Portraiture is a challenging field, both because everyone knows what a face looks like and will be able to tell when something about it is off, but also because our symbolic language is geared towards faces, even to the point of seeing faces in random patterns (a phenomenon known as pareidolia).
Because of the challenges in observing the proportions of a face and reproducing them to such a degree that the face is recognisable, and the struggle to overcome the intrinsic symbol language, combined with the immediate feedback in recognising when a face isn’t correct, realistic portraits are ideal subjects for practice.
Because of these challenges, students often feel that drawing portraits, particularly recognisable ones, is beyond their reach, but drawing a head requires no more skill than drawing anything else.
The problem with portraiture is the same problem with any drawing requiring “painstaking accuracy” – that we naturally enlarge things we feel are important and reduce things we feel aren’t. This occurs in the brain as part of its basic data processing, long before we try to put pencil to paper, and helps to winnow the useless from the vitally important. This isn’t great for drawing but, happily, it can be overcome with practice.
We tend to overcompensate particularly when faced with optical illusions. Edwards offers an exercise wherein the artist stands in front of a mirror at arm’s length, and observes their reflection. Although it appears to be live size, if they then make a mark on the mirror showing the positions of the top of the head and the chin and step aside, the marks will only be a few inches apart.
This reduction of less important detail leads to two major issues: placing the eye line too high on the face, and misplacing the ear in profile.
The eye issue occurs when the student shows themselves to disregard the height of the forehead and visible scalp.
From person to person, the position of the ear doesn’t vary by much, which makes it a key landmark when determining the width of the head in profile. The distance from the chin to the corner of the eye is the same as the distance from the back of the eye to the edge of the ear.
Visualising an equilateral triangle can help cement this relationship in the minds of the student.
When drawing portraits, remember the following points:
- Focus on complex edges and negative spaces until you feel the shift to the visual processing mindset
- Estimate the angles in relation to the vertical and horizontal
- Draw what you see, without labeling or identifying elements
- Draw what you see without resorting to symbolism and assumptions
- Estimate the relationships between sizes
- Observe and record proportions as they are, recognising the brain’s habit of changing things to suit it.
Questions to ask when drawing portraits:
- Where is the point the hairline meets the forehead?
- Where is the outermost curve of the tip of the nose?
- What is the angle of the forehead?
- What is the negative space between the hairline and the top of the nose?
- If you draw a line between the top of the nose and the chin, what is
the angle of that line relative to the vertical or horizontal?
- What is the negative shape created by that line?
- Where is the curve of the front of the neck, relative to the crosshairs?
- What is the relative space between the chin and the neck?
- Where is the edge of the ear in relation to the corner of the eye?
- Where does the head join the neck?
- What is the angle of the back of the neck?
Using negative spaces and relative measurements, anything – including a face – fits together like a jigsaw.
My copy of the workbook ends this section with a drawing of an American flag, or other striped object. The intent of this exercise is to highlight the importance of drawing what you can see, not what you expect to see, but I felt the point was somewhat lost on a non-American audience (owning a national flag is largely considered ‘a bit weird’ in the UK).
I substituted in a striped t-shirt, but I don’t feel like I had any preconceived notions of what it looked like and drawing it didn’t feel like it required much in the way of mental gymnastics. Short of buying a union flag specifically for this purpose, I’m not sure how I would fix the exercise.