This past summer provided several opportunities for me and my family to pack up the van and head out on the highway. But as the mileage on the odometer increased, so did my chances of making a wrong decision along the way. It helped to have a GPS to point me in the right direction so that whenever I missed an exit or began heading the wrong way, a calm voice would alert me by saying, "When possible, make a U-turn". I then had the choice of either following the advice to correct my mistake or ignore it and continue moving further away from my intended destination. When driving, it's often clear which choice I should make, but when it comes to solving problems in painting, it's not always as obvious. Because of this, an artistic GPS is needed to help stay on course, especially in the area of drawing.
Achieving a likeness in portrait painting requires that your drawing be correct, especially when it comes to the vertical alignment and distance between individual features of the face. Establishing some key reference points at the very beginning of a painting can save you hours of frustration down the road and avoid a possible U-turn along the way. Similar to coordinates found on a map, these points remain fixed throughout the painting process and are constantly referred to when making decisions along the way.
Some key areas that I've found to be very helpful to use as reference points when painting portraits are the outside edges of the iris, the inside corner of the eye and the outside edges of the nose. From these accurately measured and established points, I can then use a straight, vertical line, often called a "plumb line", as a guide to make sure that other features of the face are correctly placed. This is done by simply holding up a straight edge in front of your subject and then honestly evaluating your progress. If you notice adjustments that need to be made, either to the left or right of this plumb line, take the necessary steps to correct them as soon as possible. If you don't, you may feel as though you're driving in circles, not quite sure of which direction to go, eventually having to re-trace your steps in order to get back on the right track.
So, if you find yourself in need of some direction when working on your next portrait, be sure to stop and take some advice from a trusted guide that can help you reach your destination.