Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Weekend of Portraiture with Gary Faigin

Gary Faigin giving one of many demos.
“If you want to learn to draw portraits, the worst thing you can do is to practice by drawing from photographs.” That’s how strongly Gary Faigin believes in the value of learning by drawing from life. In one weekend at Gage Academy, I got a crash course in Faigin’s basic portrait-drawing principles. Co-founder and artistic director of Gage, Faigin rarely teaches outside of his atelier, so when I saw that he was offering a weekend intensive on portraiture, I jumped right on it.

His assertion about the value of drawing from life made me feel somewhat vindicated about not enjoying drawing anything from photos (his statement felt like a spiritual high-five to all urban sketchers). As a learning tool, he said, drawing from a photo is about 10 percent as effective as drawing a model. Copying a master is about 50 percent as effective. But drawing in your sketchbook every time you see someone’s face? That’s 100 percent effective – even if it’s just a quick sketch. Every time you do one, you learn something. Faigin urged students to draw heads from life at every opportunity. (He estimates that he’s drawn 10,000 heads by now!)

Over the weekend, we had two models each day – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – giving us a variety of head types and features to practice on. We also systematically rotated our spots in the studio when the model changed so that each student would learn to draw the head from different angles – near profile, three-quarter and full-frontal face.
Gary's demo of model Lexi.

Besides the actual drawing practice, probably the single-most valuable part of the workshop was watching Faigin’s demos. Seeing him turn big, ugly blobs of charcoal into a face that closely resembled the model – in only 30 minutes or so – was nearly magical. But of course, it’s not magic – it’s simply applying the principles that he has developed over 40 years as an artist and teacher.

Faigin’s principles are based on his belief that portrait resemblance comes not from individual features but from the larger structures: overall head shape; positions (not details) of major facial features; and relative proportions of those features. If we block in those larger structures correctly, then even if we don’t render the eye or mouth perfectly, the portrait will still be recognizable. And if those larger structures are not blocked in correctly, no amount of perfect rendering of individual features will lead to resemblance. These are the steps that he showed us with each demo and that we practiced all weekend:
  1. Block in the large shapes: overall head shape (including hair), forehead, eye sockets (from eyebrow to lower socket edge, not just the eyeball). Try to see these areas as abstract shapes and dark blobs, not “eyes” or “forehead.”
  2. Mark placeholders for locations of the base of the nose and mouth.
  3. Block in large shadows on the face.
  4. Finally, render the individual features last.
His method is designed to bypass the human instinct to first pay attention to individual features. Paradoxically, although we (as humans) are attracted to details such as individual features, our brains recognize faces by their larger shapes. Surprisingly, he believes that by following these steps, one can achieve reasonably recognizable results after practicing only about 20 or 30 portraits. (I was afraid he was going to say 10,000!) In fact, he says portraiture is relatively easy compared to figure drawing, which involves so many more ways in which proportions can go wrong.

This was my first portrait on day 1 (model Pete). I forgot to photograph the blocking in. Gary said that my overall head shape and proportions were good, however . . . .

. . . the position of one eye was too close to the nose. Here's my drawing with Gary's corrections made over it (and a study of the nose when I said I was having difficulty shaping it).

My biggest insight of the weekend was how similar Faigin’s approach to portraits is to the urban sketching methods I learned from Eduardo Bajzek in Porto. Although buildings and streets seem very different from faces, the principles for drawing them are identical: Block in the largest shapes and structures first. Once you are confident that the large shapes are right, including their relative positions and values, then filling in the details is easy.

One other similarity was both artists’ penchant for use of the eraser as a drawing tool. In Eduardo’s workshop, we spent a substantial length of time giving the paper an even tone of gray with graphite so that highlights could be put in with an eraser. Faigin followed the same technique with charcoal. (Important: In Faigin’s workshop, we used a very smooth “layout” paper with a surface similar to standard printer paper. With his technique, he advised against using traditional charcoal paper, which has a strong tooth that holds charcoal particles and will not erase cleanly.) Over the weekend, it helped significantly to already be familiar with Eduardo’s technique that I’ve been practicing with graphite.
Blocking in completed for my second portrait of day 1 (model Lexi), including large shapes and placement guidelines.
My completed portrait of Lexi (the eye study in the upper-right corner was made by Gary)
Blocking in completed for my first portrait on day 2 (model Gloria). At this stage, Gary said things were going well. Later when I had started rendering Gloria's mouth, he said I had made it look generic and Caucasian (Gloria is African American).
He said, "Don't be afraid to walk right up to the model and look more closely." That certainly helped immensely! I could easily see Gloria's mouth. See below. 
Here's my finished portrait of Gloria. This was my best work of the workshop -- I think I captured a resemblance well. Gloria herself liked it enough to take a photo of it! I'm always especially pleased when the model likes a sketch I've made of him or her.

My last portrait of the workshop was of Shannon. I forgot to photograph the blocking-in stage. I think I didn't get that right,
because this doesn't resemble the model well.

More tips and wisdom from Gary Faigin:

  • Every facial feature should be compared with more than one other feature to gauge relative size and position. Don’t draw any single feature in isolation.
  • A good way to practice form and shading for portraiture is drawing from casts of heads. Although not as effective as drawing from a model, a cast is more practical since it never moves and will not need to take breaks.  
  • Another effective way to learn general form and shading is drawing still lives.
  • It’s a good idea to confirm relative proportions and placements (by holding up a pencil, knitting needle or other straightedge), but measure only to check your work after you’ve drawn from observation.
  • We should study the “rules” of average facial proportions and positions – the eyes are halfway down the head, the corners of the mouth line up with the pupils, etc. – but our job in portraiture is to observe “what it is about the model that departs from the average.” Do not draw generic faces based on the average.
  • Regarding values: “You are guaranteed to fail if you don’t explore the full range of darks and lights. The worst thing is to get stuck in the middle” [of lots of gray tones without contrast].
  • If you learn by drawing models, that will help you draw better from photos. But the vice versa is not true: Drawing from photos will not help you draw better from life. That’s because learning to draw from a two-dimensional object (a photo) will not transfer to learning from a three-dimensional object.
  • Artists to study for portraits: John Singer Sargent, Franz Hals, Anthony van Dyck, Hans Holbein


  1. Great summary of your workshop!!! Your portraits came out really well, especially the one of Gloria. His tips make a lot of sense. I printed out something the other day which is "David Rankin's 5 Minute Sketching Faces Faster Recipe." I'm going to read and reread that a few times.

    1. Thank you, Joan! I learned so much from the workshop! That Rankin recipe sounds awesome, too! I'll look it up!

  2. Thank you for this long discussion. I will keep all this in mind as I draw our Cosplay models.

    Your work is very good!

    1. I appreciate your comments, Kate! Glad you found the post useful.

  3. Great post, Tina. Some of the things you've mentioned are also contained in a free video tutorial that Gary did for Craftsy. The really big deal for me was that faces are recognized even without eye, nose and mouth details. It really shifts your emphasis. It still surprises me that so many of the good artists emphasize working on large shapes first and yet so many people still start with the eye, or some detail that catches their own eye :-)

    1. Yes -- and it's not just with face/portraits. So many people start a sketch with one tiny window, and then the rest of the building doesn't fit on the page! The principles are the same, regardless of subject matter. That was an important lesson!


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