FOUNDATIONS in Portrait Drawing Volume 3 Michael R. Britton

Portrait Drawing
Volume 3
Michael R. Britton
Portrait Drawing
Volume 3
Table of Contents
Lesson 19: Drawing into Painting: Sanguine Portrait – Page 4
Lesson 20: Drawing into Painting: Sanguine Construct – Page 11
Lesson 21: Drawing into Painting: Practice of Tone – Page 26
Lesson 22: Drawing the Hand – Page 30
Lesson 23: Beauty of Line: Part 1 – Page 37
Lesson 24: Beauty of Line: Part 2 – Page 42
Lesson 25: Beauty of Line: Part 3 – Page 48
Lesson 26: Character Portrait: Building Form: Profile – Page 53
Lesson 27: Character Portrait: Plumbing & Spectacles – Page 62
© 2010. All rights reserved.
The third volume of Foundations in Portrait Drawing is comprised of nine portrait drawing lessons that were originally
written for my drawing students and subscribers of my Drawing E-Zine. Over
the years they have proved very popular
and, more importantly, effective in teaching how to draw portraits.
The lessons of Volume 3 focus primarily
on portrait drawing with sanguine contè
and the additive/subtractive process of
building form.
Lessons 5, 6 and 7 present the linear portrait using both black and sanguine contè.
Lesson 8 and 9 introduce you to the many possibilities of character portraits which, in my opinion, are
many times more satisfying for the artist than the commercial portrait.
Tools for Portrait Drawing
Contè is available is a range of colors. The earth red contè, however, is the traditional medium and
is available in a range of sanguine tones: natural, Medici, Watteau and XVIII Century. I sharpen my
contè crayons to a long tapered point with a safety razor blade and medium grade sandpaper. You will
also find a contè holder (also called pencil lengtheners) indispensable.
A kneaded eraser is also needed, but make sure
that you reserve this eraser only for your contè
Small stumps, or tortillons are also very useful.
Again use these specifically for your contè work.
My preferred paper is the Fabriano Ingres ivory
or buff colored. You may or may not like this
paper too but I suggest trying out a variety of different brands of charcoal drawing paper. At this
early stage, though, keep with the light colors.
A Sanguine Portrait –
Drawing into Painting
The urge to leap directly into painting is universal. Painting is the show. The problem, however, is that jumping
into painting before understanding how to relate and carve
out form is that things will quickly get bogged down. If
one cannot handle form in drawing then the myriad challenges of working with pigment, color, temperature, relative values, etc. will completely overwhelm.
In this lesson I will show you a working method that bridges
the gap between drawing and painting – a tonal approach
to the portrait.
Using an ivory colored sheet of Fabriano Ingres drawing paper, sanguine conté, a couple of paper stumps (or
tortillons) and a clean kneaded eraser I will approach this drawing as if I were painting.
Sanguine conté is my favorite drawing medium. It has an expressive quality that appeals to my sensibilities. But
it is challenging and somewhat unforgiving – errors are not readily dismissed. For intermediate and advanced
artists I would suggest giving sanguine conté a try. For beginning portrait artists charcoal is a much more forgiving medium.
My model is Sonya whom many of you will recognize from my Mastering Portrait Drawing 1: the frontal pose
DVD Workshop. For those of you who would like to really delve seriously into drawing with conté I have given
extensive demonstrations in this medium in the Beginning to Draw: Foundation of Art DVD Workshop. Here
I cover how to use the medium like a professional, sharpening and handling, using a mahl stick, and how to dig
youself out of a hole without losing your drawing.
Using a sharp conté crayon I strike the arabesque. Keep
these initial lines light. You want to encompass the
entirety of the head while ignoring superfluous details.
With practice and experience your initial strokes will skim
across the paper accurately establishing the overall proportion and shape.
This is an acquired skill that takes time and practice.
I teach this skill in my Beginning to Draw DVD Workshop. It is the first and foremost drawing skill that every
realist artist needs.
The common error of beginning with an eye and growing out the portrait like a fungus is a surefire recipe for
disaster and frustration. The better, classical approach,
is to alternately draw from the outside in and then the
inside out.
Once the initial arabesque has been struck and the
primary height/width proportion checked and, if need
be, corrected the major landmarks are now established.
These landmarks are the brow ridge, the base of the
nose, the placement of the ears and the overall shape of
the face and hair.
I am looking up at my model, hence, the brow ridge is a
little higher than I expected it to be plus the lower face
appears superlatively larger than one would normally
This is the reason for using the brow ridge as a major
landmark. Attempting to draw a portrait using the generalized anatomical guidelines (i.e., the eyes are at the vertical midpoint, the nose half-way between the eyes and
chin, etc.) is a sure-fire prescription for failure. Worse
still, relying on generalized anatomical guidelines will
seriously limit your growth as an artist.
Holding a small piece of conté with my finger tips I
block-in the major dark pattern using the broad side of the
conté crayon. It is important that your major dark pattern
is only one value. You do not want to start differentiating
the range of dark values at this point. The key is to always
work from general to specific.
Now the real fun begins. Using my fingers (make sure
that they are oil free) I stump down the blocked-in
conté so that it is smoothed out and ground into the
paper. This stumping-in is not a willy-nilly madness
but a careful modeling of form. The result will not be
particularly pretty and that’s OK.
Using a clean kneaded eraser (in fact, one that has
never been used with another medium such as charcoal, graphite, etc.) the lights are first painted out and
the forms of the features are further suggested. Ideally you want to be painting out the lights with a sculptural sensibility.
Once you have finger-stumped and painted out the forms
to a generalized yet somewhat unresolved state is a step
that most beginning and intermediate artists neglect. This
is what I refer to as placing the pinpricks.
Using small, succinctly measured marks I fix the features
into their exact locations. I find these pinprick spots by
sighting and plumbing each feature in relation to the overall head and to the other corresponding features.
This stage of the drawing is equivalent to what is called
an underpainting in, well, painting.
Now that the foundation is set the drawing/painting progresses quickly. The features are readily articulated and
the light/dark pattern is developed into its relative values
of lights and darks.
The forms are now too small to be stumped down with
my finger. Instead I use a small number of paper stumps
(tortillons) to push and pull the forms into shape. I use the
stumps like paint brushes.
This is an additive/substractive process. I add in a shape
of conté, manipulate it like paint with the stump and then
remove some it with my kneaded eraser. It is a back and
forth process as form is pulled and manipulated into a
coherent whole. Books cannot relate this process and,
except in very rare cases, there is not sufficient time to
demonstrate this in the class-room.
In the beginning of this lesson I discussed the problematic
issue of using generalized anatomical proportions (i.e., placing the eyes at the vertical midpoint) in your portrait drawing.
At best the generalized anatomical proportions work only for
portraits drawn straight on – artist’s eye to model’s eye. In
the earlier drawing on the left the brow ridge and base of the
nose is indicated. At first glance these proportions look to be
off. The lower face in particular seems overly massive. These
proportions are seriously conflicting with our symbolic preconceptions of what the facial proportions should be. However, in the semi-resolved drawing on the right the same
proportions remain but now read as correct. Remember, I am
sitting slightly below the model looking up at her.
The point that I want to stress is that the proportions for
every portrait is subtly different. The Portrait of M.F.C.H.L.
Pouqueville by the 19th Century French master J.E.D. Ingres
illustrates the facial proportions seen when the artist is standing a little above the model. The ferret-like gaze of this model
is further enhanced by the ‘tucked-in chin’ gesture.
J.E.D. Ingres, Portrait of M.F.C.H.L. Pouqueville
All in all using a cookie-cutter approach to portrait drawing is
a poor method.
Finishing the portrait is more than the articulation
of details such as the nostrils. It is striving for the
full value stretch of darks and lights. Most artists
quit their drawings too soon afraid that they will
overwork them. There is a valid point to this fear,
but there is also the issue of failing to discover
how far you can go.
Frankly, I think that it is better to lose a few, perhaps a good many, drawings by pushing them far
beyond their limits. You’ll soon learn where the
precipice’s edge is.
Following is a larger image of my drawing so that
you can practice your drawing skills by copying it.
In fact, for those days that you don’t have a model
to draw from it is excellent practice to draw from
master drawings.
Michael Britton, Sonya, 2008
Sanguine Conte on paper,
101⁄2” x 141⁄2”
© 2008
A Sanguine Construct –
Drawing into Painting
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
If there is one thing I have learned as a teacher it is the importance of repetition. “Learning is a molecular conversation that takes place between nerve cells in the brain. Neurobiologists have long known that learning takes
place when new connections are made between brain nerve cells”. (Dr.George Johnson). These neurological
pathways take time to build and that’s why the brain needs repetition.
Learning to draw and paint can in fact be taught to almost everyone. There are some who start with some innate
ability on their side, but those who put in the work and effort will see big results even if they never thought they
could draw.
In the time of the old masters, the way you learned your craft was by becoming an apprentice with the best artist
you could find. In return for mixing his paints, fetching his coffee and pure osmosis you would learn to paint and
gradually be given more and more responsibility.
Nowadays we have art schools and workshops and you can even learn art alongside your career part-time and
even in retirement. For those of you who have taken an art workshop, you have probably realized that one stint
in an 8 to 12 week portrait class, for three hours once a week, is not going to be enough to make you are pro.
That will serve as an introduction. If you took copious notes you will remember about 20% of what you learned.
If you did tons of practice at home along with the class you won’t have to repeat the class as many times as the
person who didn’t practice in between classes.
It’s like any art. Much practice is required to master the instrument, choreography, basic steps and basic technique before you have enough knowledge and skill to branch out on your own creatively.
When I was teaching in-person classes, many of my most avid students took my classes every semester for 2-4
years along with lots of home practice. These dedicated souls whether they were naturally gifted or not, saw the
best results. While the models changed, the drawing method was repeated over and over.
The method of drawing realistically doesn’t change whether you are a beginner or advanced. What changes is
your ability to see ever more detail, your eye-to-hand co-ordination, your knowledge of anatomy, your skill with
your materials, your ability to articulate form and your fluidity gained with the process until it becomes natural.
Repeating classes, term in and term out is how you had to do it, but it was a costly exercise in terms of money
and time especially if you also had to fly to the workshop and pay for accommodation.
Without any doubt, one of the greatest benefits of modern technology is being able to teach and learn from DVDs
and other media platforms such as the internet and Compact discs in the comfort of home or virtually anywhere.
As a teacher, it’s brilliant. I now have avid students who are soldiers in Iraq, on natural gas platforms in the Indian
Ocean off Australia and on weather stations in the Arctic to name a few. Awesome!
Despite my initial doubts as to whether students could learn to draw and paint from these media I have been
literally astounded by the results and testimonies of students using them. The results are not coming from just
watching, but from the amazing amount of serious self-directed students who are actually doing the drawings
and exercises as instructed and practicing on their own as we’ve seeing in the monthly Featured Student articles.
With each drawing or painting their skill increases along with their confidence and knowledge – and – they are
having a wonderful time.
For those of you who are wondering, the DVD lessons are constructed in the same manner as my classroom
classes, only they are my dream class where I have time to cover everything thoroughly and with everyone
seeing the same view as I do, which doesn’t happen in a crowded classroom. But the real beauty is the repetition
it allows, as many times as you need, when you need it.
Here are some of the key benefits of learning from DVDs from both a teacher’s and student perspective:
Students can watch the process and lectures demonstrated over and over as many times as
they need – at their own pace; at a one-time cost and they have a lifetime reference.
In the classroom, students are at the mercy of the class schedule. If you get something quickly
you have to wait for the others to catch up. If it’s your first time around, you are going to struggle
with keeping up and also by possibly feel intimidated by faster students.
And perhaps best of all – students who have no traditional art schools or good quality teachers and training in
their area or who cannot attend classes for any reason can now access the same training as students in the
major art centers of the world.
Once is not enough
For this drawing lesson we are going to continue to strengthen our portrait skills with a demonstration of Sanguine Conté – one of the all-time favorite drawing mediums of the masters as well as mine.
It’s always interesting to see the differences in
your work by re-doing a painting or drawing
some time later. Many of the masters did several
versions of some of their best paintings. One
notable case is John Singer Sargent’s “Madame
X” (pictured here). You can see both versions
at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The second was never finished which is perhaps even more interesting because we get a
good glimpse at his working methods.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Conté,
these crayons are a hard stick of chalk-like color
used for drawing and are especially good when
you want to effect a more painterly quality. The
sticks are square in shape and I like to sharpen
mine to a point and then lengthen it by slipping
it into a pencil extender.
Conté crayons are denser and less brittle
than most pastel sticks and come in a range
of earth tones such as Black, White, Bistre
(Brown umber), Gray, Sanguine Orange, Sanguine Brown and Sanguine Red. My personal
favorite is red and the one used in this lesson
is # 2450. You can buy the sticks individually at
most art stores or in sets of 12. I like to have
a quite a few sharpened on my work station
before beginning.
The reds are made from clay and so the numbers indicate how long they are baked to achieve
the different reds. In this lesson the entire drawing and all values are achieved using this one
color. Unlike pencils we can’t rely on various
grades of softness or hardness to help achieve
depth of tone. You must build up your tones in
delicate layers therefore and for this I use a mixture of classical cross-hatching, a blending tortillion and kneaded erasers.
Conté does take some time to master. It’s not as easily erasable as pencil or charcoal so it’s considered a more
advanced media, but the results are worth it especially on good quality papers. For this demonstration I am using
my favorite Fabriano “Ingres” paper (Ivory colored) which in my opinion, beautifully supports the rich sanguine
Conté .
A Sanguine Construct –
Drawing into Painting
The original drawing of Verna (2001) disappeared in Chicago in the summer of
2004. All I had to remind me of it was the photograph of the drawing. The original Verna was a dark, sombre depiction.
When a favorite drawing goes missing, whether lost in shipping or stolen; it is an
experience that I do not wish upon any artist. When this does happen there is
the temptation to re-do the work. I generally prefer to take my licks and move on.
However ... in the spirit of loss and renewal I decided to draw a second version
of Verna. This second version proffers a more emotionally settled timbre. Seven
years have passed since I first drew the original version and in that time my technique with conté has evolved. Rather than just copy the original I approached
this second version as a unique work in itself.
Michael Britton, Verna, 2001
I always begin with the arabesque which
is the entire outside shape of the head.
The pose in this lesson, A Sanguine Construct, is more complex – it involves a
tilted head leaning into a hand supported
by an arm.
The construct is a more complex arabesque. It incorporates not only the entire
outside shape but also the gesture inclusive of the hand and arm. Although the
hand is inside the parameter of the hair
and head it still must be sensed.
I prefer the terms arabesque and construct because they imply gesture and
rhythm whereas contour connotes a more
one-dimensional feel.
We always want to work from general
to the specific and to that end I quickly
sketched out the construct. This is an
acquired skill that once learned and practiced enables you to draw anything. The
advantage of the construct is placement
and composition. Drawing a figure or
complex portrait one element at a time,
such as the head, then the hand, then
the arm, etc. quite often results in either
a drawing that is lost in the space of the
paper or not fitting in at all.
Once the construct is sketched in, and
its proportions sighted and corrected, the
facial arena, hairline/border and hand are
lightly sketched in. This is actually easier
to do than striking an initial arabesque or
Again, check your proportions before proceeding further.
Now the browline, base of the nose and
facial angle can be placed. To train and
refine your sense of proportion take your
best guess first of where you believe the
browline belongs and then check it just
like I taught you in Mastering Portrait
Drawing 1: the frontal pose.
In the lesson, A Sanguine Portrait, I
talked about the fallacy of always placing
the eyes at the vertical midpoint of the
head. Once you get used to placing the
browline instead your portrait drawing will
progress significantly.
From there you can readily establish the
base of the nose (take your best guess first
then check!) Premeasuring might seem
like a quicker route, but doing so does not
ingrain these drawing skills.
As an added measure I usually very lightly
indicate the facial angle. This is the vertical axis that aligns the facial features.
I am using a slightly redder and visually
softer sanguine conté than in the previous lesson. The conté I am using is Sanguine #2450. I find that in a drawing such
as Verna I will need about four sticks of
conté. And that’s assuming that I don’t
drop any of them. It is a trifle dismaying
to see your last full stick of conté shattered into broken pieces, especially when
I already own several hundred pieces of
broken conté.
Using the side of a small piece of broken
conté block in the primary dark pattern
of the construct. Keep a light touch and
be careful not to overload the paper with
Don’t even think of little things like details.
THINK BIG and DRAW BIG. Block in
the primary dark pattern with big bold
Using your fingers stump down the conté
into the paper (I’m using Fabriano Ingres
ivory colored) until you have a flat, cohesive tone. This is very much like the initial scrumbling in of paint with a large flat
brush to block in the light/dark pattern of
an underpainting.
With conté you have to stump in quite hard
to get a flat, even tone. The result of your
effort is a softly glowing dark pattern.
It is common to feel that your drawing
is hurtling out of control at this point.
Don’t worry too much about how it
looks – we’re only just getting underway.
A kneaded eraser that you can knead into
the shape and size of a #10 round brush
is used to paint out the lights and push the
drawing along a little further. This is a tonal
approach to drawing, it is drawing with a
sculptural sensibility.
My dark pattern is refined into corresponding shapes of soft-edged form and hardedged cast shadows. Using the kneaded
eraser I take my first stab at the placement
of the eyes and the alar/nair of the nose.
This is the tip and wings.
And feeling a bit courageous I even went
ahead and took a swing at the muzzle of
the mouth and chin boss.
Since that went pretty well I ventured into
the hand and indicated the little finger and
thenar eminence (the fleshy palmar part of
the thumb) and the hypothenar eminence
(the outside edge of the palm)
In Mastering Portrait Drawing 1: the
frontal pose I taught you the importance
of beginning with the nose when placing
and sizing the features of the face. The
nose, although it is the largest facial feature, is too small to measure by sighting.
Instead you need to rely on the accuracy of
your blocking in and lifting out the shapes
of light and dark.
The nose is the most difficult of the features
and easily succumbs to symbolic preconceptions. For beginning and intermediate
artists I strongly recommend taking an
anatomical-structural approach to the nose
which is what I have done here. Keep your
structural lines light as you articulate these
subtle plane changes. And bear in mind
the tilt of the head – that, of course, means
that the features are aligned on the vertical
axis of the head’s angle.
Once the nose has been accurately fixed
into place the inner corners of the eyes, the
canthus, can be ascertained by plumbing
up from the wings of the nose where the
canthus quite often align. But not always!
Placing and sizing the eyes require razorsharp accuracy.
The interstice and corners of the mouth
are also determined from the nose using
the nasolabial furrows (smile lines) as your
This is a structural/analytical approach to
drawing. This is the surest and most efficient approach to learning the portrait.
Admittedly many beginning and intermediate artists prefer a more ‘organic’ or ‘artistic’
stylized approach. However, most artists
who take the ‘organic’ approach to studying drawing stall in their development and
some even spend years drawing with very
little growth. Those who draw with the most
fluidity, ease and aesthetic resolve always
have a solid grounding in understanding
the structure of form.
As the drawing progesses it is important
that it proceed with an overall logical. The
dark mass of hair next to the face and
under the hand is important as it’s value
determines just how far the facial tones will
need to be resolved.
With a sharp conté stick I cross-hatched in
this dark mass and then stumped it down
with my little finger. As an added flourish I
used my kneaded eraser to indicate a few
locks of hair.
The facial arena is now carefully resolved by crosshatching in small areas of tone then stumping, or
more accurately – painting, them down with a paper
tortillion. I also use my kneaded eraser to delicately
render the forms.
This is a subtractive/addictive process of applying
conté, stumping and judiciously lifting out. This is
where the full value of studying from my DVD’s is
This additive/subtractive process of developing the
drawing is the emotional compass of the work. When
done correctly the drawing deepens in terms of both
tone and meaning. However this compass can also
steer you onto the shoals of aesthetic disaster. The
reason for losing a drawing is usually a failure to
grasp the underlying structure and architecture of the
The remedy then is slow, but steady asymptotic progression. Don’t completely resolve one area before
moving onto another. And step back from your work
at regular intervals to get an overall view.
Inverting your drawing and looking at it upside down
will give you a fresh view. Looking at your drawing
reversed in a mirror will give you an unforgiving, but
new perspective on your drawing.
The mass of hair now requires my attention.
I find breaking hair down into its own construct of forms and locks helps me make
sense of what can otherwise be a wildly
out-of-control subject.
In the initial stage of this drawing the hair
was completely blocked-in as one large
dark. Now that the construct of locks and
hair rhythm has been worked out the darker
pattern of the hair is now blocked-in using
the edge of a small piece of conté that I
hold with the tips of my fingers.
I stumped in these dark using my little
finger as if I were actually brushing Verna’s
hair. Stump and stroke in the direction of
each lock of hair.
With my kneaded eraser I paint out the
lights. I am trying to emphasize movement
and dynamic shape here. This is also an
additive/subtractive process of lifting out,
working the conté back in, stumping and
painting it down with a small tortillion and
lifting out again.
With all of the elements of the gesture now
fully structured and somewhat resolved
tonally my focus is now on pulling the
entire composition together.
This is where the drawing process
becomes more like the painting process.
Sanguine conté is very close to working
with pigment. First you are dealing with a
hue, the red conté, that has a warm temperature. Although, it can quickly overheat
to a very hot temperature and requires
practice to control.
It is a malleable medium that can be
pushed and pulled tonally like paint but
also offers some resistance to easy correcting – just like painting.
The nose in my drawing is a bit exaggerated in terms of tone. It is looking a tad
bulbous. Because the planar forms of the
nose are subtle, yet critical to its definition,
I sometimes am compelled to exaggerate
and then later knock it down. This is a
strategy that is quite useful when dealing
with difficult subjects such as the nose.
In this close-up view note how more resolved the far
side of the face (the right side) is than the left. When
you consider your strategy of how you are going to
develop your work take into consideration that all of
the elements must balance out at some point, better
sooner than later. To that end it is better to work on
resolving corresponding areas rather than working up
the eyes together then working up the nose, then the
mouth, etc.
I am using very little conté now. Most of the work is
done with my tortillion and kneaded eraser.
The tortillion is an excellent training tool for preparing
for painting. Hold the tortillion at its end while manipulating and pushing the conté across the form.
In practice you will find that the best approach is to
stump in a small area and then further manipulate it
with your kneaded eraser.
Finishing a drawing is a matter of making
final decisions. I initially wanted to leave
the shoulder and armpit unfinished but
now I find it to be distracting. Therefore I
stumped it down and resolved its form just
enough to render it more harmonious with
the rest of the drawing.
Deciding on just how far to take a drawing is not easily answered. There comes
a point when you have reached the limits
of your knowledge and ability. That usually defines when a drawing is done. And
then it is time for the next work.
In my finished drawing of Verna I have
knocked down the nose and further articulated various forms in an effort to tease
out a deeper meaning and emotion.
On the following page is a larger view of
Verna which you can use as a reference
for practicing.
Michael Britton, Verna, 2008
Drawing into Painting:
The Practice of Tone
Common practice in portraiture is to draw so-called
happy or content sitters. Drawing and painting heads
with a variety of facial expressions challenges and forces
one to take a step back and try new approaches. For this
piece I thought it would be fun to work with an angry,
accusatory expression. Although such an expression
would not be met with warm smiles in a commissioned
portrait it is a good skill to have.
Using sanguine conte and concentrating on the facial
arena my focus this month is on the practice of tone.
Tone is the preferred term instead of shading. Technically, shading means adding the color black to a hue.The
facial arena is an ideal forum for studying tone and carving out form with a sculptural sensibility.
The first skill to be acquired for beginning artists is the
understanding of shape and proportion. That is the relatively easy part. The study of tone is more challenging.
Rendering tone requires not only an understanding of
light and plane changes but also a sensitivity to the subtle
modulations of knitted form.
I began by quickly sketching out the facial features using
a sharp sanguine conte crayon. One can, of course,
forego sketching out the face and just plunge in with
a wash of tone but for the purposes of this exercise I
decided upon a linear start.
With the edge of my conte I broadly blocked in the primary light/dark pattern of the face. Keep this initial
blocking in flat. At this point we just want to have one
dark value and one light value (which is the paper – I’m
using ivory colored Fabriano Ingres). Don’t worry about
losing your drawing here, if you can get in once you can
get it in again.
Using my fingers I stump down the conte. Doing
so does not leave a pretty picture, this is more
akin to broadly brushing in an underpainting.
As you stump in the broad dark forms try to
think of your drawing as if it were a mass of clay
molded into a rough head shape. In clay you
would be pressing in with your thumbs, cupping
out the cheeks with your hands and pinching out
the nose.
A kneaded eraser is used to paint out the
lights. I use a bravura approach working
broadly and am not overly concerned with
details. My concern at this stage is with the
general placement of the shape of the darks
and lights.
Building tone is an additive/subtractive process where you first apply conte, then flatten
it out and work the edges with a tortillion (or
stump) and further pushing the form by lifting
out and cross-hatching with a kneaded eraser.
Once the initial dark/light pattern has been
established the features can be quickly worked
up. To illustrate how quickly the features can
be shaped up I have photographed the drawing at this stage to show the contrast between
the more resolved eye and the earlier broader
bravura approach.
The middle dark values are initially established
with a very sharp conte crayon by crosshatching and further shaped using a kneaded
eraser and a light touch.
Knitting the tone is seldom a linear progression. Quite often you need to take a few steps
back. In this drawing I flattened out my tone
by ‘pulling down’ with a broad, flat kneaded
Constructing tone is a practice of balancing each value
relative to both the whole image and to the other
values. When painting out (the subtractive process)
you need to be vigilant as to when too much is lifted
out and a light starts to ‘pop-out’ When that happens
you need to knock down that light by either stumping
or re-rendering with the conte.
To fully understand the progression of the additive/
subtractive process of constructing tone you need to
study the process ‘live’. It is for that reason that I
decided to film the progress of this drawing in my
studio. I initially intended this to be a two hour DVD
but with over six hours of tape it looks like it will end up
being a four hour demonstration. With luck it should
be available soon.
Drawing into Painting:
The Palmar Aspect of the
he fourth, and final, lesson in this four-part series of working with sanguine conte is the palmar view of the hand.
The practice of drawing hands requires its own specific
skill set. The hand is capable of expressing a wide range of
gestures each with its own emotional connotation. However the
hand’s primary movement is a curling inwards direction towards
the palm plus a much more restricted ability to expand outwards.
The fingers (phalanges) do not work as independently of each other as one would suppose. The movement of one finger affects all of the others – subtly in some gestures and greatly in others. The four
fingers are best grouped into two parts: the index and middle fingers are the strongest and usually are
the movers in most hand gestures; the ring and little fingers are correspondingly smaller and weaker.
Their employment is that of guiding and finely directing gesture.
As in figure and portrait drawing an understanding of the hand’s anatomy is critical. You do not need
to memorize each and every anatomical term but an innate sense of the hand’s structural architecture
should be ingrained.
The hand is always best drawn out from the forearm and wrist. When you are drawing only a hand, or
pair of hands, the forearm should at least be implied. This brings us to the mass conceptions of the
Hyperthenar eminence
Thenar eminence
First dorsal
Lateral Aspect
(Side-view of the Hand)
Dorsal Aspect
(Back of the Hand)
Palmar aponeurosis
Palmar Aspect
(Palm of the Hand)
To begin the study of the hand it is well advised to first considers its mass
conception of simplified form. The hand is always drawn out from the forearm into the wrist which is the carpus. From the carpus is the trapezoidal
form of the metacarpus. From the back of the hand, the dorsal aspect (or
view) the metacarpus is convex; from the palmar aspect the metacarpus
is concave.
The fleshy ball of the thumb (palmar aspect) is the thenar eminence; the
‘striking’ side of the hand is the hyperthenar eminence. The triangular
sheet of tendinous fibers in the palm is the palmar aponeurosis – this form
is subtly indicated when the hand is stretched out and flexed.
The hand is comprised of both extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. The extrinsic muscles are those of the forearm whose tendons insert into the hand.
The intrinsic muscles are those of the hand, or manus, itself.
The dorsal aspect, the back of the hand, is bony and tendinous. The
palmar aspect has three muscle masses: the thenar eminence (which is
comprised of three muscles that constitute the ball of the thumb), the
hypothenar eminence and the first dorsal interosseous muscle. All of
these muscles masses are tear-shaped.
One’s initial foray into the hand’s anatomy can appear quite daunting at
first glance. The ideal approach to studying the anatomy of the hand is
bone by bone and muscle by muscle gradually building up one’s understanding in a layered approach.
Palmar Aspect
(Palm of the Hand)
Trying to study the hand from a live model is problematic to say the
least. Even the best models will subtly change their pose and this is
especially true of hand gestures. Working from a photograph of a hand
is a poor substitute. Photographs tell lies, they offer an illusion of what
is there.
The tried and true traditional approach is to study from hand casts. Of
course your first question is where am I going to get a cast? Well, the
best way is to make your own from a casting kit that is readily available
from most art and craft stores. The kit that is used for this workshop
is called ‘Hands’ and it is available from There
are other vendors available. Making your own cast is pretty straight
forward, but it can be messy. In my Drawing Hands DVD Workshop I
recommend making at least three hand casts for your studies.
It goes without saying that in figure and portrait drawing your
hand must relate proportionately to the head and body. A
hand can quickly grow out of control ...
Begin your hand drawing by first establishing the length
from the wrist to the finger tips with two small marks. Then
strike the arabesque which we can refer to as the mitten –
the entire hand gesture must fit snugly into the mitten.
In portrait drawing our primary landmark is the brow ridge;
with the hand it is the knuckle joints (metacarpophalangeal
joints) of the metacarpus. However we drawing the palmar
aspect of the hand and in this case our primary landmark is
the palmar crease (where the fingers meet the fleshy mass
of the palm).
Be sure to place the palmar crease accurately. Take your
best guess of where it is first, then sight and correct as
The thumb and muscle mass of the ball of the thumb (the
thenar eminence) is now sketched in. Your main concern
is its placement and proportion within the mitten, don’t
even think of placing the thumb-nail or other such insignificant details. Think only of structural architecture!
A structural approach to resolving the hand is the surest
way to avoid drawing banana fingers. Banana fingers
are those balloon-like symbolic preconceptions of what we
think fingers look like. Reality is much more surprising.
Within the mitten of the hand and working out from the
palmar crease I articulate each finger taking careful note of
both positive and negative shapes.
The result can be perceptually challenging. There is subtle
foreshortening in the fingers which are curling inwards to
the palm. Don’t be thrown off course at this stage of your
drawing – the doubt that you are feeling is a consequence
of your symbolic preconceptions battling reality.
With the edge of a small piece of conte I broadly blocked
in the primary light/dark pattern. Keep this initial blocking
in flat. At this point we just want to have one dark value
and one light value (which is the paper – I’m using ivory
colored Fabriano Ingres).
The initial blocking-in will quite often make sense of and
quell the discord of competing symbolic preconception
and reality.
Acquiring the skills of structurally building the gesture of a hand is a relatively straight forward proposition. The more difficult issue is the additive/subtractive process of rendering tone.
To get from the initially blocked-in stage to here
required a strategy of simultaneously stumping
down with my finger and painting out the lights
with a kneaded eraser.
This strategy cannot be adequately described
in written or verbal form; to really understand
the additive/subtractive process you need to first
watch it being demonstrated and then imitating
the process. Imitation is the first step in acquiring
a deeper understanding of developing tone.
Building the tone for this hand was a reasonably straight forward progression. (This was a rare instance –
quite often building tone requires taking a step back for every two taken forward.) I began by working up
the tonal forms in the index and middle fingers. This required lightly cross-hatching in the darker values with
a very sharp conte crayon followed by a finer re-working with a small tortillion (paper stump) and re-working
further with a kneaded eraser. This process is generally described as drawing with a sculptural sensibility.
You are visually carving out the form.
In the middle drawing I began with the fleshy furrowed mass of the palm. The creases in the palm were lightly
sketched in and the strong middle cast shadow was worked up first. It is quite easy to lose your place in
complex areas, what often happens is that we are looking at one area and working another trying to force
ill-fitting pieces together and wondering why things are not locking into place. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, if a piece
doesn’t snap into place then it doesn’t belong there.
Work your tone up in small, manageable, yet logical, pieces. i.e., the index and middle fingers together, the
palm, and then the ring and little finger together. The caveat, though, is that all of the various pieces must
read together as a whole.
The thumb and thenar eminence are the last to be worked on. I prefer to work from back to front.
Constructing tone is a practice of balancing each value relative to both
the whole image and to the other values. As you apply and stump
the conte you need to be alert for ‘black holes’. That is when you
overshoot a value and leave a visual hole. Conversly, while painting
out (the subtractive process) you need to be vigilant as to when too
much is lifted out and a light starts to ‘pop-out’ When that happens
you need to knock down that light by either stumping or re-rendering
with the conte.
The tone was continually worked up and, at times, retracted until I felt
that I had pushed this as far as I could and dared. There is no simple
answer as to how far the drawing should be pushed. With practice
and experience you will develop a gut instinct as to when you drawing
is ‘finished’.
The Beauty of Line –
Part 1: A Portrait of
Angelo Verga
I have been in Florence, Italy for the past few
months to re-acquaint myself with the great works
of the Italian Renaissance. It usually takes me about a week to settle into a new location; this involves
stocking up on groceries and art supplies, discovering where everything is and trying to wrestle meaning out of the Byzantine intricacies and footnotes of Italian bus schedules. Soon though the urge to get
back to the easel became overwhelming.
I had no model available to sit for me but an old, dusty art catalogue was amongst the meager offers
of my apartment’s library. This was a catalogue in memorium of the Italian artist Angelo Verga. Verga
was an artist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, his early and, then later, work was heavily influenced by the Italian Futurist movement of the 1920’s. For me his best work was executed in the early 1960’s and very
closely paralleled the work of the American minimalist artist Donald Judd. In the catalogue was a full
page black & white photograph of the young Angelo Verga.
The problem with the photograph is that I felt its’
tonal concord would not translate well as a drawing. What works for a photograph more often
than not does not lend itself to drawing or painting. This is a major drawback particularly with
commissioned portraits. Quite often the client
will present the artist with a flash-lit photograph
that flattens out all of the form or the form will be
indistinct and muddled.
Trying to paint a commissioned portrait from such
a photograph is a two-fold disaster: first, it is
a Promethenian struggle – the painting will be
much more difficult to execute and it will collapse
in the end. In other words it will read as flat and
uninspiring. Second, the client will very likely be
disappointed in the result and if they’re not you
are lucky. However, you will be left feeling that a
better job could have been done.
Although academic teaching and practice tend
to stress tonal construction a viable alternative
is the line drawing. Linear drawing has a long
and exemplary tradition – Raphael, Leonardo,
Rubens, Modigliani, Matisse and Picasso, to
name but a very few were masters of the line
Working on a 9 x 12” sheet of Canson heavy weight,
medium toothed paper I used only my Staedtler Lumograph 8B pencils. It is imperative that your 8B be razor
sharp (like a finely tuned piano). A good practice is to
sharpen up a dozen 8B’s before embarking on your drawing.
Photographing line drawings is a devil of a job and I have
had to make some adjustments that, unfortunately, result
ed in some loss of line quality. But bear in mind that most
reproductions of drawings and paintings are significantly
inferior to the original works.
Very lightly strike the arabesque, lighter than I’ve shown
here (the photo has been adjusted so that you can see
my lines) and accurately place, then check the browline
and base of the nose. Consistently striking the arabesque
accurately is the foundational, not to mention critical, skill
in realist portrait drawing and painting.
I prefer a bifurcal approach to working out the elements of a drawing. By striking the arabesque accurately one begins the drawing from the outside-in. This
is the better approach particularly in terms of composition – note how I have placed the head slightly to the
right, this allows psychic breathing space otherwise
the pictorial surface will feel cramped – but also when it
comes time for you to tackle a double, or triple, portrait
you will need to simultaneously compose and relate
the heads to each other.
Within my arabesque I indicate the placement of the
browline and the base of the nose. (Again, this photo
has been manipulated to show the lines.) The facial
features are now lightly sketched in beginning with the
nose. A common error is to begin with an eye and then
attempting to grow out the features. It doesn’t work
that way: the eyes are too small and too prone to exaggeration due to our innate symbolic preconceptions to
be accurately placed. The nose however is a significantly larger feature and is simply easier to size and
place accurately.
In the early years of one’s career I strongly
believe that one should take a structural approach
to drawing. It is very much like learning a new
language, once one understands the structure
then it is a simple matter of acquiring the knowledge to render structure freely and effortlessly.
The linear drawings of artists such as Matisse
and David Hockney, for example, are delightfully
fluid and apparently effortless, which they are,
but there are many years of study, practice and
structure behind their work.
Initially, as we establish the placement and relative proportions of the head our drawing is twodimensional. Our lines are visually flat. To create
a three-dimensional spatial illusion I vary the
intensity of my lines. The collar and sweater-vest
are brought forward by means of a heavier line.
The top and back of the head are rendered with
a lighter line for a visual sense of spatial recession.
The hairline is now sketched in with straight, architectonic lines thus framing the face. The features can now
be carefully rendered.
With a linear drawing thought has to be given to what
elements should advance forward and what should
recede. In the face the nose is the most forward feature and its frontal part (the alar and wings) should be
treated with a heavier line, but this needs to be balanced against the collar and sweater-vest. The interstice of the mouth, which is the opening, is a little
further forward than the eyes and, as such, should be
slightly heavier. But, again, not as heavily drawn as the
frontal part of the nose. The same goes for the ear and
the far side of the face.
Like tonal modeling you have to be careful not
to exaggerate; you do not want the lines of the
nose to be so heavy that they protrude and distort the spatial illusion, nor do you want to render
the back of the head so lightly that it recedes
onto the far horizon.
Line drawings are also wonderful venues for
expression. The realist line drawing draws its
refined serpentine elegance from a delicately
concordant confluence of touch and a concise
understanding of form and rhythm.
The Beauty of Line – Part 2:
On a recent trip to the Indonesian island of Bali I met an elderly Balinese who owned a laundry
service that I used. When travelling I like to keep an eye out for fascinating people who would make
for interesting portrait possibilities.
Made, her name, fit the bill perfectly: Her hastily wrapped headress that barely contained her
sprawling locks of hair and the money roll that she carried in her earlobe piercing provided excellent
fodder for a character study.
The finished tonal drawing was
completed in my studio where I
worked it up from a photograph
that Made graciously posed for.
For this lesson on line I used
my finished tonal drawing as my
reference; the photograph, alas,
is hopelessly lost somewhere in
my studio otherwise I would have
worked from it.
A linear drawing can be a work
of art in and of itself; the linear
drawing can also be directed as
a preparatory drawing for a more
sustained work such as a painting.
The term for a preparatory drawing is cartoon. The cartoon is
transferred onto the painting service using either graphite transfer
paper or pummicing the back of
the cartoon with charcoal dust and
then using it as you would carbon
A cartoon is quite often a constructive drawing where the focus
of line is on determining form
rather than expressing movement.
(The November lesson will focus
on line as movement.)
Working with sharpened sanguine
conté on a quarter sheet of Fabriano Ingres drawing paper I quickly
established the Arabesque. The Arabesque is the entire outside shape of the head including the headress, it is better not to include minor elements such as the dangling locks of hair. After checking that
my overall height/width proportion was correct I then lightly indicated the placement of the brow-ridge
and the base of the nose.
When striking the arabesque architectonically succinct lines proffer a sense of solid form. What I mean
by this is that I employ short straight lines to describe rounded shapes. Keep your initial lines quite light,
my lines shown here are significantly darker than I would normally use; the reason for this is so that you
can see what I have done here.
With the constructive line drawing
the structure of forms only need
be suggested rather than fully rendered. Suggesting form accurately
in portrait drawing requires a solid
understanding of anatomy and facial
structure. True, one can travel a
fair distance without the anatomical
knowledge but there will come a
time when you cannot progress any
further without it.
I lightly sketched in the nose first
(this is the largest facial feature and
its correct placement makes it much
easier to place the eyes and mouth),
followed by the eye sockets (not the
eyes! This is important), the cheeks
and the interstice of the mouth. I
strongly suggest not drawing the
borders of the lips at this point; save
those expressive lines for later.
When drawing the mature portrait
you need to consider the aging process of the skull and musculature.
The facial bones contract and their
edges appear sharpened. The musculature thins (there are exceptions,
of course, with larger people) and
gravity extracts its toll.
When it comes to drawing the wrinkles I am usually faced with a dilemna: overdo the wrinkles and you end up with a shrivelled potato look.
Avoiding the wrinkles altogether leaves you with a ‘cosmetic’ portrait. A cosmetic portrait is one whose
only purpose is to flatter the sitter – historically an important consideration especially when in centuries
past an unhappy and unflattered client had the means and disposition to imprison you or worse. But
today conveying a strong sense of character and lived history is more important than a pretty picture.
And that is the deciding factor in how far one should take the wrinkles. Suffice it to say that wrinkles
follow and define the underlying skeleto-muscular structure of the face and neck.
My next decision, drawing and painting is really a series of decision
making – good and, sometimes, bad,
is to sketch in the various folds and
twists of the headdress.
Drapery can be distilled into seven
types of folds, each with their own distinct characteristics and logic. These
seven folds are the pipe fold, the twopoint fold, the zig zag fold, the halflock fold, the spiral fold, the drop fold,
and the inert fold. The headress is
comprised of all the fold types except
for the drop and inert folds.
An understanding of the characteristics of drapery goes a long way
towards drawing and painting believable clothing. If you find yourself
making up folds as you draw then
you are significantly weakening your
Setting up a ‘drapery’ still-life – that
is, pinning a cloth to the wall or a
large board and doing a study of it
will do wonders for your powers of
observation and skill development.
Begin with a light-weight piece of
canvas and then move on to a plain
white cotton cloth. When you are
sufficiently skilled you can then try
your hand at patterned drapery.
As with the facial features each component and fold of the headdress
should relate to the whole head in
terms of shape and proportion.
The stage is now set; the eyes
can now be accurately placed by
plumbing up from the nose to
determine each eye’s inner canthus (the inside corner of the eye).
The horizontal placement of the
eyes is determined from the browridge which is ‘felt’ more than measured. A well-trained artist feels
measures much like a master cabinet maker; it becomes ingrained.
The vermilion borders of the lips
are now carefully observed and
lightly sketched in.
Other elements of the drawing
such as the hair and money roll
that my laundress carries in her
ear are added.
I have also made a number of decisions to rework my lines. To soften the minor folds in the
headdress I lessened the intensity of a few lines with my kneaded eraser. Within the facial arena
I also slightly lightened a few lines that I felt detracted from the overall sense of three dimensional
form. Lighter lines recede whereas heavier lines advance.
With practice and experience you will find that your linear drawing becomes more fluid and
Now that I have a solid foundation
I can add the flourishing touches
such as the focus of the eyes,
wisps of hair and further elaborate upon the roll of money that
Made carried in her ear lobe.
Establishing the focus of the eyes,
or the gaze, is a delicate matter
of trial and error and decision
making. Like me, you may decide
to have the drawing’s gaze directly
meet the viewer’s. This creates
a more engaged portrait. On the
other hand you may want to have
a deferential gaze where the focus
is elsewhere.
My practice is to lightly sketch in
one eye’s iris taking care that it is
accurate both proportionately and
shape-wise. Then lightly sketch in
the other eye’s iris. Step back
a few feet from your drawing and
check the gaze. Be prepared
to have to erase your first, and
perhaps even second and third,
attempt at the iris. Getting the
gaze right is a matter of millimeters. Turning your drawing upside
down is a good way to gain an
overall sense of your drawing’s
The Beauty of Line –
Part 3: The Contour
There are, generally speaking, five types
of line drawing: contour, blind contour, continuous, gesture and constructive. Each
type of line drawing expresses its own language in terms of movement, rhythm, proportion and density.
A line drawing is not meant to fully describe an object’s form (whether it be a still life, landscape
or portrait), but instead serves to capture the distilled elements and characteristics of the subject.
Contour Line Drawing
The contour line expresses
weight by using a heavier line
and, conversely, delicacy with a
light line. Perspective is also suggested with line weight: heavier
lines advance while lighter lines
recede. At more advanced drawing levels you can express both
bold and delicate form with a
single dynamic contour line.
Picasso’s drawing, Les Moisonneurs, expresses voluptuous
volume using contour line. The
exaggerated thickness of the figures denote a heaviness that
well suggests the torpor of a
midafternoon nap.
Picasso, Les Moissonneurs, 1919
The Blind Contour Drawing
An excellent exercise for developing your sense of tactile form
is the blind contour drawing. Looking only at your subject
draw the contour with one continuous line. The purpose is
to visually feel the form. Don’t worry about the proportions;
that will come later once you have developed your hand/eye
coordination. The blind contour should be drawn as slowly as
possible – think of it as drawing a line with a sculptural sensibility.
Continuous Line Drawing
Similar to the blind contour drawing but this is not just an
exercise but a work of art. Each line is rendered continuously to depict a form. Henri Matisse, amongst others, was
an absolute master of the continuous line drawing. Matisse’s
line drawings are deceptively simple; their power derives not
only from the exceptional economy and grace of line but also
from the subtly suggested volumes of form.
Gesture Line Drawing
Henri Matisse
The gestural line drawing is a quick and spontaneous depiction of a pose or instance. Gesture drawings are also known as action drawings. The focus in gesture
drawing is to capture both movement and weight.
Many artists begin their day with gesture drawings
to loosen up.
The Austrian artist, Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
drew many gestural self-portraits with a powerfully expressive angularity. Schiele’s modus
was not to describe
volume and grace
but raw expressive
Constructive Line
Egon Schiele
line drawing is generally a preparatory study for a more sustained work such as a painting.
It is a traditional study of form and proportion. The drawing by Ingres, the
leading artist of the French Classical school of painting, is a preparatory
drawing for the larger commissioned painting. Ingre’s masterful handling
of black and red conté renders firm contours and delicate tonal nuances
of form.
J.A.D. Ingres, Study of a Portrait of
Madame Moitessier, circa 1844
My agenda for this contour drawing of
a young girl was to impart a sense of
fluidity and movement with a deliberate
economy of means. This meant that
I had to draw with both sureness and
Using a ‘B’ black conté crayon on a
sheet of Canson drawing paper I first
surmised the overall height/width proportion of the young girl’s head and then
loosely drew an incomplete arabesque
that described the outside shape of her
hair, the far side of her face and the
neckline of her blouse.
Keeping my lines as succinct as
possible I fixed the tilt of her head
and decided to inscribe a left to
right rhythmic dynamic in how the
drawing would be read. (A left to
right reading is called in sinisterium.
The Italian word for ‘left’ is sinistra.)
Placing the facial features was the
most difficult part: not only did I have
to get the proportions right at the
outset but I also needed to consider
the expression of the drawing.
As always I took my best guess at
the vertical placement of the brow
ridge and then checked its accuracy
by sighting. Next was the base of the
nose – take your best guess first, this
trains your eye, and then measure.
The placement and arabesque of
the interstice (the opening) of the
mouth followed. When drawing the
mouth you should always establish
the interstice first. It is significantly
easier to place than the vermilion
borders of the lips and, more importantly, the interstice determines the
expression of the mouth.
Once the facial features were placed
I could then fix the gaze of the eyes
and the vermilion borders of the lips.
When you are working gesturally with
a very limited time frame you need
to rely on your unconscious mode,
the limbic, of drawing which can, at
times, produce a surprising result.
It was at this stage of the drawing
that I noticed the asymmetry in the
lower left-side jaw of the face. A part
of me wanted to correct this but I
decided then and there to just keep
forging ahead. And I am glad that I
did – the asymmetry creates a sense
of movement and, I think, urgency.
I simplified and stylized the locks
of hair to reinforce the in sinisteria
movement and also to reinforce the
sense of a fleeting moment.
The contour line portrait drawing
relies heavily on one’s ingrained training in the fundamentals of drawing.
You have to make rapid decisions
and rely on both your training and
A Character Portrait:
Building Form –
Profile View
Busking (street performing) is a time-honored tradition dating back to the beginning of civilization. Also
dating back to the misty dawn of civilization are laws
seeking to ban street performers. In ancient Rome it
was illegal to perform any public act that parodied or
satirized the government or its official. The penalty
was death. These days the penalty is usually a ticket
and a fine, but not always.
Buskers are excellent fodder for character studies. Armed with a camera, a couple of dollars and an
enchanting smile you can easily approach a busker and ask to take a picture. It would have to be a
particularly grumpy busker that would turn down your kind request. If you are shy you can take a photo
discretely, but it also good form to drop a dollar or two into the hat.
The busker for my drawing was dressed all in white, including white face, and wearing a headpiece
that piqued my interest. He was at rest and smoking a cigarette on a street curb when I walked by. I
knew then and there that I had to get the shot. Unfortunately it was a busy street and by the time I had
stalked out my position for photographing he had finished his smoke. These things happen and one
must adapt. The photograph that I did get was still an excellent reference for this drawing.
Some artists pride themselves for always working from
life. I have no argument with that and believe that working from life is by far the preferable mode. But it is not
always feasible and the camera is an excellent tool for
the artist. The problem though is that you need to be
aware that a camera lies: the camera flattens and dulls
That said, let me unequivocably state that the photograph is merely a reference. At most it is a springboard.
There is little point to slavishly copying a photograph;
drawing is much more than that.
The beginning artist’s first agenda is to learn
how to accurately adjudge height/width proportion. This is done by first drawing and ingraining
the proportions of rectangles into your mind’s eye.
Natural design law infers that there are nine basic
rectangles that encompass all organic, and mostman-made, objects. These are the dynamic rectangles and their complementaries. I’ll introduce
you to two of these in this lesson.
When you initially assess the height/width proportion of your subject you need only determine the
main body. The inert fold of drapery at the back of
the head and the nose of my busker are extraneous details at this juncture and incorporating them
into this initial assessment would complicate an
otherwise straightforward procedure.
I extended my rectangle a little above the photograph to include the entire head piece. My guess
is that my busker was playing the part of Medusa
and those twisting, elongated forms are snakes.
To efficiently facilitate your learning process take your
best guess first as to what you think the initial height/
width proportion is and draw out the rectangle on your
Now your guess needs to be verified. First sight the
width of your subject’s main body and apply that perpendicularly to the height (line AB). It is also a good
idea to take a mental note that the headpiece lies a
little below B, but more about that later.
Now check how the width AB fully relates to the
height by moving AB up vertically so that A is now
where B used to be.
B comes very close to the top of the rectangle. It
is safe to assume that this is essentially a double
square rectangle which is one of the dynamic rectangles (√4) of natural design law.
Once this first hurdle of accurately assessing height/
width proportion has been ingrained – and this is
readily achieved with a series of deceptively simple
exercises that I teach in my Beginning to Draw
DVD Workshop – your next goal is determining
For this drawing I am using a ‘B’ black conté crayon on a sheet of buff-colored Fabriano Ingres
charcoal paper.
Determining shape takes a little longer to learn than assessing height/width proportion, but
once you acquire this skill then all subject matters, portrait, landscape, still-life, etc. are readily
mastered. Figure drawing, though, is a more complex matter.
Drawing the outside shape, the contour, of an object is best described as striking the arabesque.
When working with a complex shape, such as my costumed busker, you need to distill the basic
elements into a simple descriptive context. The profile view is best approached by completely
ignoring the facial features. If you try to tackle the nose and mouth at this early stage I guarantee
that you will miss it completely. The facial angle of the face will suffice for now.
To illustrate our discussion so far I have overlaid the double rectangle onto my arabesque. The
number 1 denotes a square.
Once the arabesque has been accurately struck
the basic landmarks of our subject can then be
placed. When I first discussed the primary height/
width proportions of the initial rectangle I mentioned that it would be a good idea to make a
mental note that the bottom of the headpiece lies
just a small distance from the vertical middle. Now
is the time to apply that mental note.
Take your best guess (that’s without any premeasuring which will significantly slow down your
learning progress) at the placements of these
landmarks: the base of the headpiece, the brow-
line, the base of the nose, and the vertical
drape of cloth.
Once these landmarks are indicated you can
now sight (I prefer a slender, neutral colored
knitting needle) to determine the accuracy of
your placements. And correct as necessary –
after a short time of studious practice you will
find that you need to correct less and less.
Squinting down my eyes so that I can determine the elementary light/dark pattern of my
costumed busker I block-in the darks with one
even tone using the side of a small piece of
black conté.
Resist the temptation to break down your tones
into darker and relatively lighter passages.
That will come soon enough. The one BIG rule
of drawing and painting is: General to Specific!
Using my fingers I stump down the black conté into
as even a tone as I can get it. Admittedly this is
not a pretty picture and probably not for the faint
hearted. Many beginners are fearful that they will
lose all of their hard work thus far and the truth of
the matter is, well, yes you could. But if you can
get it once, you can get it again.
Think of this stumping as if it were pounding a
large lump of clay into shape. You’re drawing with
a sculptural sensibility now. Just one caveat;
use you fingers to stump in, using a tortillion
(paper stump) will compress and deaden the
The kneaded eraser is an indispensable tool.
Not only is it used for correcting but the
kneaded eraser’s true value is its painterly
application for lifting out.
Shaping my kneaded eraser into the shape
of a medium size round brush I literally paint
out the light pattern. This begins the additive/
subtractive process of building tone.
Note that I have only barely indicated the
facial features.
I’ve held off on articulating the facial features for
as long as I could. In the profile view the quality
of your line used to draw the facial features is
In my drawing I aim to fully ascribe the facial features with a single line. And here’s the trick to
doing this: Begin at the bottom of the chin and
work upwards. The landmarks and initial tone have
already been established and, hence, it is a relatively straightforward endeavor.
But it does take practice and experience. There
really are no tricks and shortcuts to learning how
to draw. Respect the art and you will efficiently
build a solid foundation.
There are now two paths to choose between: I
could work up all of the elements, face, drapery
and headpiece, simultaneously which is my usual
method, or I could work up each element separately and knit them together.
Using a sharpened conté crayon I first delicately
and lightly cross-hatch in the darker forms. A
tortillon (paper stump) further shapes the forms
using light painterly strokes which are then further
enhanced and edged (this is an entire lesson in
itself) with the kneaded eraser.
Whereas the face was fairly straightforward the drapery was an altogether different story.
The drapery in the photograph struck me as somewhat bland and I felt that it needed some
enlivening which meant that I pushed the tonal range for a more dramatic effect. I mentioned
earlier in this lesson that the photograph is a reference only and best not copied slavishly.
Drapery is an art in itself. There are seven types of folds: pipe, two-point, zig zag, half-lock,
spiral, drop and inert. Complex drapery usually incorporates all seven folds. The bundle
of cloth at the back of the neck is an inert fold. The example shown above in sanguine
conté is a drop fold.
There comes a time in every artist’s career when the realization manifests the need for an
understanding of how drapery works. Drapery can be eye-balled only so far. When you are
working from life and your model returns from a break there is no way the drapery can be
replicated the way it was before much to the chagrin of students and the everlasting torment of
the instructor. And as previously mentioned; photographs tend to flatten out form.
As with the drapery I also chose to
push the tonal range of the head piece.
Understanding the additive/subtractive
process of building tone cannot be readily taught either in a book or the classroom. The static pages in a book can
only present the general approach; the
classroom is limited by time constraints.
It just isn’t feasible for a teacher to present a four to six hour demonstration.
The DVD format however is ideal; there
you can watch and learn exactly what is
involved in building tone.
Building tone can best be encapsulated
by dividing a value by two. Beginning
with the overall light/dark pattern, you
then divide the dark into, well, dark and
a slightly darker dark. And then repeat.
Pretty soon you will have a complex tonal
range. However complex the tonal range
becomes it must still read as a cohesive
And, finally, the advanced artist will recognize my pictorial
surface (my entire canvas – the sheet of paper) as a √2
dynamic rectangle. The √2 rectangle is the most popular
and effective dynamic canvas for portraiture.
Constructing a √2 rectangle is quite simple: using the
diagonal, ab, of a square as the radius of a circle simply
extend the length of the square to intersect the arc at c.
Just by using the √2 canvas, or pictorial surface, for your
portrait drawing will significantly increase its impact on the
viewer. And every little bit helps.
A Character
Portrait: Plumbing
& Spectacles
Drawing a portrait with spectacles has its unique challenges. Spectacles cannot be drawn in as an
afterthought, otherwise the portrait will appear stilted and the glasses will look pasted on. Spectacles
need to incorporated early into the drawing.
My initial study for this pose was the sketch shown here. Not only did I have to deal with the issue of
spectacles, but also, the overall forward tilt of the head significantly added to the challenge.
It is good practice to rehearse a work, whether it be a painting or a sustained drawing, with a quick
sketch or, even, many sketches if need be. The rehearsal sketch will alert you to potential pitfalls and
their solutions.
I choose to work with sanguine conte on a darker tone of Fabriano Ingres charcoal paper than I usually use. It is difficult to say why I choose one medium over another. On one hand I have a personal
preference for sanguine conte, but on the other the subject matter dictates the medium. It is a ‘feel’
that an artist develops over time. Each medium professes its own timbre. However the approach to
drawing and painting remains the same – you always work from the general to the specific.
I always begin with the arabesque which is the
entire outside shape of the head. Using a sharpened crayon of sanguine conte – medium grade
sandpaper will quickly sharpen the conte to a
very fine point – I lightly struck the arabesque.
Before applying the conte to your paper, first let
your eyes fall out of focus as you look at your
model. This is called soft eye and helps to better
ascertain the large abstract shape and overall
proportion of the head.
An important caveat when you begin a drawing is
to strike your arabesque first and then check your
height/width proportion. Doing so will ensure a
looser and freer arabesque while continuously
developing and improving your sense of shape.
I have deliberately strived to keep this image
of my arabesque as light as I do on my actual
drawing. Your arabesque should be very lightly
drawn; you should barely be able to see it.
Once your arabesque has been struck, its’ height/
width proportion checked and the overall shape
corresponding accurately with the model’s pose
the primary landmarks are then established.
The most important landmark in portrait drawing
is the brow-ridge. This is the large, lateral skeletal structure (called the Primary Nasal Eminence) upon which the eyebrows lay. Generally
you are looking for a specific point on the
brow ridge that you can
readily refer back to.
Every portrait drawing
will have a slightly different reference point
depending upon the
model, the pose and
even the lighting.
Plumb line
Medial line of the face
Determining the medial line of the facial arena in a pose that is neither frontal nor profile or even 7/8th’s
can be tricky. [The medial line, or facial angle, runs through the center of the face: between the eye
brows, the philtrum (the trough between the nose and upper lip: philtrum is the Greek word for ‘to
love/to kiss’) and the mental protuberance of the chin’s base.]
The solution is to first find the lateral center point of your model’s head and then vertically plumb
from the center point to assess how the various elements, i.e., nose, eye, chin, hair, etc. line up
vis-a-vis the plumb line.
A plumb line is easily made from a length, about 12”, of thick black thread or a thin string anchored
with a weight such as carpenter’s plumb-bob. A heavy washer will also do.
In my drawing the plumb line met the medial line of the face at the center of the mental protuberance
of the chin. Also aligned with the plumb line is the wing of the nose and the part in the hair at the
hairline. Having at least three aligned elements is extremely useful in accurately placing the facial
features. In addition to further developing the base of the nose I have also begun working out the
placement of the spectacles.
My practice is to now switch gears from the linear to the tonal approach.
Very light block-in the primary dark tone with the side of a small piece
of conte. If you’re working with pencil you can use a small piece of vine
charcoal; the more experienced artist can lay in a flat, even tone with a
soft pencil such as a 6B or 8B.
Using my fingers I stump down the conte so that it is as flat and even a
tone as I can get. Ideally you should achieve a soft glow. If you don’t get
the glow then you most likely have applied the conte too heavily.
Be sure to use your fingers, using a stump or tortillon will deaden the
conte at this point. Some artist use a chamois cloth.
A kneaded eraser can now be manipulated
into a #12 round brush shape and used to
‘paint’ out the lights and further describe the
forms of the head.
This subtractive approach is generally
referred to as drawing with a sculptural sensibility.
Artists who prefer a purely tonal drawing will
continue with furthering the plastic construction of the drawing. Plasticity means ‘giving
form to.’
My preference is to switch back to the linear
and further articulate the facial features and
to resurrect the arabesque of the head if
need be.
An understanding of the head’s skeletal and
musculature will greatly enhance your portrait
drawing. I find it quite useful at times to ‘talk’
my way through the more difficult passages.
My ‘talk’ is comprised of muttering the anatomical terms. As I mentioned earlier ‘terminology
expresses intent’.
The lenses of the spectacles are now carefully
sketched. An appreciation of perspective will
be helpful here, but it is not necessary nor
particularly helpful, to render the glasses perspectively – Given the forward tilt of the head
you would need to render a 3-point perspective
drawing which, in the end, would probably be
abandoned out of sheer frustration.
Inverting the drawing and shaping the lenses
upside down is an effective way to work out
their deceptive asymmetry.
I prefer to use conte as a painterly medium. This entails blocking-in and stumping the darker tones
(Additive) followed by lifting out the light tones with painterly strokes of a kneaded eraser (Subtractive).
Focusing within the orbit of the eye I begin the additive/subtractive process of constructing form. This
is not for the faint hearted; this stage always gives me heart palpitations. This radical step forward
is necessary. One could take a more cautious or timid approach but the result could also be overly
cautious and precious. Better, I think, to engage in a measured attack, neither too little nor too much.
Experience will teach you the balance to strive for. Be sure, though, to stump in with your finger. A
tortillon will dull the conte at this juncture.
The abstract shapes of light and dark can now be resolved by painting out with your kneaded eraser.
I am not thinking eye here, instead I am concerned with how each shape of dark and each shape
of light relate to each other.
Once the respective shapes have been satisfied their primitive tonal values can be indicated. What
I mean by primitive is that you only want a rough approximation of the relative values of light to
dark. Given the scarcity of plastic information in the drawing thus far you do not want to fully commit
yourself and work up the orbit of the eye to its full tonal resolution. I am still working somewhat
generally here.
The additive/subtractive process of working up
plastic form is not one that is easily described. It
is a process that needs to be seen over and over
again to be understood and ingrained.
In times past one could simply sit quietly in the
corner of the studio and watch their mentor work.
This was a great advantage to the atelier system
of study. Unfortunately today the time constraints
of class-room and workshop study disavails both
the instructor and student from respectively demonstrating and absorbing the delicate process of
applying pigment, manipulating and pushing it into
place and teasing the form’s edges and texture
with both a kneaded eraser and cross-hatching.
As you build up the plastic forms an acute awareness of the gesture’s architecture is also required.
The forward tilt of the head and my station point
(the position at which I am looking at the model)
results in a dramatic angled recession of the chin.
Important, too, is the arcing axis upon which the
cheeks are expressed. The puffing out of the
cheeks in this broad smile is the result of the
actions of the Malaris and Zygomaticus major
Zygomaticus major
Developing a drawing also requires a constant series
of evolving decisions. A difficult issue for me was
whether to include the highlight in the eyes or not.
I flip-flopped on this issue numerous times. Despite
my better judgment I did feel compelled to add the
highlights simply because that is what most portrait
drawings have. But no matter how carefully I rendered them the highlights detracted from the overall
expression. There is no easy answer to this, it is
simply a part of making art.
The spectacles must now, without any further equivocation, be incorporated. I had to be careful in
how far the wire frame of the glasses was to be
articulated. Too heavy a hand and the glasses would
look pasted on. Too light a rendering would not work
either. As with the issue of the high-lights in the eyes
a balancing act was required – the glasses have to
be there but they cannot distract from the whole.
My intent for this character study was to
express a gently humorous dishevelment. I
was also somewhat influenced by Rubens’
spectacular drawing of his wife Isabella Brant,
particularly the broad smile and pushed up
Peter Paul Rubens,
Isabella Brant, 1621
© 2010. All rights reserved.
Michael Britton has been teaching artists to draw for
over 20 years. He was trained at the New York Academy of Art (1986) and the Ontario College of Art (1980).
In addition to a successful career in advertising in New
York City Michael has also served as Artistic Director of
the Vancouver Academy of Art (1997-2004) in Canada
in addition to teaching many international portrait drawing workshops. His work is exhibited and collected
Michael is the author of several DVD workshops including Beginning to Draw, Mastering Portrait
Drawing 1 & 2, Symphonic Composition, Drawing Hands, The Practice of Tone and Painting the
Figure in Watercolor.
Michael’s Drawing E-Zine is a free monthly portrait drawing lesson that is sent out to thousands of
subscribers. It is available at
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Our address:
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