Monday, 9 July 2012


One of the thorniest problems facing those who like to draw, and draw accurately, is just that - ACCURACY.  It doesn't matter too much if you draw a mushroom or a red pepper slightly wrong for shape, nobody is going to know.   But when it comes to a portrait....innacurate drawing might well leave you dissatisfied with the likeness.  Even beginners to drawing often yearn to try a portrait - particularly working from a photo, where it looks as if it ought to be fairly easy - yet getting the likeness is elusive.
Now while I always advocate learning to draw from life as an essential "brick" in the wall of learning, literally building skills slowly but surely, nothing I say is going to prevent people from having a bash at a portrait from a photo.  I do bang on, I know, pointing out the drawbacks of poor lighting in a photo, how a flash will flatten the form; how a lack of understanding of how to create 3D form will let you down;  how important it is to spend time learning about the underlying anatomy, and all the other issues which help to make a portrait a good one.  However, unfortunately much of what I say will fall on deaf ears, or on ears which logically know I am right but are determined to have a go anyway,  and what I say, even if it is right,  will not necessarily help you, when you have created a picture,  and know something is throwing off the accuracy of your drawing.......but you are simply not sure what.

. So I thought I would mention a tool which I came across recently.  It is for those of you who are happy to use a computer as part of your "drawing kit". 

You will need a scanner, and Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, the simple version of Photoshop.  It takes a little getting used to this tool, but is very helpful, if you work from photos,  to CHECK what you have created against the original source material, for accuracy.

I will demonstrate by exposing my own weaknesses ...(cringing a bit here)....showing both a photo, and a portrait sketch done from the photo, freehand.  You can see that the likeness is almost there....but it is not quite right.   There are small inaccuracies throughout.  It is now in the "reject" drawer!  But is useful for this demo.

To check a photo against a sketch, first make sure that both images are exactly the same size - this is important.  You need to ensure that both images have the same number of pixels as well as the same "canvas" size.

Then print out the original photo and trace over it with tracing paper.             ( Unfortunately I had no tracing paper, so I placed some typing paper over the printed image, on top of a light box,  and drew over the face, putting in as many landmarks as possible. Tracing paper would have been better, easier to see the photo underneath.)

Then, scan this tracing into your computer, and save it.  Now you have a sketch and a tracing, both the same size.

Then, to check the details in your sketch, against the tracing of your photo,  using Photoshop Elements:

1.  Open your portrait sketch.  Click anywhere on it, then Hit Ctrl/A (select all) and then Ctrl/C (copy).

2. Then  make sure that the "layers" palette is open.  This is under "Windows - Layers".  Drag it to one side if it is in your way.  Here is what it looks like:

3.  Leaving the sketch where it is, now go to the File menu and Open your tracing. It will arrive on top of your sketch.  Don't worry, your sketch is still there, under the tracing.  Click on the tracing and hit Ctrl/v  (paste).    The sketch will now appear on top of the tracing.

4.  Now look at the layers palette, which should show two small images, both the sketch, and the tracing  (they will be where it says "ring" "hand" and "background" in the example above.) Above them, at the top of the box you can also see the word "OPACITY"   It has a little arrow to the right of it, beside the 100% box.  

5.  Clicking on this arrow,  the Opacity Percent box will pop down with a slider button.    Adjust gently to the left UNTIL BOTH LAYERS CAN BE SEEN. (often about 30-50%)This is the fun bit.  If the top layer does not line up perfectly with the underneath one, you can, provided the background layer is not locked, move the top layer and even adjust its size a wee bit if needed. I line up with something like the eyes .

This is how the "double image" will look:

6.  You can then save and print out this "double image" and study it to see where you can correct your sketch.  

As you can see from my double image, all sorts of things are wrongly sized and wrongly placed.  Bit scary really, and proves to me conclusively that I will never be a decent portrait painter!  I didn't even get the shape and size of the hat right!  Oh dear, Jackie, back to the drawing board.

I have watched professional portrait painters who never draw freehand, they work from photos, and always use a grid.  I have watched others who simply "eyeball" their subject..either from life or from a photo....and have the ability (she said jealously) to get it right apparently effortlessly.    If, like me, you fall into the category of someone who prefers to work freehand, and despite using a "mental grid" (which I have talked about in a previous blog) still often misses the mark with a likeness and finds it necessary to do plenty of corrections in order to improve things (and suffers intense frustration), then using a tool like this, to help you check where you have gone wrong, can sometimes be very handy indeed.

In the coming couple of weeks, I will be providing some info about other drawing tools, physical as well as digital ones.  Putting a grid onto your photo, for example, helps a lot, giving you plumb lines to refer to.  And yes, I know you can do this in Photoshop, but I find it fiddly, so I will tell you about another simple download I have found which is so nice and easy to use. You may find this and some of the other tools  more useful, if this "layers" one didn't appeal to you!   Bye for now, until next week!


1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting tutorial, and you're so honest about your own shortcomings, which is wonderful to read.

    I would like to point out though, as a longtime teacher of drawing to adults, that what you describe as "drawing" is in fact one very small aspect of it, namely "rendering". There are many many ways to draw as art, and rendering is only one of them.

    Yes, it's good to develop skills in seeing, but exact rendering is not the only goal. This is a lesson I run into all the time with adult beginners who think that exact reproduction is the goal of drawing, and I gently lead them into a lot of other adventures, in addition to that of rendering.


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