Q&A: Portraiture- Drawing Faces with Some Accuracy

Q&A: Drawing Faces | VanillaArts.com

Charlene has a question:

I attempted a self portrait that looks like someone else. I know what part of my problem was: I was seated and looking in a mirror on an angle (downward). Unless I am delusional, I don't really have those jowls.
When I took watercolor classes years ago, we worked from photos and drew grids on them and on our paper. Would that be your recommendation? I would like to be able to draw likenesses of my family that aren't necessarily fine art, but close enough that another person would recognize them. Not caricatures where some features are so highly exaggerated, but somewhat quickly (eventually quickly?) done sketches that would tell a story of what we were doing at an event. I think I wanted to be a comic strip illustrator/writer in another life.

Here are my thoughts:

That's a whopper of a question!

I know many of our readers here do not draw- but faces are something unavoidable in the stamp/card making world. Behind each stamp is an artist and we can color their images better if we understand the process and why some face stamps are far more successful than others.

Portraiture is challenging because you face not one but two hurdles:
1. Physically capturing a personality on paper is one of the toughest things for an artist to accomplish. 
2. Added mental pressure that the artist puts upon themselves in an effort to not only make the portrait accurate but also attractive

Honesty Time-

You were working on a self-portrait which adds another layer of complication to the portraiture challenge-

Dear Lord, please tell me I don't really look like that...

Thoughts on Portraiture | VanillaArts.com

Let's face it, we're not all perfect physical specimens. We associate beauty with facial symmetry and only a small percentage of the population lives up to that standard. Plus we sag with age, we gain weight, we loose weight and become pale or gaunt. A great percentage of portraiture art is subtly fixing flaws. Even on children, I thin the under-jaw zone and remove dark circles and eye bags- those are things we associate with age but even children have them. I've fixed more facial flaws than any plastic surgeon!

So the sucky answer is yes, you do have jowls. We all have jowls. But they're not obvious to the people you see in everyday life because we see you in motion- we see you talking, laughing, smiling and your face is constantly in flux. Motion obscures flaws like jowls, wonky eyes, or one eyebrow higher than the other. It's only when you freeze frame yourself in an awkward position that the jowls become obvious and obnoxious. 

Try this test the next time a beautiful actress comes on your television screen- hit pause. Does she still look beautiful with her mouth frozen mid-word and her left eye squinching on it's way to a smile? Hit play and then hit pause again, I'll bet the new pose is even worse. You can't freeze frame anyone into beauty.

Pose and lighting play a gigantic factor in portraiture. Pose someone correctly and they're beautiful, catch them from the wrong angle and they become instant FBI's Most Wanted poster material. The good news is that there are lots of photography resources that you can consult for slimming and attractive poses. That info works for illustrated portraits too.

N.Rockwell's Triple Self Portrait | Drawing Faces at VanillaArts.com

the self-pose problem-

You were drawing yourself from life rather than a photo reference. As tricky as it is to pose someone else attractively, it's even harder to pose yourself and still be able to draw. Adding to the problem is that you pose & look, then move & draw. I'll bet you never got yourself back into the same exact pose more than a few times.

One of the reasons why I love Norman Rockwell's Triple Self Portrait is because he demonstrates the problem precisely. Reality is what's shown in the mirror- it's unposed, awkward, and unflattering.

Do your homework-

I want you to look really closely at the painting inside the painting. Rockwell is giving us a clue to his self-portrait process. In his upper right canvas, he has bits of inspiration but the juicy clue is what he has in the left corner. He has several portrait studies tacked there. This is the pre-work that good portrait artists always do. It's the homework or the practice before the final attempt. Frankly, I think Mr. Rockwell was an absolute genius and it gives me great comfort to know that he didn't sit down and simply watch the greatness ooze from his fingertips. He had to do his homework and do lots of preparatory drawings- even for something as familiar as the face he saw every time he brushed his teeth.

So don't expect your first self portrait to look much like yourself or to capture much of your spirit. Portraiture is never one-and-done. Mr. Rockwell has 5 studies plus the mirror portrait that all lead up to what he's finalizing on the large canvas.

The problem with grids-

Yes, you can use a grid system. I know they're a staple in many art classes.

Grid Done Wrong- Drawing Faces | VanillaArts.com

But I'm not a fan of grids, especially for beginning drawing students. It's not because the grids are bad but because the vast majority of of art teachers don't teach their students how to make or to use them properly.

This is an example of a grid that will teach you nothing. It's set up wrong and chances are, you'll use it wrong too.

Even if you get the grid right, they're mentally problematic.

When you're caught up in a grid, you loose the feel for the whole face. We've all seen grid drawings where someone drew each square separately and a few squares don't quite match up with their neighbor.

Even if you correctly get rid of your grid after the initial drafting stage, chances are that you're still thinking about facial features in relation to the grid rather than how one eye relates to the other, how the eyes relate to the nose, and how a great big smile can warp every other feature on a face. Faces are about the relationship of a person's features, not mathematical grids and imaginary symmetry.

I'd much rather see you trying the thumb or pencil measure test to correct your proportions. Squint and measure, squint and measure. A fly-on-the-wall video of me drawing people would be hilarious for all the scrunched up faces I make in the measuring process.

Preliminary Study Work for portrature | VanillaArts.com

Gasp! she said the "T" word!

My next suggestion is going to cause some controversy but I'll tell you anyway.

Start tracing photographs.

Ack! Yes. I said trace. When you trace, you're learning proportions- proportions of faces in general and proportions of your subject specifically.

Tracing is drawing with training wheels on.

I almost always trace someone's face at least once before I move over to my larger drawing.  A preliminary trace helps me spot the unique characteristics of the subjects features, especially the eye openings. Once I spot trouble areas in a trace, I'm better prepared to deal with them in the final drawing.

Traced Facial Landmarks | VanillaArts.com

Here's exactly what I was tracing in the photograph above. I call this "landmarking" and it's what I use to see the slant of the head, the eye proportions, and make measurements without all the distractions of photographic details. My landmark trace measures the same as the primary photo reference about 2.5" from chin to scalp. The final painting will be 11x14".

On the computer, you can see a second photo reference. I'm actually tracing a live pic taken at a graduation ceremony (which is too blurry to be a stand-alone reference) but I'm studying a studio posed head shot with a very similar angle WHILE I trace. My small landmark trace is only one component of the final drawing.

While I no longer trace complete details anymore,  I really encourage my students to start with FULL sized, FULL feature tracing. It's not cheating, it's learning where the important stuff goes. I'm not suggesting that tracings should form the basis for all drawings for the rest of your life. I'm saying that tracings are an excellent learning tool which can keep you from developing inaccurate tendencies like drawing oversized eyes or undersizing the forehead or jawline.

Last bit of advice- the least glamorous part-

No one draws beautiful faces overnight. It takes years and years of development. You must practice until your fingers fall off and then maybe you'll draw something that is almost fridge-worthy.

Start a small journal, a Moleskine 5x8" is a good size. Something you can keep in your purse and pull out when you have a spare moment. If you're not comfortable drawing from life, stick a few folded up magazine faces into the journal and work on them.

The important thing is that your logging minutes with a pencil in hand. The more you draw faces, the better you'll see face proportions. The better you see, the better you'll draw.