Wednesday, 9 October 2013


This week, I have to confess to standing on my soapbox. Possibly I may be accused, by some, of being a spoilsport, or pedantic, or lecturing.

But it is something I feel quite strongly about, so I will plough ahead and if my words resonate for someone, somewhere, I will be satisfied with that.

Lots of beginners yearn to paint portraits of their loved ones.  While I understand the impulse to leap into the deep end, and just do it, in particular if they have a photo they love and want to copy, nevertheless, I want to persuade beginners to realise that the best way to discourage yourselves is to set yourself up for disappointment.

I recently spotted someone asking for help with a portrait painting.  This person had no experience of drawing or painting in their chosen medium, yet they decided to jump straight in with copying a photo of their child.  The drawing was a reasonable attempt, but without any knowledge of the underlying anatomy of the human head and how to draw particular features, without any understanding of the possibilities available with techniques, without any appreciation of the need for good tone values ...the end result is likely to be a huge disappointment, since there is no way it will be an improvement on the photo.  The image above is a good case in point and I do not think I need to go into details about why this is not a particularly good drawing despite the artist's valiant attempts.
Jumping into the deep end like this, can be compared to attempting to play a complex piece on the piano, to an audience, when you have only just bought the piano and learned the basics of piano playing, and are still unpractised with reading music!

I know this sounds a bit hard, because everyone needs to start somewhere...but all I want to make you understand is that if you find yourself disappointed with your results, it is not necessarily to do with any lack of talent on your part, it is purely to do with lack of learning, and experience.
Portraits are arguably the most difficult of subjects to paint. I, with all my years of experience as a painter, avoid them because of their difficulty! They require enormous accuracy, and a thorough understanding of anatomy and structure to achieve success. Some  artists do seem to be able to capture a likeness effortlessly but they are the lucky ones. Others, like me, have to work slowly and carefully, measuring all the time, checking and double checking and yet still failing, and often failing to do it all effortlessly except on the odd occasion - usually when it isn't important. If you are trying to do a portrait of someone you love, you will want it to be good, to be right, to be recognisable.

So what is the answer if you REALLY are determined to get to grips with portraiture?

I seriously recommend that rather than simply picking up a photo and copying it,  you start by finding out all you can about portrait drawing and painting. there are good books out there, perhaps in your library. One I really recommend :


He will show you how to understand value and tone, shadow shapes and edges, the form in light, the main principles of drawing the head including perspective, proportions, what to look for when tackling all the individual features of the head, structure and anatomy, highlights, and more, how to draw hair, putting it all together and the end section moves you from drawing to painting. Now perhaps, after reading this, you will see how much there is to learn about, and you will learn masses from him. It is an enjoyable journey.     Take a long, hard look at his drawings of eyes, ears, noses etc, and try copying them before you begin working from your own reference material - or model.  This is terrific practice - as an art student, I was recommended to copy master works regularly.

  Also, try looking at books on anatomy of the human head...understanding the underlying structure is very helpful indeed.

Find images which show how the features fit onto the underlying skull, seen from different angles and directions.  Look at these angle changes:

Then, if you have to work from photos, take good ones.  NOT with full face, and flashlight.  Flash flattens form.    Try lighting which is more natural, from a window to one side, for example.
Good portrait photo to work from, see how the lighting clearly shows the depth of the eye socket, and the form around the mouth, and the side plane as well as the front plane of the forehead.  Look at how the light beautifully describes the nose too.

classic difficult portrait to work from.  See how the lighting is flat and even, and there is little or no "form", showing the side planes of the face as well as the front plane.  Look at her nose...just a flat blob with a tiny bit of shading each side. SO difficult to work from something like this..almost doomed to failure before you begin.

  • Make sure you are comfortable and familiar with the techniques of your chosen medium.  This involves techniques practice. It is a good idea to practice quite separately from "doing a painting".  Practice with a purpose, perhaps making notes as you go along to remind you how you achieved certain effects. 
  • learn and absorb all you can about proportions, and how to measure accurately. 
  • Also ensure you have a good understanding of how to translate colour into the right tones. 
  • In fact, it is a good idea to begin with working just with charcoal or conte - in just one colour.  William Maugham will show you how in his book - as you can see from the illustration above.
  • When starting with colour, it is not good enough just to equip yourself with "flesh"-coloured paints and pastels. There are books on skin tones in portrait painting  and how to work with paints and pastels.  How to recognise what light does to skin tones, and what sorts of colours to use in shadow areas.  All useful info, it will help enormously.

I know this all sounds like a lot of work on your part, but I believe you will find it pays off in the end.  You cannot make a cake without breaking eggs, my mum used to say!

I hope these words will encourage you to keep trying, but to keep trying with your eyes wide open and with a willingness in your heart to learn and grow and achieve success in due course.



  1. All I can say is YES! I've taught drawing to adults for many years, and when we do the lessons on the anatomy of the head, they are almost all astonished to find the real proportions of their own heads. And the placement of the eyes in relation to one another and the relative size of eyes to face. and where ears come. And the small area of the total head occupied by facial features. This is all vital learning to any kind of drawing, since it's about learning to see, not just look, and more so if you want to attempt portraits.

    I also notice that a lot of people want to outline the entire head first then fill in features, but are sad when they find the human head doesn't work that way. I commend you for encouraging your readers to learn about anatomy before even attempting to draw. Starting with a photograph is like trying to drive a car before you've figured out how to open the driver side door!

  2. A good soapbox to be on I think. I agree with your thoughts, and would add, practice every single day, fill sketchbooks. Work from life as much as possible, self portraits are great because the model is always available. Carry a small sketchbook with you at all times to sketch people while you are waiting or sitting in a coffeeshop, all you need is a sketchbook and a pen or pencil.

  3. Agreed. The learning of technique is an essential part of drawing or painting and so many learning artists want to skip over the 'boring' section and jump straight into painting then wonder why its not matching the vision in their head.

    Practice and technical knowledge is the only way to go and I, like you, will continue to preach it and teach it.


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