Show Your Age

As it ages, the human face becomes increasingly more complex. Because of this, drawing elderly people may seem much more difficult than drawing younger subjects. But in fact that’s not the case, and it’s a common mistake for beginners to concentrate too heavily on the details of the aging body?the wrinkles, the age spots and so on?instead of trying to capture the overall shapes and contours that signify age. It’s these elements that reveal character and make the elderly such fascinating portrait subjects.

The Evidence of Time
The complexity of older faces is the result of two things that happen to the skin with the passage of time. To begin with, the general shapes of the face are transformed. From the day you first sat up, your face has been fighting a tug-of-war with gravity, and eventually the skin’s own weight pulls it downward. As it does so, the shapes on the surface of the face become more angular, bold and edgy. The tip of the nose, for example, slowly elongates. The cheeks drape downward, and the skin beneath the jaw gradually lowers.

The Subtlety of Detail: In these two versions of a drawing of my octogenarian father-in-law, the one on the left shows two common mistakes in drawing older subjects: using lines to represent wrinkles and including too many skin-surface details. The version on the right looks more natural because it uses shadows and subtle contours instead of sharp lines.

The other big change is in the surface details. Skin loses its elasticity over time and begins to crease and fold over itself. This considerably increases both the number and intricacy of the facial details. Whether a person chooses to disguise these features or to wear them proudly, the portraitist can use them to mark the subject’s age and, at the same time, to create a distinguished appearance.

Look for Character
To the novice, all these features may seem like reasons why the older face is too difficult to draw. Here are a few tips for making it easier. First, learn to look past the minutiae of surface skin details and look for the general shapes in the face. Don’t study each and every wrinkle, but only the few that most effectively suggest those overall shapes. That’s where you’ll find the forms that define a likeness. Also, keep in mind that these forms are not only more interesting but easier to discern and draw than the less distinctive features of younger models. They provide much more well-defined shapes for you to work with.

Next, don’t think of wrinkles and folds in the skin as lines. Think of them as long, narrow shadows instead. Then draw them that way, with all the shadings and subtle value transitions that shadows entail. If you treat them (inaccurately) as simple lines, you’ll create a likeness that appears harsh and artificial, whereas appropriate shadows will look perfectly natural.

Soften and Simplify
Finally, learn to simplify and soften the surface details of the skin. Simplify them by leaving out many of the minute facial lines and age spots. You don’t need them all to make a portrait realistic, and they’ll only clutter up your drawing. Then soften the contrasts of the details that you decide to include. Abrupt contrasts only occur when a very light area is next to a very dark area. Reducing the contrast between the light and shadow areas of wrinkles or age spots will prevent the surface details from overpowering your model’s face.

You may have seen and admired a drawing in which the artist rendered every microscopic detail of someone’s rugged old visage. But remember that this level of detail isn’t necessary for a convincing likeness, and unless you’re extremely well-practiced you’re better off to leave such a sharp-focus approach for another day. Instead, keep the details simple and concentrate on just a few defining characteristics, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well you can capture the magnificence of the elderly face.

Jerry McClish, of Bradenton, Florida, is a contributing editor to The Artist?s Magazine.

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