How can I capture the "essence" in a portrait drawing?
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    Unhappy How can I capture the "essence" in a portrait drawing?

    Hello everyone! Hope you can help me with this.

    I've been practicing my portrait drawings seriously for almost a year now and learning anatomy from life and pictures. I wouldn't say I'm good at it, but the main thing I want to know is how do I capture the 'essence' of a living human in my portrait drawings? You know how sometimes you look at some portraits and you thought its a photograph because it just looks so real. And I'm not just talking about the anatomical and tonal aspect but how you can tell what the person in that photo-realistic portrait feels and think.

    I just can't get the realistic, living/breathing element in my drawings. I think it looks too stiff and 'dead'. This could be mainly due to my using photographic references instead of life, but its hard to get a model to pose for hours with the same expression.

    So what kind of practice should I do to help achieve a more lively, convincing portrait drawing?

    I would also like to know what you guys think my strengths are in my drawings as well as general weaknesses.
    Thank you so, so much. I'd appreciate any sincere criticism.


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  2. #2
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    From what you have posted here you definitely have some chops and I may be out of my depth here, but here goes nothing!
    It’s hard to capture 'Character', which is what I think you are after, in images of people with blank expressions - not impossible, but very difficult.
    There is a lot of subtlety in human expression and what may appear to be a 'straight' expressionless face to you when you are drawing it, may have some tell-tale cues that you are unconsciously reading when you look at your ref. but not including in the drawing. Things like: - a slight pursing of the lips, or holding them ever so slightly open, a set jaw, or brow. The brows being ever so slightly lifted and the eyes - So much subtlety possible in the eyes! It is the combination of these things that works to bring 'life' to a face. People rarely have 'blank' expressions - it takes effort to do that. So look at your ref. and ask yourself what is this person feeling, or thinking? What is it in their face that makes you think that? This helps me focus on the subtle expression cues that I may otherwise miss. It also helps to use the answers you get from asking these in your compositional (and lighting if possible) choices to reinforce the mood. (Hint drawing a face dead on is not the easiest way to capture what you want - what you have posted are not that far off from 'mug-shots')
    I you want your portraits to capture " . . . what the person . . . feels and think [s]" Then you need to have that in your mind from the outset and make think about how you can weave that into the portrait using all of the tools you have as an artist line, composition, lighting, colour, medium/media etc.
    As an exercise I've found it useful to draw pages of studies of each of the features of the face, in isolation, with different expressions. A page of eyes and brows with different expressions, a page of mouths etc. . .
    But maybe just start with portraits where the subject is showing some emotion and see what comes of that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lumina Dreams View Post
    You know how sometimes you look at some portraits and you thought its a photograph because it just looks so real. And I'm not just talking about the anatomical and tonal aspect but how you can tell what the person in that photo-realistic portrait feels and think.
    The drawings you posted look pretty good to me in terms of conveying personality, but...what you're describing has been the goal of portrait artists all over the world for centuries. The answer is "practice, practice, practice." Also, the more you understand about people and how they behave, the more you'll be able to get across in your drawing. As Anton Chekov said: "If you want to work on your art, work on your life."

    In more technical terms, you also need to learn more about the 3D structure of the head (especially the nose), because right now you're just copying tones without really understanding the forms they describe. You need to find a good life drawing class with a teacher who can communicate this stuff well.

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    Mug shots! Of course! I never noticed that until you mention it. It does look that way, huh? Hah. I've been using photo's of models. They always have that signature stare and default expression. I started out that way because it's easier to just focus on getting the anatomy and proportions right. Now it makes sense to look for more expressive and dramatic photo references. I'll do that and see how it goes. I feel a bit silly for not noticing this long ago.

    I like your suggestion to make page studies before i get into the actual portrait. I've never done that before. That's a brilliant idea. Thank you!

    You really helped me, Chas. I appreciate the excellent suggestions. Bless your kind soul.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Giacomo View Post
    Also, the more you understand about people and how they behave, the more you'll be able to get across in your drawing.
    Hmm...that is an important thing to remember. Okay. I'll figure out how to work on that.

    I did took a Life Drawing class in my college semester but it only lasted for about 6 months. It's hard to find a Life Drawing workshops in my location (and even places very far from it). I'm still in the process of asking people and looking around for it. *sigh* The best I could do know is bury myself deeper in some relevant books.

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    I don't know what size these are, but a lot of times those super realistic ones are very large, and they have to be to get a convincing level of detail.

    Check out the few shots where he shows you just how large these pieces are--
    http://diegokoi.deviantart.com/#

    Also double check your materials--you might need to be working on a smooth bristol surface with h pencils--these look like sketch paper and b's.

    But in any case you've got a great start--you'll only get better and better.

    Good Luck!



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    Ah, I used A4 size for all these drawings posted. I've heard of the artist you linked in. He was on some article I read a few days back. Thanks for the link! Will use it for research.

    That's 'cause I did use sketch papers. I haven't thought about making a grand portrait artwork yet. These are just sketches. But I will keep your words in mind. It'll be helpful soon enough.

    And thank you for the encouragement as well.

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    Why don't you bring out a mirror and try out different facial expressions. You might feel silly but it helps a lot. Try to feel the expressions you make and study how the muscles move and what sort of thing make creases or straightens out. You don't even have to make sketches to begin with.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Giacomo View Post
    In more technical terms, you also need to learn more about the 3D structure of the head (especially the nose), because right now you're just copying tones without really understanding the forms they describe.
    ^ This.

    I believe that one of the secrets to drawing likeness is drawing accurately. If you're perfectly accurate, you'll have perfect likeness. Most of the problems people have with capturing likeness is just not being accurate enough. You mention photo realism -- that's what I mean here.

    One of the ways to learn accuracy is learning to 'see' and measure and compare better. Doing things like constantly flicking your eyes back between what you're drawing and the ref, holding a pencil up to judge angles and widths, squinting to check values, putting the drawing up to a mirror to check symmetry issues, etc. These are just a few skills that you can learn which allow you to copy anything you have a reference photo of if you put enough time into it.

    ... However, there is another way of capturing likeness that doesn't rely on photo-realistic accuracy techniques. These techniques I mentioned above won't help much with drawing stuff from memory, and the drawing will break if you try to change much. IMHO, photo 'hyper-realism' is a bit boring, because you end up just mindlessly copying the photo, instead of putting your own aesthetic swing on things. It's technically impressive, but artistically I don't see much difference between a drawing of a photo and the original photo.

    One good way, as Giacomo said, is understanding the 3D form. Study planes of the head, the Reilly method (video, but squashed), Proko's videos, and generally the skull and facial anatomy -- get the structure down. This will at least make the drawing look alive and real, even if it doesn't quite capture the specific person you're going for. (The reason it might not is because you'll be studying from classical proportions -- how to change those proportions is a big part of getting likeness.)

    To capture the specific person you're going for, if your drawings are looking a bit samey, it might be worth studying caricature a little -- learn to see which features you can exaggerate to exaggerate the likeness of the person. "A caricature is a portrait with the volume turned up." The Mad Art of Caricature is an excellent book, or you can read a cut-down version of it in these tutorials (the 'How to Draw Caricatures' section) for free.

    You mention subtle expression. Another great book that can help you express subtlety of expression is the Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Faigin. It explains how minute changes of the eyelid can cause big (though subtle) expression changes. For example, it explains how the upper eyelid indicates a lot of expression -- exactly how close it falls to the pupil, and any overlap, will change an expression from surprised to concentrating to normal to flirty to tired. The lower eyelid, on the other hand, only has muscles to pull it up (not to pull it down), so it only contributes to expression if it gets pulled up, and can go as far down as it can without changing expression (some people have a bit of white below the iris, some don't, whereas basically no one naturally has white above their iris).

    Hope this helps. I'm on the same quest myself.


    EDIT:

    You said:
    And I'm not just talking about the anatomical and tonal aspect but how you can tell what the person in that photo-realistic portrait feels and think.
    What I meant about accuracy was that there isn't really anything else but anatomy and tone to suggest what a person in a portrait feels and thinks. All we have to work that out is this visual information. If you capture a photo accurately enough, you will capture that information too. But you may be interested more about how to edit the expression to convey different feelings from a photo, in which case stuff like bend of the lip and droop of the eyelid are what you're after -- Facial Expression. Or if you're looking for the likeness of a person's face, it's a combination of their typical expressions and facial proportions, and how much the proportions differ from 'classical' proportions -- Art of Caricature. Hope that makes sense.

    Last edited by Lulie; January 11th, 2013 at 11:52 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lumina Dreams View Post
    I think it looks too stiff and 'dead'. This could be mainly due to my using photographic references instead of life, but its hard to get a model to pose for hours with the same expression.

    So what kind of practice should I do to help achieve a more lively, convincing portrait drawing?
    The only practice that can help to achieve that is draw portraits of living people, not portraits of photographs.

    But besides that, you have two main problems here, one related to the drawing method and the other to your mode of thinking.

    The problem with method is that while you get fair texture from your pencil and are able to reproduce the values, you are not thinking structurally and so your heads do not become cohesive heads. There are lapses here and there which disconnect the facial features from each other: one ear seems to be in front of the other, for instance, or the lips are floating in space without connection to the nose, a symbol creeps in where a planar breakdown should be, and the like. You have to think in terms of structure of your subject, not just slavishly copy dark and light spots. Work as if you were sculpting the head, not copying a flat image.

    The problem with your thinking is aptly summarized in your phrase " it's hard to get a model to pose for hours with the same expression". The only kind of person that can hold the same expression for hours is dead. You think that to make a good portrait, you need to make a precise picture of a fixed face; but that is the exact opposite of what a good portraitist does.

    What you need to do is observe what makes that person unique; the character; the whole range of expressions that they make. You should try to capture the essence, not the mechanics. Summarize the expressions, get to know the person, feel what makes them tick, use a little caricature to exaggerate what makes them unique. Without knowing your model you will never even approach picking the right expression for their portrait, not even mentioning capturing it.

    Note that doing that from a photo is a nearly impossible thing. You need to observe the person, not a static image full of incidentals useless for your task.

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    I've found it really helpful to make a habit of going out with a sketchbook and doing quick, candid caricatures/portraits of people on the street. That way you're really not drawing anything BUT the essence of a person, which to me is more than the exact proportions of their face. With time this will inform your larger, slower drawings.

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    its an interesting topic.
    i guess on the one hand, absolute accuracy is important as your brain is very good at spotting bad facial resemblances, theres clearly a big blob of nuerones and synapses (or whateever) in the brain devoted to doing just that. but from further out ie beyond direct visual range of the small features of the face, body language, gait, proportion, are all as unique to a person as their fingerprint or music taste.

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    I love this website. :'D Thanks everyone for the very helpful insights.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lulie View Post
    Or if you're looking for the likeness of a person's face, it's a combination of their typical expressions and facial proportions, and how much the proportions differ from 'classical' proportions -- Art of Caricature.
    I checked out the blog for The Mad Art of Caricature and its really what I've been looking for, actually. It talks about relationship of facial features, getting the likeness and understanding how to make a statement...that's so on the point of what I want to achieve. So I can't say enough how grateful I am for the share!

    Quote Originally Posted by arenhaus View Post
    The problem with method is that while you get fair texture from your pencil and are able to reproduce the values, you are not thinking structurally and so your heads do not become cohesive heads. ...You have to think in terms of structure of your subject, not just slavishly copy dark and light spots. Work as if you were sculpting the head, not copying a flat image.
    I see your point. I guess I was doing what you said. Okay, so what I understand from what you and a few other people already mention here is that to make a portrait come alive, I'll need an understanding and application of the basic anatomy structure as well as observe the array of expressions of the individual, yes?

    How do you draw portraits of living people then? I hear your emphasis on drawing from life, but how do you do it? Do you hire a model or you go out on the streets and make quick sketches of passer-bys? I find it really hard to draw strangers because it'll be weird (and kinda rude) to stare at them and even more weird when they notice me staring at them (I do speak from experience). And people just move too fast and hop here and there. There's too many people, too many expressions, too many things going on. I think I'll end up drawing from a brief memory of them instead of observation.

    So how do you guys do it?

    Last edited by Lumina Dreams; January 16th, 2013 at 08:22 AM.
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    Take this with a grain of salt, as you are much, much better at rendering than me. That said, I took a break from drawing for almost 15 years and did a lot of photography in that time. I've found the thing at captures emotion most in photography, which almost certainly translates to drawing, is the eyes. Where they are looking, if their pupils are dilated, focused on a point near to them or far away- that all conveys a huge amount of information. One piece of direction I would often give models is to smile with their eyes. If someone just smiles with their mouth, it looks fake, and creepy. Try it in a mirror. Maybe ask some of your friends to pose for you and as them to imagine different things, and then take a close-up picture of their eyes. Look at the differences. It will convey a world of emotion and character and that's w/o any of the rest of the face in the image. I don't know if that's helpful or not, but I hope it is.

    Cheers,
    Nick

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    Many of the best portraits are slight caricatures of the subject. You probably want to start with trying to exaggerate people with unique features, trying to exaggerate features that are all symmetric and regular is more difficult. Although this lot looks pretty unique.

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