Capturing a Portrait Likeness
The purpose of this tutorial is to demonstrate methods one can use to correct a portrait so that you get all the features of the model in the correct proportions, and shaded correctly. My original idea was to just show the old “mirror check” procedure (which Ill discuss later,) but as this drawing developed I saw that there were other things I could show as well.
I chose a red carpet photo of the actress Alyssa Milano. It represents the main challenge an artist has in portraiture: controlling the symmetry of the facial features on the sides of the face. A full front view emphasizes this difficulty even more. A photo reference makes this a bit easier to check than using a live model, but unfortunately Alyssa was too busy to sit me for some reason, some TV show thing, I suppose.
The first step I make is to rough out the outline of the face on the page so I can be sure to get everything I want within the borders. I do this first phase lightly and with as few marks as possible, since I know there will be many corrections to come. As I end this part, I can already see that Ive drawn the left side of her face too narrowly, but I go ahead and wrap it up so you can see the corrections.
What I want to do now is compare the source image to this early layout, and make adjustments. In this case since the drawing will fit on my scanner, its relatively simple to get it in the computer and compare it to the digital photo. If youre working on a larger drawing than your scanner, you could use a camera. What if youre using a live model? Your best procedure then is to use a relative measure. In this case Id recommend the eyes. Get one eye the size you want it, and measure the source of that eye on your model to get all the other features in correct proportion.
Sure enough, when I scale the photo to match the eyes, mouth, and cheek of my drawing, the left side of the face is too narrow, and as a result, the neck is too skinny. There are a few other fixes to make like the hair line and ears, but fortunately the interior features (eyes, nose, and mouth) and the right cheek are pretty close. To demonstrate the corrections, I use a blue non-photo blue pencil (Man, I hate these things. Theyre too waxy for re-draws, but it will help show the fixes for you.)
At this point lets talk about the “mirror check.” This is a method of looking at a flipped view of your drawing to discover errors you dont easily see. Actually, the flipped photo image of Alyssa above looks very odd to me. This is most likely due to the camera lens distortion. Nonetheless, you can catch major flaws in your drawing this way. If your drawing is too big to scan or awkward to photograph, you can literally hold it to a mirror to see the reflection, or use a lightbox, or even tape it to a window and look at the back. Sometimes I go so far as to use a 3D program to morph the vertices of the image as a texture on a flat plane. I bet if you made a mirror check on some of the great master portraits, youd see flaws also, so there’s no need to go to extremes, but the more you are able to spot these differences, the more accurate your drawing will be.
Now I can adjust the drawing to make it look correct. Its worth noting here that not everyone has perfectly symmetrical features. The left eye is rarely the same as the right, mainly due to the fat of the skin or muscles distorting the face, but also notice how in this photo her expression shows a slight angle of her nostrils and mouth that doesnt line up with her eyes. Pay real close attention to these things so that you get the expression and features correct.
I rework the drawing to the corrections I marked, and get ready for shading. This is where the likeness of the person really starts to appear. Just placing the major dark areas makes the drawing come to life. Certain people have features that seem average, but when you examine what makes them unique, it usually lies in the subtle shading of their features, so getting that correct is very important to the success of your drawing. Even in terms of proportion, its not just a relationship of features, but also of values. The areas have to have the correct value so that the whole image will look like the person youre drawing.
Fortunately graphite is one of the most forgiving mediums you can use, so changes and subtle shading is not difficult. Dont get too far ahead of yourself. You should be orchestrating your whole drawing so that all the values are in correct balance with each other. I find it best to get all the darks down first, then the mid tones, and follow with some light blending marks, going back over areas to darken or lighten. Sometimes just dabbing with a kneaded eraser does the trick. The darks were made with a watercolor pencil, a 2B for the mid tones, and a hard 5H for blending, and a stump for smudging.
Before painting portraits, I like to make several sketches first. It helps me get very familiar with my subject before I begin.
Thank you for your time, and feel free to leave comments.