The One Essential Key to Drawing Portraits

When I set out to learn how to draw portraits I took a very unusual approach. Instead of buying myself a sketchbook and a few pencils I bought and read, one-by-one, every good book I could find about how to draw portraits and I made endless notes, illustrated with endless sketches. I love being an artist but I tend to approach things from a scientific perspective. I wanted to know exactly what was happening in the mind of a portrait artist when they sat in front of someone and magically made them appear, with their personality intact, on a piece of paper.

More often than not even the artist making this magic happen isn’t aware of how they’re doing it. They started young, they’ve been doing it their whole lives and now it’s second nature to them. I wanted to take the most polished artists and ‘reverse-engineer’ them to find out exactly how they were seeing their subject, how they were processing that information, and technically how they were transferring the information onto paper so that the very soul and presence of the model seemed to settle into and around the picture.

Most of what has been written on the subject is vague at best, the result of someone who doesn’t know how they do it trying to explain how they do it, and much of the advice is endlessly repeated, but every now and then you come across a gem that increases your understanding and takes you a little closer to the high ground, from where you know you’ll be able to see the whole picture. The more I read the more obvious it became that everyone had their own approach, as you would expect, but there was a common thread, a recipe was beginning to charcoal drawing portrait. that perfectly combined all these separate ingredients.

I learnt about all sorts of different methods for measuring proportions and various techniques for rendering graphite but the single most important thing I learnt is that the secret of a great portrait is in the Big Picture. That’s the most succinct way I can think of expressing it but I’ll explain what I mean.

There are two aspects to a portrait; likeness to the model, and composition. The Big Picture is the secret to both. Let’s deal with likeness to the model. We’re all familiar with the school photograph, or any photograph of a large group of people where each face is no more than a few millimetres across. Despite the fact each face is so small we generally have no trouble at all recognizing faces we know. The whole shadow around the eye maybe no bigger than the head of a pin, we can see no detail whatsoever, and yet we can be totally confident of who the photograph is of.

The print quality may even be such that each of the facial features is described by only two or three dots or pixels and yet we know exactly who we’re looking at. Not only do we know who the picture is of but we can be pretty sure they were actually there when the picture was taken, we can sense their presence, we know it’s not some coincidence of shadows that happens to look like them – they’re there! This makes it extremely clear that to draw a perfect likeness of someone, even to convey their character, requires absolutely no detail at all. There is a beautiful and captivating drawing in Conte crayon by Georges Seurat of his mother. There is only black and shades of grey.

There are no lines, no edges, no definition of any sort, and yet his mother is so much there you feel you could reach out and touch her. A likeness is achieved and the presence of the model is conveyed not with the detail but with the shape of the whole form and the shape of the largest shadows. If (big ‘if’, HUGE ‘IF’) the overall shape is right and the shape of the larger shadows are right and correctly placed you have caught the essence of the person. Once you have done this you really should do as little else as possible because any detail you add runs the risk of distracting the eye from the overall impression. If the overall impression is right the eye and the mind of the viewer will fill in the details much more convincingly than any artist ever could.

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