Mapping Your Portrait

Every portrait painting is the result of a series of steps. Some artists have fewer steps than others, and most artists are eager to grab their paints and dive right into the color process. But those who simply pose their model and start painting are taking a lot of chances, such as improperly placing the model on the canvas or discovering a more interesting pose once they’ve already begun. After many hours of your hard work and your model’s patient posing, you don’t want to wipe it all off and start over again.

That’s why preliminary drawings are such an effective portrait tool—because they help you solve problems before they happen. Drawings let you map out your subject and get acquainted with all the hidden things you’ll need to know about him or her. Take bone structure, for instance—every skull is similar, but there are always subtle variations that can make a big difference in the portrait. You must be as aware of the unseen side of your subject as you are of the visible side. If you’re guessing, the viewer will know it.


Sketching for Accuracy: A benefit of preliminary sketches is that they provide room for you to get your proportions correct. As this diagram on the left shows, you can draw a center line both vertically and horizontally and divide the top and the bottom halves into five equal parts, from the top of the head to the bottom. The center marks the bridge of the nose, and a proportionate face can be drawn with such features as the eyes, the eyebrows, the tip of the nose, the mouth, and the top and bottom of the ears all falling on the horizontal lines. As shown in the figure on the right, the head in profile should fit into a square.

Familiarity Counts
Use drawings to get to know your subject before you begin the actual portrait. For some artists this may take no more than a few sketches and suggested values. For others, it may mean a series of complicated drawings, such as I made for the portrait at left. Place the subject in a variety of positions and observe him or her from a variety of angles, then sketch as many of these as you can. You can look at these different poses all you like, but it’s in drawing them that you really begin to understand what will make a good portrait because drawing helps you isolate the details that are most revealing.

This kind of familiarity also pays off because with a live model, no matter how good a model he or she is, your subject is frequently changing. There are many muscles in the human head, more than in any other part of the body, and nearly all of them move when the expression changes on the subject’s face. If you can learn something about what muscles made the expression you want, then you can compensate for subtle changes. (A smile, for instance, consists of much more than just upturned corners of the mouth.)

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Testing the Waters: These additional drawings for the portrait at top, right, were done in charcoal and white chalk on toned paper. The more poses and perspectives I tried before reaching for the paint, the better my knowledge of the subject became.

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Go With the Flow
The level of detail in your preliminary sketches (and their number) is up to you, but you don’t need to go too far. After all, your time with a model is limited, so when you feel you’ve gotten familiar with the subject and hit upon the right pose and perspective, move on to the painting stage. At this point you’ll most likely have relaxed your subject, and perhaps even gotten him or her more interested in the process. Plus, if you keep your client involved you’ll be more likely to please the client as well as yourself, and you can let the client help you determine the best sketch to work from.

Once you’ve chosen the sketch to build the portrait from, I recommend keeping all the rest of them handy as reference material as you progress through the painting. They may even inspire another work. Just as artists spend much time and effort becoming master portrait painters, put a little preparation work into each portrait you do by starting off with preliminary drawings. You’ll soon find that a little investment up front can save you a lot of trouble later on, and it brings you an important step closer to making your portraits the best they can be.

Bonese Collins Turner teaches fine art at community colleges near her home in Woodland Hills, California. Her paintings have been recognized by the Butler Institute of American Art, the National Watercolor Society and the National Acrylic Painters Association of England.

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