Monday, January 2, 2023

Portrait Questions


12/26/22 colored pencil in Uglybooks sketchbook

I’m still having a ball practicing portraiture with Earthsworld’s reference photos. His massive image collection gives me a central location to choose one, either at random or based on the type of portrait I want to make, at any time, whenever I feel like it. I never used to sketch much in the late evening when I was tired, but lately I’ve been doing some portraits then because it’s so easy to look for source material. Anything that makes it easier for me to practice or practice more often is a terrific resource.

Sometimes I visit a Facebook group I joined recently that is totally devoted to making art from Earthsworld’s photos. The moderator chooses an image, and group members post their renditions of the photo. It’s fascinating and inspiring to see all the varied styles and approaches that result from many artists using the same reference photo. When I’m having difficulty deciding on a face to draw, I use the moderator’s pick, which is often more challenging than one I would pick for myself.

In today’s post, I’m showing a couple of different approaches: My more comfortable “realistic” approach and a couple that are caricatures. The latter, which are still a greater challenge for me, have reopened an ambivalence that I had mentioned previously. Sometimes I have felt disrespectful of the models when I’ve tried caricatures or exaggerated features. My intention is not to mock them in any way, and I realize that it’s very unlikely that the models would ever see my sketches. Even so, if they did happen to see them, how would they feel?

12/21/22 Bic ballpoint in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
This started out with the intention of a caricature, but it remained mostly realistic
until I gave him different glasses and changed his hair and facial hair. Does that count
as caricature?

When I make caricatures, I push aside these vaguely uncomfortable feelings in the name of art practice, but the Facebook group recently brought those feelings back to the forefront. After the moderator had posted an image, a couple members made unkind comments – not about anyone’s work but about the person in the photo. I had already drawn from it, feeling a certain discomfort because I did not have to exaggerate much to make it look like a caricature. How would this model have felt upon seeing my sketch or those of others? Or read the comments?

12/22/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha sketchbook

Then I continued pushing my thoughts further: What about all my sincere attempts to capture the likenesses of strangers? If the result is flattering, perhaps the model wouldn’t mind. But in any case, how would they feel if they saw my sketches? If I saw that a stranger had randomly sketched me and posted the work on the Internet, how would I feel? I never have these concerns when I sketch people live on location because I know they would not be recognizable. Somehow, though, a portrait from a photo seems more personal (and ironically, when my objective is resemblance, then making a recognizable result is more likely).

12/12/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha sketchbook
12/16/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha

I haven’t stopped making the portraits because I still enjoy it, and more important, I continue to learn from the practice. But I’m going to keep thinking about these questions.

12/24/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha sketchbook
This may look like a caricature, but it's actually realistic. I was so fascinated by the
intriguing headwear that I unsuccessfully tried to Google it to see if it had a traditional ethnic origin.
It looks like it was folded diagonally from a single piece of fabric.

Process note: When I studied portraiture with Gary Faigin several years ago, he stressed the importance of getting the larger proportions and structural forms of the head right first before moving on to features, an approach that is very difficult for me. The classical method he teaches probably works better with charcoal or paint, which are easier to make large shapes with. Even in a small sketch, I waste a lot of time correcting and recorrecting the head shape and structure before I can even get to the features, and sometimes I have to correct again after drawing features.

  12/26/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha sketchbook  
Taking France Van Stone’s crosshatching courses and watching her portrait demos changed my approach completely. I observed that she usually begins with a few blocking marks, but then spends very little time on the face shape before going straight in with the eyes. After she has the eyes figured out, then she works on other features and the overall face.

For “realistic” portraits in which achieving resemblance is an objective, I find I am having much more success when I begin with the eyes and build the rest of the proportions around them. I find this approach easier, faster and more likely to get a reasonable likeness. It might not be recommended for a large painting, but it’s effective for small sketches.

12/27/22 Bic ballpoint in S&B Alpha


  1. You've really been doing a lot of portraits. Nice to see the ones that hadn't been posted yet.

  2. I am really loving and getting inspiration from all these portraits you are making. I think you have never felt strength in portraits, but you have becoming so good at it. I also know you would never intentionally insult someone, even if they would never know it. I see people who PAY to get a caricature of themselves to hang on the wall! I kind of wonder how those artists decide what feature to focus on. Maybe they ask what their model is most proud of and then make more of it! Anne HwH

    1. Thank you, Anne! I've avoided portraiture until recently... it can be so intimidating, but like any subject, it's just a matter of practice and attention. I watched a caricature artist working at a fair once (OK, I wasn't just watching -- I was sketching him ;-) ), and he did ask the models what their interests were so he could include things in the sketch (like a tennis racket, for example). But I noticed he looked at whatever feature seemed prominent (eyebrows, hair) and exaggerated that one thing.


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