Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sketching the Portrait Essence

12/31/12 fountain pen, custom-mix ink, S&B Epsilon
When I first started drawing in autumn 2011, I boldly and ambitiously decided to work on portraits based on photos. (I have a huge collection of old family photos that I spent months digitizing a few years ago, so I had no shortage of inspiring source material.) Below is one portrait I sketched of a photo that was taken of my father in the late ‘30s around the time my parents got married. Although I’d say it’s not a bad portrait, I was disappointed that it neither reproduced the photo accurately, nor (more importantly) did it capture what I’d call the essence of my father. I tried a few more sketches like this from other old photos, but I kept being disappointed in the same way, so I stopped.
Last night as I was waiting for Greg to finish up a home improvement task so that we could open the champagne and get on with our New Year’s Eve revelry (and by that I mean watching episodes of Boardwalk Empire and getting to bed by 10 p.m.), I was surfing through the Urban Sketchers group on Flickr. I came across an evocative sketch by Madame Ink, an artist I admire, that was based on a vintage family photo. In the comments, she posted the following suggestions:
“Try using a tool that forces you to be interpretive would be my advice – so you are not trying to generate photographic looking results. I like the Neocolor II crayons and the Pentel pocket brush pen for this reason: they are broad tools. An expressive result is my goal – something other than the reference – a filtered result if you will.”
10/21/11 pencil
The proverbial light bulb appeared over my head! I immediately pulled up the same portrait of my father that I had sketched previously and grabbed a fountain pen. The 2-minute sketch above was the result. Although it isn’t an accurate rendering of the photo, nor does it “look like” my father in a recognizable sense, it somehow does capture the essence of my dad in a way that the first sketch does not.

I’m going to try more of these portrait sketches using broader tools as Madame Ink recommends.


  1. Interesting. The current drawing is less photographic than the old one but it definitely has more of *something*. I've been sketching from photos a lot lately but hadn't thought to turn to old family ones. I have some very nice ones that are very early 1900's.

  2. Your dad looks so cool and classy! I think Madame Ink had a good idea. I think especially when it comes to someone we know we obsess about getting a perfect likeness and miss their essence. I like the way this line drawing looks. I enjoyed your post below too. I was laughing last night because it was Jan. 1 and I hadn't gone out to sketch anywhere all day. But I solved that problem by doing a home sketch instead.

    Have a great day and a great year!

  3. Thanks, Kate and Joan. I am definitely inspired by Madame Ink's technique... I'm having fun going through all the old photos so I can do more sketches like this.


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