The Portrait

Many individuals are fascinated by the multitude of faces that they see and are compelled to draw them. However, beginners often find it too difficult a subject for them to tackle based on their skill level. In this chapter, we will attempt to demystify portrait drawing by conveying some basic principles that will help the student draw more three-dimensional, solid, and sensitive portraits.

The Allure of the Portrait 192

The Portrait in Three Dimensions 194

Facial Features 206

Drawing a Tonal Portrait 214

Drawing Human Facial Features

Without a doubt, the human portrait is the most frequently drawn and painted subject throughout the history of art. We seem to be endlessly fascinated with our faces and the faces of others, based on the vast number of self-portraits and portraits that have been created. Obviously, there are many reasons for this. One of the more significant reasons is that the face provides visual artists with an enduring form with which to express aspects of the human condition. Being the social creatures that we are, we can experience another human being in a personal way when that conveys the inner world of another individual.

We are so tuned into the many subtle expressions that the human face can convey that the artist may feel certain that a successfully rendered portrait will communicate a particular mood or state of mind to whoever views the work. Viewing a well-executed portrait that conveys warmth and personality allows us to experience another individual in an up-close and personal way. It is truly remarkable, when you consider the endless number of faces that exist; we are similar in so many ways, but at the same time, each one of us is distinctly different. Faces are also fascinating to artists as assemblages of shape, color, and form. Because of the immense amount of variation from face to face, formulas, such as a set of measurements that apply to drawing all faces, will not be used here. Instead, you will learn ways of thinking about rendering the human head and ways of seeing more accurately, to help you achieve a higher level of realism and better likenesses in your portraits.

The drawing on the next page is an excellent example of how a successful portrait allows us to get close to another individual. The artist has created a very sensitive rendition of his mother, which is made all the more believable because of the degree of realism in the drawing. We can sense the presence of this woman who has been rendered three-dimensionally with a subtle light sifting over her form. Her carefully observed gesture and facial expression say so much about her, not only at the present moment but in the culmination of all the years that have led up to this moment.

How Draw Jacob

The Artist's Mother, by Jacob Collins, courtesy of the artist

The drawings in this section were chosen to illustrate this subject because they represent concise and beautiful examples of the principles that you will be exploring in this chapter. The first example is a copy in charcoal of a painting by the great seventeenth-century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez de Silva.

When drawing the human head using line or tone, it is essential to have a clear mental concept of the big forms of the head. It is much easier when you set out to draw a three-dimensional portrait to place the smaller forms—that is, the features of the face—on a well-rendered foundation. If you don't understand this form, then the results are often renderings of individual features that are disjointed and floating within the shape of the face. Even if the features are well drawn, the form of the head won't be convincing.

Once you establish a mental image of the large forms of the head and you consider the direction and intensity of the light source, you will more clearly understand the manner in which the light falls on the form of the face. In return, this will enable you to convey this concept of form and light in your work.

Find Shapes to Simplify

The portraits on the following pages have been reproduced large enough for you to be able to make copies of them. It is recommended that you construct your copies in the same way as shown here: Form simple rectangular boxes, progress to the main planes, and finally consider the light and shadow.

How Draw Side Portraits

Study after Diego Velazquez de Silva's Aesop, by Dean Fisher

When the form of the human head is broken down into its simplest terms, it most closely resembles a rectangular block. The front of the face represents one side of the block, and the sides of the head represent the other sides of the block (a). As it is rare for a person to hold his or her head completely vertically, there will inevitably be some tilt to the head in one direction or another. This tilt or gesture is an essential quality to capture, as much of the mood and personality is conveyed through body language. You can see in the diagram (b) how the three-dimensional rectangular block conforms to the gesture of the subject.

Also, to the surprise of many beginning artists, the most important aspect of achieving a likeness in a portrait is establishing the overall shape of the head accurately; in this case, it would be the proportion of the width to the height of the rectangular block. If this initial stage of the portrait isn't well established, you can never achieve a likeness, even if you draw the features perfectly. This is further discussed in the section "Drawing a Tonal Portrait," later in this chapter.

Having established the large form of the head as a rectangular block, you can anchor the features, the forehead, cheeks, and chin, into this framework. It is helpful to think in terms of breaking this topography down into facets or planes, as we did in Chapter 9. Once again, this is all for the sake of helping the artist understand why the light falls on the form in the way that it does, so that this may be clearly conveyed in the drawing being created.

Form Portrait Drawings


Here is an example of a head with a viewpoint from above. The light is squarely focused on the top of the head and forehead. A strong sculptural quality is created when the strongly lit, main frontal planes emerge from a dark background.

Deanfisher Com
Self Portrait, by Dean Fisher

Thinking in terms of a rectangular box in perspective with a high eye level is very useful when constructing a drawing such as this (a). The laws of one-point perspective come into play, with the sides of the face converging toward a vanishing point that is well below the chin.

In the second image, the main planes of the portrait have been mapped out (b). When looking at the large planes that are most parallel to the light source—in this case, it is overhead and to the right—it becomes clear why these areas are the most brightly lit.

Tilt Face Sketch

This example is a portrait with a strong tilt to the right, where the light source illuminates the face from above and in front. Notice that the clear demarcation between the front and side of the face clearly conveys the idea of a head as a box-like form.

A sense of three-dimensional realism has been achieved by drawing the pattern of light accurately on the head. Notice that this was created with simple large planes and virtually no detail.

Deanfisher Com
Self Portrait with Tilted Head, by Dean Fisher

As mentioned on the previous page, the tilted rectangular box is clearly indicated by the strong separation of light and shadow between the front and side of the head (a). It is almost superfluous to draw the diagram of the box with such forms that occur naturally.

With the planes of the portrait defined and the direction of the light source known, you can number the various planes according to their position relative to the light source (b). The planes most parallel to the light source and that receive the most light would be labeled 1. Those surfaces that are at an angle to the light source and receive less light would be 2, and the planes that are perpendicular to the light source would be 3. (This would be the shadow side of the form.)

How Draw Planes


This is a copy after Andrea del Sarto. It is drawn in charcoal. One of the overriding qualities that define this work is its universality. This drawing seems to be a portrait of "Man" rather than a specific man. This feeling of universality is achieved by subordinating the details of the features to the large form of the head. Thus, we are struck by the power and beauty of the form most of all.

Side Mans Head For Drawing
Copy after Andrea del Sarto's Head of an Apostle, by Dean Fisher

The del Sarto portrait fits neatly into the cube-like form (a). It is remarkable that with only two large shapes of shadow, in the eye socket and on the side of the head and neck, del Sarto has rendered a solid three-dimensional head. You can see how deeply the eyes are set underneath the brow bone by the darkness of the tone in the shadow.

It's interesting that the portrait with the planes mapped out (b) appears so much more detailed than the finished drawing. Of course, the planes are meant to indicate slight shifts in form within the face. This clearly illustrates how much information del Sarto conveyed through apparently simple means. With subtle changes in tone, the artist rendered the small structures of the face, while the higher-contrasted tones were used to "sculpt" the big form of the head.

How Draw Structure


This portrait, which is also a profile, achieves its sculptural illusion of form with more or less two tones—one that represents the light and one that represents the shadow. The strength of contrast of the tones clearly separates the front from the side of the face. The level of realism comes from the accuracy of these shapes rather than detail.

Joshua Nava

In many portrait drawings, a common occurrence that compromises the form of the work is overmodeling. Overmodeling occurs when you complicate the value of different tones in the shadow area, or in an area that is lit. You will not only lose the quality of the surface that you are rendering, but you will also lose the sense of three dimensions; consequently, the form of the head will appear flat. Very often, a student becomes fascinated with the range of tones within the shadow, or in the light, and overstates, or complicates them. This drawing shows that the shadow, even though treated very simply, as a large area of tone, can achieve the desired effect of rendering a major change in the form of the head. As usual, the goal is to separate the front plane from the side plane of the head (a).

After you become familiar with the large forms and planes of the head (b) and you have some experience accurately observing and drawing the shapes you see, you can start to omit visual information for the sake of aesthetics and still make your drawing believable.

Very often, if a work has too much information (or detail), it becomes overly literal and dull. A skillful artist knows that suggesting fewer aspects of a subject can allow the viewer to "fill in the details." Limiting the details often makes for a much more engaging work of art.

While it isn't necessary to know every bone and muscle in the human head and figure in order to draw it well, "the more you know about what's happening on the inside, the more you will see on the outside." This may seem to contradict thinking of the head as a simple block (as noted on the previous pages), but actually it's a progression of ideas. It is logical to work from the basic to the complex. You can "jump in" and begin drawing the human head based on the concepts that were previously discussed and gradually add pieces of information about anatomy to deepen your knowledge.

How Draw Basic Shapes With Shadows

It is a very good idea for the student who is serious about drawing portraits and the human figure (see Chapter 12) to purchase a book on artistic anatomy. You can use it to refer to while you're working with a model. You'll be amazed at how much anatomical information you'll internalize by doing this. Over time, you will also discover how much more sense the shapes and shadows that you observe in your subject make with some basic knowledge of anatomy.

How Draw Basic Shapes With Shadows

Now that you have an understanding of the "foundation" for building a human head, you can move on to giving it an identity. After all, a portrait should convey an ample amount of specific information about the subject.

The subjects of this section are two beautiful Degas portraits, which will be used to help explain some particular points when you observe and draw facial features. It is important to stress, however, that the principles being discussed about human facial features are not meant to be rules to draw all features but rather a guide to help you see more and better understand the particular features of the people that you will draw.

All of the copies in this book were copied by the authors. This is a practice that they urge you to follow because it is an excellent way to discover how a master artist resolved issues that you will be dealing with in your own art.

Note: It would not be practical in this book to show each facial feature drawn from every angle. However, you will find many different portraits in this chapter that you can study.

Degas Coloring Page

Copy after Edgar Degas' Head of a Man, by Dean Fisher

First Portrait


This image of an eye, which is the right eye from the portrait on the previous page, is a good example of an eye to study. It clearly demonstrates the form of the eye because the vantage point is shown from below.

The compound curvature of the eye is clearly visible from this angle—both horizontally and vertically. Even when an eye is rendered from a straight-on vantage point, it creates the illusion of the roundness of the eye. The eyelids can be thought of as bands of flesh that holds the eyeball in the eye socket. Because the eyelids follow the curvature of the eyeball, they have to be shaded accordingly. If you shade the eyelid with the same tone all the way across the lid, it appears flat and, in turn, flattens out the form of the entire eye. You will notice where the light source is coming from, based on where the highlight is placed on the eyeball and how all of the other shading of the eye corresponds to that highlight.

In this simplified drawing of the eye (without shading), the eyelids conform to the eyeball, and the eyeball is nestled in the eye socket (a).

This diagram (b) is designed to show the compound curvature of the eyeball and eyelids. Always keep this in mind when drawing an eye from any angle.

Hand Diagrams Eyelids

In this profile of the eye, notice how the upper lid and lashes protrude farther than the lower lid, effectively creating an awning to protect the eye. This is why when the head is lit from above, the upper lid receives more light than the lower lid and often creates a cast shadow on the eyeball. It is also clear, based on their different angles, how eyelids conform to the curvature of the eyeball.


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