Lon Chaney, born in 1883, was known as “the man of a thousand faces”. A star in vaudeville, he went on to become one of the best-known actors of the “horror” genre. In 1957, James Cagney played him in a biographical film titled, appropriately, The Man of a Thousand Faces.
Except for a brief time during my early teen years when “scary movies” were popular among my friends, I was never much for horror films.
I’m not sure whether I’ve even seen Lon Chaney perform on screen, but all the same, he’s been on my mind quite a lot lately.
I’ve been doing figure drawing, you know. While there’s generally a huge distinction between figure drawing and portrait drawing, the simple fact remains that bodies are attached to heads, and heads have faces.
I’ve done several portraits over the last year, and I’ve reached a point where I can draw a face that’s recognizable. That’s not the problem. The problem starts when I start trying to put faces on heads that are attached to bodies.
It’s a size thing, I suppose. Give me a full 9 x 12 sheet of paper, and I have room to get in all the features that make up the human face. Ask me to put an entire body on that sheet, however, and any face I try to draw…well, I can’t even come up with the right word to describe them. Talk about horrors!
The problems get even worse when I’m drawing a side view. I simply can’t do a face in profile that even faintly resembles a human.
The figure-drawing lessons I’ve been following at Learn to Draw include an exercise for drawing a young man walking. I started with a smile on my face. I could handle that, I was sure. My quick sketch turned out fairly good…well, ignore the feet, that’s another story. But then I came to the head. I got the shape about right, but oh, the face I drew was awful! So awful I couldn’t bear to look at it.
So, I erased and tried again. My second attempt was worse. Again. And again. I erased the poor guy’s face so many times I worried I’d wear holes in the paper.
A few times I erased the entire head thinking maybe that was the problem. Once I got a half-way decent face on the guy only to realize the head was far too big for the body.
More erasing. More frustration.
I nearly set the sketch aside. After all, it’s only a practice sketch, just a quick drawing made as part of an exercise. I’m just learning, so maybe I should give myself a break. I’d already agreed with myself not to worry about those feet, or the hands, either.
Why not just forget about the face?
It became a matter of principle, I guess. I was determined to get some sort of face on this figure. I didn’t actually count how many times I tried, and in reality, I’m sure it was nowhere near a thousand, but it sure felt like it.
Persistence, of course, will always pay off. Eventually I gave this young man a face that only a mother — or an aspiring artist like me — could love. Well, no. Actually I don’t love this face, but after struggling with it for so long, I recognized that this was the best I could do.
I’ll get better.
Those words — I’ll get better — are becoming my new art mantra. I’ll keep practicing, I’ll keep learning, I’ll keep trying new things. And yes, I will get better.