Here are some of my top tips for drawing portraits and improving your drawing technique
This is an excellent exercise to change the way you think about drawing. It’s not just a lesson in how to improve your accuracy when drawing portraits from photos – it’s also an exercise which will re-frame your ideas about drawing in general and teach you a basic principle that can help your drawing dramatically when drawing from life.
Sometimes I get truly stuck when drawing a portrait from a photo. I can see that something isn’t quite right about the likeness – but what is it? I can’t tell which shape or line it is that isn’t accurate and that is throwing the whole thing off.
When I find myself in this situation, what I do is to turn my reference photo and my drawing upside down. Suddenly, I can no longer recognise the features of a face, and at once I can see the differences between my drawing and the photograph much more clearly. When the photo is the wrong way up, I am unable to clearly identify what it is I am looking at or to name them (‘an eye’, ‘a nose’, etc) and this is precisely the benefit of this method. As I cast my eye over the upside down photo I can now only see abstract shapes in different colours. We all have an idea in our heads as to what the features of the face look like and these are ideas we have probably had since childhood and school. They are not based in very much reality and certainly very little in true observation. But when we draw we allow these impressions to intrude and we are likely to draw what we think we see, and not what we actually see.
Let’s take a mouth, for example. We already think we know what lips look like – that they are two shapes bordered by lines that define them. However this is rarely how lips actual appear! When you really look closely you will discover that lips are not bordered by a sharp hard line, but an area of intermediate tissue – not as thin and dark as the lips but softer and darker than the rest of the face where the lip tissue sort of feathers out. You’re not likely to grasp this until you forget that you are drawing a mouth, and look closely as the lines, shapes and tones instead to see what’s actually there.
LOOKING AT ‘NEGATIVE SPACE’
With your reference upside down and unable to make any assumptions about what you are seeing, you will now be able to see where the shapes and forms you’ve observed aren’t really right, and will notice where you have made the shading too dark or not dark enough. Turning my reference photo upside down also really seems to help me to look abstractly at the ‘negative’ space – i.e, the space around the person (coloured here in red) and to see if the way I’ve drawn the shape of the head is accurate.
MEASURING AS YOU DRAW
Looking at the features of the face upside down and seeing them as abstract shapes, I am able to assess their relationship to each other more easily. People tend to assume that an artist’s ‘hand to eye co-ordination’ is just something they are born with, but in fact when professional artists are drawing they are constantly ‘measuring’ in their head; assessing the size of shapes in relation to each other, and gauging how far one shape or line may be from another.
WHY IT WORKS
When we draw from observation, we all too often draw not by really looking but from ‘memory’. Instead of really observing, we are allowing the part of our brain that thinks it already knows what a mouth looks like to jump in, causing us to put in lines that aren’t really there or that are too simplistic. Drawing the wrong way up absolutely disrupts our ideas about what we are seeing – we can no longer recognize any of the features of the face and so we are forced to really look, to judge and measure without any preconceived notions. How close are shapes to each other? How long is this line? How dark is this area compared to the area next to it? Someone who already draws with a lot of accuracy will automatically be comparing and contrasting the shapes they see before them as they draw – that is what drawing really is.
Anyone can learn to work in this way and to draw much, much more accurately. Hand to eye co-ordination is much less inportant than how well we can learn to SEE. Drawing the wrong way up should also really help anyone who lacks in self confidence (and let’s be honest, most people feel their drawing isn’t as good as it might be) because it takes away the anxiety we can feel as we worry whilst we draw that the feature we are drawing isn’t as good as it might be. Any kind of block we might feel that we have (“oh, I can’t draw hands” is a common one) will be removed because we are just observing lines and shapes minutely and not thinking about how we expect them to look.
This method can feel counter-intuitive, and that’s because we are taught that to draw we need to draw ‘expressively’ – to allow our drawings to provide our impression of the subject in potentially a stylized way. This is of course true, and we don’t necessarily want to create something that’s photo-realistic. But for people who are learning to draw and who feel they can’t achieve the likenesses they would like to then this is an invaluable exercise that will teach them the difference between really ‘looking’ at what they are drawing and a hurried sort of guesswork.
Once you feel more confident in your drawing and the likenesses you are creating then you can start to stylize as much as you want. If you study art at college the chances are you’ll first be taught all sorts of techniques to try to break down lazy ways of looking and disrupt your usual assumptions – I remember once attending a life-drawing class where we were told to draw without actually looking at our paper! It’s about teaching the basics of observation before you start to deliberately stylise or abstract. And of course if you are interested in drawing portraits from photographs professionally rather than drawing people who are sitting in front of you (and also want to achieve a likeness of a person that you have never met) then accuracy is really important.
WHAT IF I WANT TO DRAW FROM REAL LIFE, RATHER THAN COPYING FROM A PHOTO?
I’m a pencil portrait artist who works entirely from photos. However if what you want is to draw someone actually sitting in front of you, then of course you can’t hang them upside down! However, practising by drawing from photos (or another drawing) upside down is an exercise that will help immensely when you come to draw from life. It will teach you to grasp the principle of really looking, and that will improve your drawing when tackling a live subject sitting in front of you.
This short BBC video from artist and illustrator Peter Field exemplifies the principle really well. It also gives a useful bit of advice – don’t ‘cheat’ half way through the drawing exercise by turning your page the right way up to see how it’s coming along!
And below is another demonstration that talks you through the principle very helpfully