Sketching PaperFaces portraits

PaperFaces was an iPad drawing project by time traveling designer and illustrator Michael Rose — that’s me! It began in August 2012, when I started drawing portraits on my iPad using the Paper by FiftyThree app and ended exactly two years later.

The lastest batch of PaperFaces drawings along with in process sketches for each can be found at /paperfaces.

Frequently asked questions

In order of most to least asked…

Will you draw me?

Unfortunately I am no longer taking volunteers for the project. If you’d like to commission me to illustrate your Twitter avatar, recreate a photograph in my PaperFaces™ style, draw your pet dinosaur, or whatever, follow the link below. I’m currently taking a break from drawing portraits as well.

What is PaperFaces?

PaperFaces is the name that I coined for the portraits I was drawing with the Paper by 53 iPad app. Most of the Paper creations share the #MadeWithPaper hashtag, so I thought PaperFaces would fit in with that theme and decided to start tagging each portrait with it.

One night, out of sheer boredom, I decided I’d try to recreate my wife’s Twitter avatar with Paper by 53. The positive response that resulted from that drawing prompted me to create one of my own avatar, which also went over well with my small group of Twitter and Instagram followers.

Due to the positive comments that I received, I decided to put a call out for more portrait volunteers. Without really considering the implications of my actions, I posted the following:

A few hours later, while grocery shopping with my wife, my iPhone started blowing up with retweet and @reply notifications. By the end of the day I had amassed around 300 volunteers and figured that turning it into a formal 365 day project might be fun.

When the count hit 700, I revised my initial goal of 365 to 730 (that’s two a day for a year), due to the increased demand and not wanting to let anyone down. At around the same time, I started getting inquiries about the project, and whether I was accepting donations. At the suggestion of friends and some newfound supporters, I published this page to better explain the project and added PayPal buttons on the site for those who wanted to motivate me to keep the project going.

Why the blank faces?

When I began the project I attempted to draw each face as detailed and accurately as possible. Even though I’m classically trained in illustration and the fine arts, photo realism isn’t really “my bag.” Part of what attracted me to Paper by 53 was its small tool set, lack of zoom, and focused color palettes. Trying to interpret each portrait using these constraints helped me to stumble across the whole “blank face” look and grow as an artist.

Faceless portrait of twin girls.

PaperFaces iPad portrait of my two twin girls.

After drawing over 600 portraits with Paper my skills have matured and I’ve begun drawing the entire face. It has been a fun personal challenge to capture as much detail in as little time possible.

What’s your process like?

It all starts with a list. If there are paying commissions in the queue, I work on those portraits first. With over 2,300 portrait requests, I need a way to accurately check who has retweeted my initial post. I use to view all my retweets and determine who is next, then grab their Twitter avatar and save it to my iPhone’s camera roll. It’s by no means a perfect system, and requests do fall through the cracks, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

Next, I fire up Paper on my iPad, draw a black square with the pen tool, and start roughing out the illustration with the pencil tool. What works well for me is resting an iPhone right on the iPad’s screen so I can reference the original photograph as I draw. This allows me to relax in my living room with the family, instead of sitting at a desk in a studio.

Upon the portrait’s completion, I share it from within the Paper by 53 app to Twitter and Tumblr, repost a cropped version to Instagram, and @reply the volunteer to notify them. If they donated or ask nicely, I send them a larger sized version in case they’d like to print it out. Using Evernote, I mark the drawing complete in my fancy PaperFaces notebook and move on to the next portrait.

And yes, I use a stylus. For the first 50 or so portraits I drew exclusively with a Just Mobile AP-818 Universal AluPen Stylus until the tip wore out. I moved on to a LunaTik Alloy Touch Pen Stylus/Ink Pen and am now using a Pogo Connect Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Pen with all that pressure sensitive goodness.

When are you going to stop?

At the moment, there is a waiting list of over 2,000. Now I know what you’re thinking, “this dude is never going to draw all those.” Well, you’re probably right. Though I am making progress and have drawn just shy of 886 finished illustrations.

Working my day job as a designer, then spending the rest of the evening with my wife and twin baby girls doesn’t leave much free time. Since this project is a fun diversion for myself, I allot a few hours each night to draw a portrait or two. On average most portraits take me 1–2 hours to complete. It really depends on the complexity of the original photograph and how much detail I’m trying to capture.

Each PaperFaces portrait is protected under a Creative Commons License. That means they’re free to use as avatars, share on social media, or print for personal use only.

Video tutorials

I use the term “tutorial” loosely. What you’ll find here are glorified slide shows highlighting various stages of PaperFaces drawings. To create these I take periodic screenshots on the iPad and then generate a slide show with them using Aperture for Mac OS X. It’s not quite the same thing as a true speed painting video, but it does show how I attacked each of these portraits. I’ve also documented my process in the written form, if reading is your thing.

View more of my Paper by FiftyThree video tutorials on YouTube or read how I use Paper.


I’ve been completely humbled by all the support and attention coming my way since I started this project. Drawing someone’s portrait and having them thank you by returning the favor is all kinds of amazing. I’m featuring those drawings here, along with any that follow the “PaperFaces style.” If you want your drawing(s) to be included leave a comment below (include your drawing in the comment) or tweet me.

PaperFaces portrait of @mmistakes drawn by @Pepfre

PaperFaces portrait of the twins drawn by @missshrestha on Instagram

PaperFaces portrait of @mmistakes drawn by @morgantj

PaperFaces portrait of @mmistakes drawn by @tortadecereja

PaperFaces homage drawn by @lindseyvail_art on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @lindseyvail_art on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @m0im0i on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @LovisasLife on Twitter

PaperFaces homage drawn by @ramesstudios on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @konstnaren on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @grumz on Instagram

PaperFaces homage drawn by @eichan68 on Instagram

PaperFaces homages

Just sharing the love with some links back to articles and galleries that have featured my PaperFaces artwork and story.

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  1. designrock ·

    Thanks for recommending the app. Love it.

  2. Kevin Bradberry ·

    iPad art fan, here. I love how you’ve mixed free time creativity, generosity, and income stream. Very cool. I think I’ll share this article on my blog.

  3. Michael Rose ·

    Thanks Kevin. Appreciate the kind words and potential share on your blog.

  4. Kevin Bradberry ·

    Posted it a few days ago. My blog is young, so take this with a grain of salt, but it became my second most popular post. The credit is all yours.