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Drawing & Painting Life Portraits

Lesson #6



People who are not artists believe that the eyes are the hardest part of the head to draw, but in my opinion, the eyes are simple compared to the mouth. Each time a new thought passes through your sitter's mind his or her mood changes, and the expression around the mouth changes as well. Anger, boredom, fatigue, disdain, petulance - all these feelings and a million more show around the mouth. Let me just give a word of advise: When you're working on your portrait and you get to a stage where the mouth is just right, LEAVE IT ALONE! Don't go back to the mouth for any reason. You can lose the likeness in a split second by adding just that "one more touch" to the mouth.

The lip tissue is darker in value and warmer in color than the surrounding skin. When the mouth is open and the lips are parted, we see the teeth. Infants have very full, soft, rounded lips. In old age, the lips become thinner. The upper lip is often in shadow, as it is a receding plane. The lower lip catches the light, as it is a projecting plane. The mouth is the most challenging part of the portrait for the artist because it is constantly changing, but the changes are usually extremely subtle. As John Singer Sargent once said, "A portrait is a picture with something wrong with the mouth".


When drawing the mouth, remember that the upper lip is made up of three parts, the lower lip of two. (see drawing to the right) The line between the upper and lower lip should be broken, varied in weight and intensity, to avoid a strained expression. In every part of the portrait you want to give the illusion that the image MIGHT move. Nowhere is this more desirable than the mouth. We must be extremely careful not to draw firm dark lines AROUND and BETWEEN the lips. The edges must be drawn or painted softly, particularly on
women and children. Note the way the corners of the mouth tuck into the adjoining cheeks. Pay a great deal of attention
to these corners. Do they go up? Down? How dark are they? If you paint them TOO dark, the mouth will appear very tight. In a small child the upper lip is frequently much larger and more protruding than the very small lower lip, for the lower jaw is undeveloped.

Study your mouth in a hand mirror. See how soft the lip tissue appears. The center of the upper lip projects, and the corners really recede as they go back into the cheeks. Turn your head slowly to one side. As you approach a three-quarter view, the far corner of the mouth tucks in and disappears. Turn slowly to the other side; watch as the other corner disappears. Now raise your chin, putting your head back. See how the mouth curves around the teeth. The corners of your mouth point down in this perspective. Try smiling. What happens then? Put your chin down on your chest and notice how the mouth curves around the teeth. The corners go up now; they go up even more when you smile. Throw your head back and look up at your mouth. The lower lip appears thinner than the upper lip. Conversely, when your chin is down on your chest and you are looking down on your mouth, the upper lip appears thinner than the lower lip.






Students think ears are more difficult to draw than they really are. Some dedicated observation will eliminate this fear. Whether ears are quite flat or protrude, it's convenient to think of them as flat oval disks set at the side of the head. The ear is made up of cartilage, not bone, and has virtually no movement, so it doesn't change as ones expression changes. On an adult, the ear extends in a vertical shape from the brow line to the base-of-the-nose line. In profile, the ear begins at the halfway mark between the front and the back of the head and extends toward the back. It also slants backward slightly, sometimes paralleling the line of the
nose. The inner line around the top of the ear seldom follows the outer shape exactly. Don't forget that both ears usually line up with each other and are seen in perspective when the head is tilted.


Oddly enough, although ears usually don't contribute very much to the likeness, when they're incorrectly placed they can cause you a great deal of trouble. And it's a very subtle kind of trouble, for no one is expecting ears to matter much. The face can be perfect, the ears beautifully drawn, but you'll sense there is something wrong. For students, the biggest problem seems to be aligning the ears with the eyebrow line and the base-of-the-nose line. Make sure you follow the curving eyebrow line when the head is tilted and hang the ears from that. Like the mouth, when the head is tilted back, the ears appear to be lower; head tilted forward, the ears appear higher.

Before you start to draw, sit up very straight, holding your head absolutely erect, and look in a mirror. Envision an imaginary line at the top of the ears and another at the bottom of the ears extending across the face. (see drawing above) As you learned from the lesson on the proportions of the head, we have a rule of thumb that tells us the top of the ear usually lines up with the eyebrow, and the bottom with the base of the nose. But YOUR ears may be positioned differently; look hard and decide.

You will need a pencil, drawing paper, kneaded eraser, and mirror for this exercise:











There is the mouth and the ears. Next week we begin on drawing the body. See you then!