Journal style portraits? — Flying Tigers Media

  7. Thank you very much for sharing your proprietary approach. Because of the skill and talent you have, it still remains unique and proprietary to you! My goal since my mid-20’s is to have my portrait in the WSJ during my career (naturally, I hope, for good reasons). Not interested in the Jeff Skilling or Bernie Madoff ones! Very distinct, original, unique and lasting. Great post!

  8. Hi. As an artist and Art Director I must say I’m delighted to discover that your portraits involve so much of the human eye and hand. Though I’d also be delighted to be able to purchase a program so I could do it myself–but it’s actually better that not everything which is so terrific can be easily duplicated. Do you accept commissions? I need a “portrait” for my new post at The Hudson Bay Company and would like to submit something “human”. Please advise w/ any particulars and fees
    if possible. Thank you. Great work! Russ Hardin

  9. Pingback: Wall Street Journal ‘Hedcuts’ | Bad Dog Letterpress

  10. Thank you for a nice tutorial. Reminded me of an art method from Jr. high School, only paint, not stippling. Awesome I am so looking forward to trying it. Thanks again for sharing! ]


  11. Any chance you eventually publish (with the WSJ’s blessing I assume) a book of these portraits? Each one is a unique work of art that should be shared.

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