A long portrait study is a good way to develop accuracy and general drawing skills, giving you time to notice details and explore more subtle ideas. When starting out with portraiture, it can sometimes seem hard to find visual information, and after a certain length of time, like there is nothing that can be added. In this step by step demonstration, I will cover the visual information that can be included in a longer drawing. It is one of many approaches – but fundamental drawing ideas travel across different processes and materials. This article is part of a series and carries on from last week, which you might want to read first here.
When starting, you might want to draw some thumbnails to prepare, especially if you are using expensive materials. Ask yourself about how this drawing will look with the negative shapes around the head, and how it will change with different placements. Start with light lines to place the face. I tend to use a fairly hard HB pencil to do this stage. Don't worry about details but focus on the overall shape of the head, and the portrait as a whole.
(Here I have opted to place the face quite far up on the page to get the triangle shape formed by the costume. This also creates uneven negative shapes either side of the head. Whilst broad visual shapes lay out the portrait, I am mindful of the roundness of the head – it is important for this tilted view)
There is a lot of drawing in this stage, but try to avoid too much detail work, and move around the whole of the portrait – this will help you keep the proportions consistent. The lines are still drawn lightly at this point. As the basic shapes are refined, we start to connect the vague construction of the head to more definite ideas about likeness. Be mindful of angles and shapes; for example, to help capture the eyes, use the negative shapes created by the whites of the eyes. I can work from there using the shapes of the eyelids, or the shape between the eyelids and the eyebrows.
(Hans Holbein – 'John Poyntz' The negative shapes created by the far side of the face with the nose have been carefully observed in this portrait)
The outline of the face can also be tricky, as it holds a lot of information about likeness as well – we are surprisingly sensitive to it. Check the angles – for instance, by holding up your pencil at a horizontal or vertical angle to compare – and look for relationships between the contour and the features.
(Still working light so I can correct any mistakes easily, I have blocked in all the major shapes of the face, costume and hair. Take your time with this stage, and the rest of the drawing will be easier)
The first step of adding tone is to decide on what counts as a 'shadow', as there is likely a wide tonal range in your image. It is important to make a decision to ensure a clear visual layout.
(Georges Seurat – 'Self Portrait' Whilst the shadows are simple, the shapes still read as a face with a likeness)
It is a good idea to work from large ideas to small when drawing, and laying in tone is no exception. Avoid fragmented shadows. Instead, look for ways to merge as many areas of shadow together as you can into unified shapes. Try to be bold! One technique for spotting big shadow shapes and looking past details is to blur your vision by squinting. Don't push too dark at this stage. This allows some wriggle room to erase mistakes, and gives you tonal space to go darker. Your darkest tones should be saved for later stages, in the few places where it really seems to be black.
(In this stage I have laid in a base layer of tone with a 2B pencil. The marks follow a single direction to form a flat base)
This is our first step to refining the details as the darker tones are introduced. Look for clear shapes within shadow areas. It is important to ensure that your darker tones lie within shadow areas and not the light areas, otherwise the tonal balance of the image will seem 'off'. Even though we are working towards details, it is a good idea to work down from big to small. Work around the portrait as a whole with each stage, instead of focusing in on one eye before seeing to anything else.
(Here I have looked around the entire portrait for the darker areas, and lightly blocked them in using a 6B pencils)
This step is takes a little longer, involving going around the whole portrait to tighten up details and adjust edges. Edges are an important idea to drawing. Whenever we get a couple of neighbouring areas of tone, there is an edge between them. This edge can be hard, firm, soft, or lost.
Try using a variety of edges in your drawing - particularly try to introduce more softer edges. Hard edges are less common in organic subjects like human faces. Reserve the few you use for high contrast areas that create a focal point. Often, the eyes become the focus. If you have two eyes visible, it is a good idea to pick a visually dominant one - this is often the nearest, or most well lit. Try to limit the detail and contrast on the secondary eye so the dominant one stands out.
(I work outwards from the face, as that is focal point, and adjust the edges of the tonal areas, mostly softening them with a mixture of different pencils. Avoid pressing hard in the dark areas, as this damages the paper and makes the graphite shine. Instead, keep layering, and work with softer pencils.)
(John Singer Sargent – 'Ethel Barrymore' Look at how little shading is in the lit areas. This is also a good example of soft and lost edges in the hair contrasting harder edges around the face)
As we work, we are constantly adding more tone, and making everything darker. The tones in your lit areas need to stay bright in order to appear well-lit. One way to do this is to 'compress' the halftones in these areas to a narrower tonal range. Halftones are the tones in a lit area that are not part of a highlight. It is easy to get carried away and make them too dark, which may confuse them with shadows. Any part of a lit area of an object should be brighter than the shadows.
Most of the effort in this stage involved adding detail to the focal area of the face, but it can help to soften other areas to ensure that the emphasis is kept there. Sometimes it can help to introduce sharper or firmer edges in more focal areas too.
(In this stage I have added a lot of the last few final details, such as some extra fabric textures that have needed filling in. The shadows around the face have been deepened with an extra layer of tone)
A long drawing takes patience, but is good for developing your skills. Try to stick with it, even if it has an ugly phase. In general, if the overall drawing has reasonably accurate proportions, shapes, and tones, or any mistakes you find can be fixed, it is probably worth continuing. Whilst a live sitter is ideal, we often use photos, as it can be quite difficult to find someone prepared to sit for that long - next week's blog post will focus on drawing from photographs. Try not to be a slave to your photo reference; it doesn't need to be a perfect copy.
This is the twelfth of our weekly 'Drawing From Home' blog posts, commissioned during lockdown to help you draw more at home. Please do share your drawings with us, as we would love to see what everyone is up! Just tag us with @Draw_Brighton on social media or use the #DrawingFromHome #DrawBrighton hastags. These articles are written by Lancelot Richardson, commissioned using money raised by the Draw Patreon.