Tuesday, February 28, 2012

charcoal portrait study and process

This post is mainly for the students in my life drawing class, but for anyone out there who still looks at this blog... it can be for you too. Thanks for looking.

Right now, we are focusing on learning to draw heads and faces better, as well as working on our tonal (rather than linear) drawing skills. Learing to draw tonally is a step in the process of learning to paint. So, I did this demo for them in class, and actually remembered to take some pictures along the way to document the process. Keep in mind this is just one way to do a tonal study of a head. It's not the only way--nor the way I do it every time--just the way I did it this time.

Here is what I accomplished in the first 20-minute session. I started this one out by toning the white paper with my vine charcoal and wiping it around with a paper towel to create a gray midtone to work into. Then I did my initial lay-in drawing into that. For the lay-in I did more of a direct drawing approach and didn't really use construction lines. I probably should have for the sake of the demo, but I don't usually do that when drawing from life. I definitely thought about the construction lines, but I didn't actually draw them. Instead, my measuring technique is more about trying to see the model's face as a series of interlocking abstract shapes that fit together with the background like puzzle pieces. If you draw one puzzle piece correctly then the one that's next to it (the negative space around it) will look correct. You check them all against each other to make sure they all relate correctly. It's very important to get all the features lined up at this early stage. You are laying the foundation for the rest of the drawing here, and if the foundation is bad, well, you know what happens.

In the next 20 minutes, I tried to establish the value pattern. I don't want to think about detail at this point, so I squint at the model so I only see larger shapes. I erased the charcoal that was there to get the lighter value of the skin in the light, and then darkened the other larger masses around that. This is where all the phrases like "see big", "general to specific" and "large to small" apply. It's always so tempting to jump into details and start drawing eyelashes and pupils, but if you can learn to ignore all that until you have this tonal value foundation done, you will be much better off and you will avoid over-modeling things. Plus, you will be amazed how much of the likeness can be achieved with no detail.

Now that I have all the larger value groups established I can start to add the dark accents and highlights that I see into those areas. But you have to be careful to keep any dark accents or highlights subordinate to the overall value group that you put them in. So you keep squinting. If you stare with eyes wide open into the shadow areas you will see all kinds of detail as your pupils open up to let more light in. But if you draw that detail it won't look right and will seem overdone.

Also, at this stage I can start refining edges to get the variation in edge quality that makes things look natural and interesting.

In this stage I start to look at the subtleties of features and facial expression to get a little more of her personality and likeness into the drawing. Likeness doesn't always have to matter, but it matters to me. I like my drawings to look like the real people who were there in front of me. I'm still working on learning how to make good designs out of those likenesses.

Now, this last stage could take a really long time, or a short time depending on how much refining you want to do. In theory, the idea is that you should be able to refine quite a bit without snuffing the life out of it as long as you keep squinting and trying to see the whole and how all the parts relate to the whole. A lot of the time, the refinement process will be subtractive--erasing out unnecessary lines and detail until all that's left is the essential. And so that's what I tried to do in order to get to the final stage shown at the beginning of this post.

Well, hopefully that helps you guys to see it written out in addition to the things we have talked about in class (for those of you in my class). It's all in Barrett's book as well as many other books and other artists' web demos. If you hear it from enough different sources eventually it all starts to sink in.