Sunday, January 8, 2023

Gestural vs. Detailed Portraits


12/29/22 Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Soft Brush (SB) Pen
Using a brush pen has been a great way to shake up my portrait practice. My objective is to see how few marks I can make and still capture the expression or facial gesture. I’m also still practicing more detailed portraits that attempt to capture form, light, shadow and resemblance as usual.

A couple Earthsworld reference photos I used were ones that I had drawn previously, sometimes more than once already. Even if it had been quite a while since the last time I drew the face, familiarity made it easier to capture the expression with gestural marks than a completely unfamiliar face would be. My memory still informed the later attempt.

12/26/22 colored pencil

12/28/22 Pitt SB pen

12/29/22 Pitt SB pen (You've seen this guy before at least twice)

I thought it would be an interesting experiment to draw from the same photo – first in a gestural style, then in a more detailed style, or the other way around – to see how each attempt informs the next. I tried it with the four sets below, allowing at least 12 hours between the first and second attempts so that the source would be a little fresh, even if I had drawn it before.

In the first pair, I made the gestural version first. When I made the more detailed one, I realized I had not observed very closely the first time, because I totally missed how foreshortened and turned the head was. Even after I realized this, I still didn’t foreshorten the forehead enough, but I caught it in time to correct it before finishing (you can see where I changed his hairline, which should have been much lower from that angle). My experience with the gestural version is what I think of as the difference between “loose” and merely sloppy: I thought I was being loose and gestural, but I was simply not observing well – that’s sloppy. I believe that no matter how “loose” or “tight” the intended result, the observation needs to be careful.

12/28/22 I made this one with brush pen first.

12/30/22 Two days later, I made this one...
and realized I hadn't studied the reference well

For the next three sets, I drew the detailed, more studied version first, which required closer observation and more time to capture the form. When I eventually did the more gestural version, my memory of the studied version informed my sketch, and it was much easier to capture a more accurate yet minimal gesture.

12/29/22 colored pencil

12/30/22 Pitt SB pen

1/2/23 colored pencil

1/2/23 I tried this one twice with a brush pen.

1/2/23 Bic ballpoint. The reference photo for this pair
was like an anatomy lesson! It was fascinating to observe
all the facial muscles involved in sucking through a straw!

1/3/23 Pitt SB pen

The last pair I’m showing are selfies I did on the last day of the year. I did the detailed version first, but I followed up with the gestural version immediately after (I figured that allowing time to go by in between would not freshen the view of my own face, which is fairly familiar by now 😉).

12/31/22 Pitt SB pen

12/31/22 colored pencil

The last time I made a mirror selfie, the lighting in the bathroom wasn’t ideal. This time I devised a better setup: I propped a mirror on a bedroom windowsill with the shade closed behind it. I turned off the overhead light, then stood next to the adjacent side window with its shade open. That’s ideal portrait lighting: an indirect but strong single source of light on one side.

Ideal lighting.


  1. Nice work ! Especially like the selfies.

  2. I like how you can capture the essence in the gestural sketches. Good job!

    1. Thanks, Joan! Those are definitely a different kind of challenge from the detailed ones!


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