For several weeks I’ve been devoting a lot of my studio time toward portraits — mostly in watercolor. I’ve had mixed results. Some have turned out reasonably well; others… well, you haven’t seen those others because they’ve gone straight into my art trash bin. Actually, I rarely ever throw any art work away, but I do have a “no-good” bin where all the uglies go. Trust me, some of my portrait attempts are well-qualified for that description.
Some days are discouraging. Those are the days when the faces I draw or paint get consigned to that art trash bin, usually accompanied by thoughts that I’ll just never be very good at portrait drawing. But then Andrew Loomis imaginatively taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that it’s all right to fail today. Most likely I’ll do better tomorrow. And, fortunately, as often as not, a disappointing day is followed by a more encouraging one, a day on which I can see progress being made.
Weeks of persistent practice are bound to bring some improvement to any skill we’re working to develop. Portrait drawing is challenging, but I enjoy it. Even when my results are disappointing, I still like the act of sitting down with my pencils or charcoals, a large drawing pad before me, making marks that somehow — hopefully — come to resemble a human face.
Lately I’ve started working more with charcoal than graphite, and while it’s messy, it’s a good medium for learning. Drawing the face involves seeing shapes, looking at angles and planes. You know, all those things I’ve never been good at. But these angles and planes and different shapes can best be defined through light and shadow, and charcoal is excellent for that!
I’m learning, too, to use measuring in portrait drawing. This is an area where my intellectual knowledge has far exceeded my hands-on ability. I learned long ago how to “sight” with a pencil, how to make comparisons, and how to place correct angles while drawing. Did that knowledge do me any good? Not really. It was beneficial to have the knowledge in my head, but, either (a) I neglected to use it, or (b) I tried to use it but couldn’t get it quite right. For me, it’s one of those tricky techniques that sounds easy enough but isn’t so easy when I try to apply it.
But, I am persisting, taking more time now to use the principles I’ve learned, and it is getting easier. My portrait drawing is improving.
I was especially pleased by this portrait I recently completed in a Raw Umber Studios drawing session:
This portrait was done in about 20 minutes, although this was in a 30-minute session. Here’s what I find happening:
- With 10-minute poses, I feel rushed and I rarely get any of the proportions or facial features correct.
- With 20-minute poses, I’m more relaxed, and I’m usually able to come away with a head and face that appears quite human.
- With 30-minute poses, I don’t know quite what to do. I get down the basic structure of the head and the facial features in the first 20 minutes, but don’t really know how to proceed from there with “refining” the drawing.
I’ll also be the first to admit to definite weaknesses and short-comings I see in the portraits I’ve been doing:
- I’m not really capturing a likeness of the model.
- I’m not good at getting the precise angle of the head.
- I’m not getting any facial expressions.
Here, as an example, is an actual photograph of “Beckie”, the model for this session.
Her head is tilted upward. In my portrait, she’s looking straight ahead.
My portrait doesn’t really resemble Beckie in any particular.
But I still like my portrait.
I like it because it looks human. It’s not Beckie, but it could be someone. Does that make any sense? I like the portrait I drew because I see improvement in how I’ve used light and shadow.
Now, I’ll work more on getting all the angles of the head, practicing more on making accurate and careful measurements, and I’ll keep reading, learning, studying, and drawing.
Earlier today I read that it takes at least a thousand hours before an art student should expect his or her work to be good, and ten thousand hours to become proficient. Looks like I’ve got a long, long way to go!