Portraits: the ultimate challenge

Portraiture is an artform of endless possibilities. Drawing is very expressive, and faces are arguably the most expressive thing that we see. So it’s no wonder that portraits, in all their myriad forms, are one of the most captivating types of art.

But holy cow are they difficult! Drawing a face that looks halfway human is a challenge. Drawing a face that looks a bit like a particular person is an achievement. Drawing a face that bears a real likeness is a rare skill. And drawing a face that captures the mood and personality of the subject is just amazing. The portrait done by Emma Seargeant that was showcased in a recent Sunday Times article about life drawing is of the latter variety (in my opinion at least):

A stunning portrait by Emma Sergeant features in the Sunday Times. I love this style, so I've practised by copying this picture, hoping it'll teach me about how she uses tone to such powerful effect.
A stunning portrait by Emma Sergeant features in the Sunday Times. I love this style, so I’ve practised by copying this picture, hoping it’ll teach me about how she uses tone to such powerful effect.

Now, we don’t want to sound like a broken record here at lovelifedrawing.com, but as with life drawing in general there isn’t a ‘correct’ approach to drawing portraits – there is only the best way for you, which will likely be different to the approaches of other people. We’ll discuss some of the approaches others have found success with and ways for you to find the techniques that work for you.

The first point to make is that whatever approach you use, practice is going to be critical. Trying over and over again, making mistakes, learning, incrementally improving is going to be invaluable. Your brain will learn to let go of its preconceptions of the lines that make up a face, your hands will remember, your confidence will grow.

Portraits can be frustrating because if they aren’t right, they look so wrong. If you are drawing a car and it’s slightly off, it’s no big deal. If a person’s face looks slightly off, it looks … weird. It’s either another person entirely, or a mutant alien. So it’s natural that you may be unsatisfied with your drawings for a while. It’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily the case that you don’t have the talent or you don’t know the ‘secret techniques’ that others have, it’s just that you need more practice.

Unlike drawing the human body, which usually is best practised going to a life drawing class, it’s easy to find opportunities to practise portraits. You basically just need someone sitting still with their face visible – these can often be found in front of a television or computer screen. Book readers have the annoying tendancy to move their head while reading. Zombie-like movie watchers are perfect, so stick on Monsters Inc and get your sketchbook out. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to get someone to pose for the portrait, looking back at you.

Or of course, you can easily find photos of people and practise with those. Here’s an example of a practice drawing I did:

portrait practice
Practice is the key. This is a charcoal drawing of a photo that I got on my laptop – can you guess who it is? Answers in the comments below! (Note you may need to be a fan of American telly to recognise the person)

There are techniques you can use to dramatically improve your portraits. Some will work for you, and some you’ll find boring or useless. However, I would recommend you try all the techniques, even those you are doubtful of, because you might be surprised by how effective they are.

Where to start

Sketching out the shape of the skull, jaw, cheekbones and neck is a good starting point. You can then start to position features like the eyes, nose and mouth. It’s a good idea to keep your lines light, as they may not be perfect and you’ll want to go over them again (or if you’re me, again and again and again and again).

Thinking in simple geometric shapes

Andrew Loomis put out a book detailing his approach to drawing the human head and face, which I have found useful, even though I don’t employ all the techniques. I have taken some of the principles, and broadened my horizons a little by practising his methods.

Loomis thinks about the basic shapes that make up the head and face. This is a popular approach to drawing people. By constructing the features from their component shapes, many artists find they are able to correctly position the features, to make them 3D and give them a lifelike tone. It is certainly easier to understand the complexity of the human head and face when it’s broken down into simplified geometric shapes.

This approach has the added benefit of stopping our brains from their usual tricks and allows our eyes to do the work. Our brains interpret a face in a very different way to a rock or an inanimate object. This isn’t surprising since recognising faces and what they are telling us is so central to our daily lives, but we need to turn those automated processes off a little bit when drawing a portrait. For a portrait, we need to put down the lines we are actually seeing.

The eyes

We think an eye is an oval, so when drawing a person’s eye, we want to draw an oval. But in fact, the eye is a ball, and what we see of the eye is dictated by the skin of the eyelids. The shape of the eye is actually the shape of the eyelids on the surface of the eyeball. Knowing that the eye is a ball helps ensure you get the curvature correct. But more important than that, you need to know that the important part of what an eye should look like on the page is the skin sitting on top of that eyeball. Very often, that skin opening isn’t taking an oval shape at all. It can take all sorts of shapes that your brain would never have guessed.

The eyes are a central part of the face and it’s crucial to get them right. You might get away with getting the funny lines on the inside of someone’s ear wrong, but not their eyes.

Practising thinking about the eye as an eyeball with eyelids wrapped around part of it, dictating what we see
Practising thinking about the eye as an eyeball with eyelids wrapped around part of it, dictating what we see

To practise drawing eyes, it might be useful to look at some photos of people from different angles when they have different facial expressions, or pause a movie during a close-up. Try drawing the eyes exactly as you see them. Sometimes, it’s surprising to find that with the eyelashes, the eye is actually just a thick black line from certain angles, even when open, or both top and bottom are U shaped. Breaking down our preconceived ideas of what a face looks like this way is important.

A person’s eyes do move, even if they are posing for a photo. At a certain point, you should decide on a position for them and stick to it.

The shape of the head

Of Loomis’ methods, the idea of the idea of a head as a ball with the sides cut off and a jaw attached has been particularly useful. It also helps to guide where the eyelids and the ears should be.

Practising the Loomis approach to drawing the head
Practising the Loomis approach to the head

The ears

Now above it says you can get away with getting the details on the ears wrong – but you definitely can’t get the positioning wrong. And you can’t get the size and shape of the ears wrong either. In general, the top of the ears lines up with the eyebrows. This is a general rule that might help as a starting point when drawing, or just to see if you are way off with your positioning.

In the next instalment of our portrait series, we’ll look at noses, hair and mouth and alternative ways to ensure things are in the right position and in the right proportion so that you get a good likeness of the person. Please also take a look at our video of Mayko demonstrating portrait drawing here. We have a new podcast coming up about portraits with Simon Tolhurst too, so watch this space!

Was this post useful? How could I make it better? Do you have some tips or some questions of your own? Please let us know in the comments below!

To build a solid foundation of life drawing skills, have a look at our new online course Draw Life Beautifully: The Fundamentals of Life Drawing Every Student Should Know

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