First, determine your composition: bust vs. full figure, skin vs. clothes, and the background. Positioning is also important. For portraits, a frontal view is easier than a profile or ¾ view, which is the most challenging. A helpful hint: Assume every line or mark is wrong, and you won’t be opposed to altering it. This helps you to let go, allowing you to erase and redraw instead of stubbornly trying to make it work. Another mistake is not using (and keeping) a fine point. (Jo Ellen uses sandpaper affixed to a cutting board to sharpen her vine charcoal as she worked.)
Charcoal, chalk, and erasers are not the only tools. Your brain is one too. Artists tend to use the “Creative” right side of the brain versus the “Logical” or “Analytical” left side. But with Portrait or Still Life, you should use both and try to see the math in the science of art. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by trying to capture the image as a whole, break the image down into patterns, shapes, geometry. See the triangle shadow under the nose, while the shadow along cheekbone and jawline is a rhombus. To get the angles right: compare to a clock face or measure by the actual degree of the angle. Not a math fan? Use the alphabet instead: pull out “S” shaped highlights in hair, recreate the “M” shape for lips.
Always start by measuring! Three methods are (1) relational measuring (using x & y axis), (2) comparative measuring (compare one part to another), and (3) proportional measuring (compare height to width). Begin by marking where top and bottom line of head will be. These give you reference marks with which to line up features. You may use a grid or cross to help map out the portrait. Using pencil and thumb as a measuring guide, extend your arm in front of you to “measure” the subject and to double check your progress on canvas. Use other objects to measure the subject. For example, the eye is width of eraser, or the nose is the length of thumbnail. Mark the rough position of the top of head, bottom of chin, brow, eye, nose, and mouth. . Placement of ears is crucial because that shows the viewer the position of head. The top of the ear usually lines up with the top of the eyelid. The bottom of the ear lines up with the bottom of mouth. Faces break down into equal parts and measurements. Helpful Hint: Lips are shaped like the letter “M”. Mouth opening is horizontal with some curve. Also there is a shadow under the nose and bottoms of both upper and lower lip. Highlight the top of lower lip to help it “jut out”, giving it fullness and dimension. Area at the bottom and corners of the mouth has same value as skin underneath.
Symmetry is an essential factor for the beauty and accuracy of the portrait. The bottom of nose, middle line of lips, and the bottom of the chin are equal thirds. The bottom of nose is about half way from eyebrow to chin. There is a similar amount of space from brow to hairline. As a general rule: Putting your thumb to your chin, the span of hand will reach hairline. A common mistake is to start the nose equal to iris or pupil. It should actually be slightly higher. Eyes are generally in center of head. Young and elderly subjects may be exceptions. For very young children, the eyes are the largest and most noted feature. The average adult human eyeball has a 1 inch diameter, with a child’s being about 2/3 that size. Measurement hint: the width of face is 5 “eyes” wide, with one “eye” between the eyes. A common mistake is making too eyes too big. Eyebrows are uniquely shaped and help add definition to face/portrait.
A typical error is to use a circle for the head. The human skull is rounded, but not perfectly round. Other common errors include using a hard outline around mouth, lips, and jaw. Similarly the hair: no hard outline or it will look fake - like a bad wig. These lines should be soft, especially around the temple. Break curves down into points and connect the dots to create the proper slope for head, hairline, and jaw. Drop a plumb line to see how features line up and where. Find the angles by simulating a clock face, e.g., 1 vs. 2 o’clock
Lighting can help define features or create effects. You want strong lights and darks because shadow adds depth and fullness. The core of the shadow, the line where light meets dark, is incredibly important to still life and portrait art. First put in the darks, then add the highlights. Don’t overuse white. And don’t use white for highlights in the hair. Instead use values of dark. You can use a kneaded eraser to lighten or pull out tones to create natural looking highlights. Typical highlights are bridge of nose, top of bottom lip and round of chin, and over eyebrow. There is order to how the light falls: where it hits first is lightest, everything will be a darker value. Determine which highlights are more important…too much and the face looks shiny. And don’t use white for eyes or teeth. The “whites of the eyes” are not truly white. Making eyes or teeth white is unnatural and will look it. Often the tint of the paper is sufficient for the middle tone. Use the charcoal to shade or add curves, shadows, and depth. Use white for highlights – sparingly. Keep charcoal and white chalk separate…don’t blend or mix the two because it will create a gray/muddy mess.
Painting from a live model rather than by a photo yields a better result. It helps capture the character or “essence” of your model. An exception to this rule: when models, such as children or animals, tend to move. It is also important to set up your own light source, because with natural light, the intensity and direction of the light changes and with it, the shadows.
Composition is the key to a strong painting. Use of strong lights and darks in background, clothes, and subject will create a more dramatic and lifelike result. For the demonstration, part of the dark shirt on the right side of the portrait was used to balance the dark length of her hair on the other. Keep in mind, too much detail can detract from the portrait, especially with patterns in backgrounds or clothes. Knowing when the piece is done depends on the type of portrait…but don’t burn out or overwork it. Keep it simple. Rather than draw each individual eyelash…sometimes a fuzzy line is better (for time management as well as artistic effect).
Jo Ellen Reinhardt is available for commissions and specializes in Adults, Children, Pets, Memorial, and Corporate Portraits. Visit her website: www. JoEllenReinhardt.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on Jo Ellen, her art, and workshops she offers.