The Fountain of Youth

Delicate Darks: For Portrait Drawing of Jay Liang (graphite, 10×7?), I had to work from a photo because the energetic young man couldn?t hold still. So I had to be careful to sharpen the contrast without resorting to sharp lines.

Children?s portraits are extremely popular because, after all, children are adorable. They?re different from adults in several ways, however, and unfortunately many artists don?t take these differences into account. Over the years, many students have asked me how they went wrong in their portraits of children, and apart from typical errors in draftsmanship, such as faulty shading techniques and inaccurate features?problems that can occur with subjects of any age?there are a few specific problems that appear frequently. Fortunately, they?re easy to correct.

Light and Dark
Often new artists rely too much on lines to define facial and anatomical forms (see last month?s Drawing Board). With child subjects this is particularly damaging because their puffy, dimpled flesh is too soft to render with lines—especially hard, indelicate lines. Rely more on shading than contour lines to define the facial details. For example, in drawing an infant?s nose you may find some lines, such as the upper or outer edge of a nostril, but otherwise you?ll best define the nose by the contrasts of light and dark on its surface.

Especially avoid using contour lines to define the outer boundaries of the lips, where lines may make your young subject look like he or she is wearing lipstick. Instead, as elsewhere, define the outside rims of the lips with contrasts of light and dark. When you find you must use contour lines, such as around the exterior boundary of the face and the outside of the ear, don?t use heavy-handed, hard-edged marks. Instead, use a light touch with soft, gentle strokes. This better represents delicate flesh, and it will make erasing mistakes much easier.

A Different Face
There are certain anatomical differences that allow us to instantly recognize a face as a child?s rather than an adult?s, so the artist should be aware of them. First of all, there are fewer and less distinct variations across the major planes of a child?s face than in an adult?s. Infants, for example, rarely have pronounced bridges to their noses. For the artist, this results in subtler, more gradated transitions in tonal values, and the smoothness of young skin requires a seamless shading technique. The hard-edged, ?chiseled? look often used for adults is much too stark and harsh for young faces. Gentle blending, instead, will yield the smooth skin of a small child or infant.

The eyebrows of babies are usually quite faint, and in photographs they can easily be obliterated by the light. So if you?re working from a photo you may have to compensate by shading the eyebrows a little darker than you see them. But be careful—if you go too dark, the eyebrows will appear painted on and detract from the youthful appearance of your subject. Hair on young children is typically unkempt, especially on infants. Rely on shading to define the shapes, with just a few directional lines to suggest the flow of the various locks. Avoid using lines to represent individual strands of hair.

When rendering the eyelids and their folds, think of them as long, narrow shadows. This also applies to a closed mouth—don?t draw a line from one corner of the mouth to the other. This same principle will help you with the details of the ear. Sometimes you can effectively use very dense, dark shading (as in Portrait Drawing of Jay Liang, above, right, where the subject stands in the shade), but frequently a high density of marks will tend to create an older appearance than you?ll want for a child.

Finally, the best advice on drawing the very young is to look closely at your subjects and recognize that they?re not merely small adults. They have distinct attributes of their own, and if you miss those you?ll miss what makes children special. Infants and children are some of the most difficult subjects to draw well, but a keen eye and a good measure of perseverance will help you create beautiful portraits of all the little people in your life.

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