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Drawing & Painting Life Portraits

Lesson #1


Those of us who are interested in producing a portrait of another human being are usually so enchanted by the prospect that every other kind of artistic endeavor pales by comparison. It's an interesting phenomenon that every person on our planet has two eyes, one nose, and one mouth, and yet each of us look completely different from everyone else. This is the uniqueness that the portrait painter must catch. This "differentness" plus the specific personality projected make up what we call "the likeness", and the painter's skill and sensitivity in being able to capture these elements are what make the portrait successful.

It is helpful but not necessary to have had some previous experience in drawing and painting before tackling these lessons. To learn the use of charcoal, oil, or watercolors by painting people is a most difficult task, and as a beginner, you may lay down your tools in frustration. However, once you've had some success with faces you may never again find the same sort of excitement depicting landscapes and still life.

If you can achieve a recognizable image in charcoal and understand something about mixing and applying colors, you will gain a great deal from these lessons. Just remember, no one is born knowing how to paint a portrait. Each of us has to learn - by studying, thinking, and working. If you have the desire, you will surely learn too.

The Proportions Of The Head

The success of a portrait is largely determined by how well the parts of the head interrelate: how the nose relates to the ears, the mouth to the jaw, the eyes to the nose, the facial area to the head - all these things must be discovered. This isn't overwhelming if you have a plan or blueprint of the way these parts fit together.

CONSIDERING SOLID FORMS: Before we can draw and paint portraits we must learn to simplify complex subject matter - the human head and body. Every portrait painter trains him or herself to perceive these forms in simple masses, overlooking details until the larger forms are satisfactory.

It is possible to draw a head shape using line alone. A circle is a basic beginning, but an egg shape resembles the human head more closely. If we want to draw or paint a head that will appear to look solid, round, three dimensional, we have to begin to think about light and shadow and how to add these elements to our liner egg shape.

First we need to decide where the light source is that shines on the egg shaped head. Study the drawings below. The part of the form that faces the light source is in the light area, A. Another part will receive no light, the shadow area, B. Notice that this very distinct jump from light to shadow really doesn't help to indicate round form - do you agree?

EXERCISE: With a pencil or pen and paper try drawing A,B,C, and D yourself. After about twenty oval "heads" you will find you can draw these solid forms with ease and understanding. We need an intermediate step between the light and the shadow. This transition step is called the HALFTONE. It is a very narrow area, C, (regretfully, it doesn't show well on the computer screen), which indicates a rounding of the form from the light area into the shadow area. Now we are thinking in terms of light, shadow, and halftone, but there is one more element to consider - Reflected Light. If our oval head form were on a body wearing a colored garment, we would see that color reflected up into the shadow area on the jaw or under the chin. D. This bounced light is subtle and never as light as the halftone: Remember that reflected light is part of the shadow, and if it is made too light the head will no longer appear solid.

In these drawings we have used shadow to define form. Artists call this "modeling the form". We look for the lights first, but the only way the lights can be defined on white paper is to draw in the shadow first. This makes the seeing process different from the doing process.

MAKING AN EGG HEAD: As a prelude to working with an actual head, we'll learn about the relationships between light and dark by using an actual egg. Experimenting with an egg head has an advantage at the beginning of your study of the head and features: You can set it at any angle you choose - yet it won't move. To make an egg head, take an egg and make a hole in each end with a pin. Hold the egg over a bowl and blow into one end, and the inside will come out, leaving the empty shell. Rinse it out with clean water, handling it carefully. (When you begin to use your egg as a model to draw from, you'll find you can make it stand on end by using an empty pill bottle or bottle cap as a base.)

EXERCISE: (1) Hold the egg upright and draw a line with a fine marker or a pencil straight down the shell's center, top to bottom. Now draw a second line horizontally around the egg, halfway down and at right angles to the first line. on either side of the vertical line, draw eye ovals on the horizontal line - this is called the "eyeline".

(2) Add a second horizontal line just above the eye ovals. This will be the "eyebrow line". Now, not quite halfway down between the eyebrow line and the very bottom of the egg, make a mark for a nose, crossing the central vertical.

(3) Now try turning the egg a quarter turn to the right. You may need to add another vertical line from top to bottom halfway around the side where the ear would be. The egg now resembles a football.

(4) Tilt the egg slightly forward and draw the eyeline halfway down at the SIDES of the oval, but rounding downward at the center. Place the eye ovals on this curved eyeline and add the eyebrow line following the curved eyeline.


Hold the eggshell so that the brightest light from a window or spotlight strikes it at the upper left front, and study the shadows on the shell. Do you notice the way these shadows change with even the slightest tilting of the egg? Place the egg on the stand so the shadow pattern remains constant. You'll see several different types of lights and shadows on and around the egg. Between the light and shadow areas on the "face", you'll see the halftones. Now draw the egg, indicating the light, shadow, and halftone areas as you see them, and letting your strokes go across the form. You now have your first "head". Add mouth, ears, hair, and a neck, if you wish.

EXERCISE: Make twenty drawings of egg heads, tipping your egg slightly to the right and left. Also try turning it a quarter turn to the right, then left, or looking up or down. Note; When you add mouth lines to your ovals, think of the mouth line as closer to the nose mark, not halfway between the nose and the base of the egg.


When drawing the head, it's important to know what to look for even before you have a model. What follows is methods of constructing the head and for accurately drawing proportions for heads from babyhood to old age. Draw the diagrams again and again until you can do them with ease. Copy the diagrams at first, then draw from imagination. Don't use mechanical devices; try to train your eye to judge relationships. Think about what you're doing.

You'll need a pen or pencil, paper, kneaded eraser, and ruler for these exercises. For a change of pace, you may want to draw the proportional divisions you'll work with here over photographs of heads in magazines. This should help carry you from the idealized proportions you'll learn here to actual ones of real people of all ages and types. You'll be amazed at the variety you'll find. Since the most basic way to get a likeness is in profile, we'll begin with that. The drawings you'll study are based on two-inch squares, each divided into four one-inch squares. On your paper, make several squares in ink, and chart the heads on them in pencil. In actuality, the life-size head of a six-foot tall Caucasian male would measure nine inches from the top of the skull to the bottom of the chin, and nine inches from the tip of the nose to the back of the skull.

  • Place the eye on the horizontal halfway mark (1-3) as if the line passed through the lower eyelid. (the eye is actually halfway down the head.)
  • Divide the left edge of the square into seven equal parts. Try to measure by eye, not with a ruler.
  • The eyebrow sets at line C, along with the forward projection of the skull above the eyeball.
  • The bottom of the nose sits at E, halfway between the brow line and chin line. There is a wing of cartilage flaring over the nostril, and the bottom of that curve is on line E. The tip of the nose may turn up above that line or curve down below it.
  • The top of the ear also lines up with the eyebrow at C. The bottom of the earlobe lines up with E at the base of the nose. The ear is placed at the vertical halfway mark (2-4) extending toward the back of the skull.
  • Draw the forehead up from c in a squared curve to top center 2 and continue in the squared curve to 3 at the back of the skull. Continue the curve until a point level with the base of the nose and ear is reached, lined up with E, forming the base of the skull.
  • The mouth is between E and F, with the lower lip projecting above F. Drop a chin line to G on the bottom line and extend it to H.
  • Now with a slight curve, draw the jawline from H to the back of the skull with a dashed line.
  • Sketch a light diagonal line from the brow projection at C through H under the chin for the front of the neck.
  • Sketch in the back of the neck.

PRACTICE; Now for some fun. Place tracing paper over the charted head you just drew and add hair, or a beard, a hooked nose, or a receding chin. Draw twenty heads a day until you become fluent at this.


To the left is the classic Caucasian male (top), the same man with longer hair, a moustache, and a beard (center), and a Caucasian male at age eighty. His teeth are gone, so the lower part of his face has become shorter. (bottom)

To the right is the classic Black male. Notice that the mouth structure may protrude beyond the nose, which tends to be flatter than the nose of a Caucasian. At right is the same Black male with tightly curled hair clipped close to the scalp.

The classic Oriental male. Notice the flat, broad face, high cheekbones, and heavily lidded eye that are characteristic features of Orientals. At right, the Oriental male has straight black hair and very little facial hair, so, no heavy beards, please.

The classic Native American male. The facial structure actually varies from tribe to tribe; this head has the strong, angular features most of us picture as Native American: A very pronounced brow and arch of the nose, high cheekbones, and a lean, square chin. At right, the same man shown with long, straight, black hair. Native Americans have no facial hair.

This concludes this first lesson on portraits. For ordering purposes, this will be known as "portrait lesson #1". Lesson #2 next week. See you then!