For starters, portraits can show the full figure of the person, or just the head, or any combination in between. A portrait can even focus on a specific part or region of the person’s body, cropping out the rest.The pose is also important. The person can be facing straight ahead, depicted in 1/4 turn, captured in profile, or be turned 3/4. There have even been portraits showing just the back of a person. A strong portrait captivates viewers, draws them into the painting, and engages their attention. Such a portrait painting causes the viewer to wonder about the person depicted. In this way a portrait painting or drawing can function as a biography – telling the story of that person’s life.
Examine things like:
Facial expression – Does the sitter look happy, sad, contemplative, sarcastic? Lively or tired? Peaceful or angry? Friendly or menacing? Gesture or pose – What is the sitter doing? Are they sitting still, or standing? Are they riding a horse? Are they gazing out to sea? Holding a basket of flowers? Are they pointing at something? Clothing – How is the person dressed? Are they nude? If they are clothed, do they wear fancy clothes? Military regalia? A black evening gown? Or are they more modestly dressed? Are they wearing tattered clothes? Are the fashions contemporary or old? Setting – Where does the portrait take place? Is it indoors or outdoors? What do the surroundings look like? Shabby or elegant? Modern or dated? Is it in someone’s kitchen? Or on top of a mountain? Objects – What other objects are in the painting, besides the sitter? If they are sitting down, what kind of chair is it – a fancy ornate chair, soft velvet sofa, or a plain wooden chair? Are they holding anything? Are there objects in the painting that grab your attention?
Strange or surprising colour schemes can be used to great effect in portrait painting. It’s an excellent way to convey emotion. Delicate, detailed portraits often carry a certain sensitivity and thoughtfulness. An artist using rough, choppy brush strokes approaches portrait painting from a different, more expressive angle.
An artist might choose to depict a person exactly as they are – flaws included, so that every wart, pimple or scar is clearly memorialized in paint for all to see. Artists may sometimes even exaggerate a person’s characteristics, good or bad, to make a caricature of the person. Conversely, an artist might “kindly overlook” the person’s flaws, correcting imperfections and presenting an idealised view of a person. The portrait can seek to replicate reality by making the figure look sculptural, as if it really existed in 3-dimensional space. Or the artist may play with the 2-dimensionality of the flat surface, and render a portrait that doesn’t seek to emerge from the picture plane.
The truth is there is no fixed style or technique to do a portrait, no set media to do it in and just like any other subject, there are no fixed rules but for the novice portraiture can seem daunting because there is an assumption that you have to do a likeness or make it realistic. If you now think of some of all the art movements there have ever been or even just Picasso’s portraits you quickly understand why this is nonsense. Photo realism, though talented is not exactly the most imaginative way to tackle portrait, I tend to prefer an unusual technique and nearly always a characterful face ir quirky perspective.
Even the proportions of a face are not fixed as some folk have larger features than others and if you distort or foreshorten the perspective you’ll soon find that carefully observation always works best although I will admit having a rough guide as to how the features relate to each other is helpful. Luckily there are plenty of ‘How to draw faces’ guides, online courses and videos to view for free but would add that I found the most helpful thing to remember is the shape of the skull and roughly how big the head in relation to the body. It is undoubtedly useful to bear the proportions of the entire head and its features in mind so here is my rough guide as to how things fit.
Human faces are rarely symmetrical and are never circular, they are oval and some are long and thin, some are angular and some are rounder and plumper than others. The eye sockets are usually positioned have way down the face, then the bottom of the nose is half way between the eyes and chin and the mouth is roughly half way between the bottom of the nose and the chin. The ears are approximately from the top of the eye to the bottom of the mouth, but they vary enormously in size and shape just like eyes, noses, mouths and teeth. If a person has their eyes or mouth open or screwed up tight it alters things quite a bit but that’s as much as you need to know for drawing faces from the side, or front when not foreshortened. For foreshortened faces, whatever is closest will seem much bigger than normal which is worth remembering for views from above or below. Finally just remember the back of the skull is round and doesn’t go straight up from the neck, it’s housing for the brain so sticks out a bit.
There are many exercises to help you draw more accurately including using your thumb to measure distances along a pencil when drawing, but you must measure at arms length consistently. Others prefer to use geometric shapes, particularly triangles to help to get some detail, but the one exercise I found suited me best was to drawn without letting the pencil leave the page correcting distances by going back and forth over the page gradually darkening the marks where I was happy. That’s about all I know about portraiture except to say… make it personal.