How to Draw

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How to Draw Portraits

The rooms of your home, the passages, the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom even (Bonnard often painted his bathroom) all are possible subjects. And then there is portraiture.

Portraits are probably the most difficult, but the most interesting subjects of all. The human face has fascinated the artist from time immemorial. In one way or another, it has been a favorite subject.

When starting a portrait, make sure that your sitter is very comfortable. If he is not, he will fidget and you will not be able to concentrate. At first draw somebody while they are having a snooze. Or, if you can’t find somebody to pose, draw yourself in a mirror. Self-portraits have been done by every artist at one time or another because the artist makes such a good sitter. There is not likely to be any argument about likeness, for instance.


Likeness is the one thing we want to achieve and never seem to get. Right, then forget about the likeness. Concentrate on the shape and the form and the light and the dark and the character of what you see. In this way you will get a truth about the person that no photograph could arrive at.

A few points to remember when doing a portrait: get the light so that it illuminates the front of the head (the face) and the side goes into the shadow. This will give solidity to the form. Draw from a three-quarter angle at first, as a frontal view can be very difficult. Rough out the big shapes in charcoal. Leave the detail of eyes, nose, mouth and hair until last. Half close your eyes continually.

When you are satisfied with the big shapes then, and only then, work on the smaller shapes and the detail in conte and/or carbon, finishing with white chalk. Don’t draw the head larger than life but, on the other hand, don’t reduce it to the size of a postage stamp. Above all, leave those delightful little highlights in the eyes to the very last. It won’t get you very far if you start on them too early.

In a portrait it is well to get the differences of size between forehead and hair, nose to chin. This is again a question of shape, but it is very important in portraiture. Remember that eyes, too, though important, shouldn’t be drawn in too quickly at the beginning. The eyes in fact do not protrude as you may think. They go back under the brow. If you place your light above the head you will see what I mean.

When you have drawn a few portraits with the side light, rearrange the lighting to give top, or even bottom light. Try two sources of light, a stronger one in the front and a weaker light behind. Move your sitter into different comfortable poses. It will make a new subject every time.