Thursday, October 27, 2011

Learning to Sketch Portraits - Part I

For many years I have drooled over the sketchbook journals I see in other artists' blogs. I dream of someday documenting my life in such a journal, complete with fabulous drawings and witty and insightful writings. I will record all of the little magical details that make my life what it is. When my children are grown we will spend quality time reading the journals, reminiscing and sharing our memories with their children. Can you hear the swell of the violins playing in the background?

Then I wake up and know that it was just a dream, much like the dreams I have of living in the exquisitely decorated and perfectly clean designer homes they show on HGTV. Does anyone really live like that? If so, can you send them to my place and ask them to neaten it up a bit?

But even as I put the dream of perfection aside, I know I would still like to do more sketching of my life and family moments than I do. One thing that holds me back is that I am not comfortable sketching people and typically family moments have, well... family in them. And family means people.

The way I see it, the only way to ever become comfortable sketching people is to start practicing.

Sketching from a real, moving person seemed like a daunting place to start. So instead I went to the source of all knowledge -- the Internet!

There are quite a few artists whose sketches of people I admire. Going back to one of the practices of old, I decided to find a couple of their sketches and copy them.  Many art students learn their craft by copying master works in museums.

One of the good things about starting with this method of learning is that the artist who created the original sketch already did the hard work of translating the 3D figure into a 2D drawing. I was particularly interested in studying what kind of lines and shapes are used to quickly portray the facial features.

To get started I picked two artists whose sketches of faces I much admire.

First - Laura Frankstone
Laura publishes her incredible sketches on her blog Laurelines. Her sketches are wonderfully expressive and I love her use of line. Her sketches look like they are passionately constructed without any sign of fear or hesitancy. I knew there was a lot I could learn from her work.

Here are my three practice sketches in the order I completed them.

practice sketch 1
approx. 5" x 4" graphite on newsprint

practice sketch 2
approx. 7" x 6" graphite on newsprint

practice sketch 3
approx. 7" x 5" graphite on newsprint

I tried to get a sense of her mark making, where she drew the edges and where she let the mind's eye fill them in. I tried not to noodle around with my marks and instead tried to make them meaningful and get them down the first time.

If you look close you can see from the shadow of incomplete erasure where I wasn't very successful with that. Laura definitely makes it look easier than it is!

The second portrait sketching master that I chose to learn from is James Gurney.

James Gurney's blog Gurney Journey contains a wealth of information and I firmly believe that every artist should make time to check it out. Interspersed with all of the technical information you will find posts containing wonderful sketches of the people that James crosses paths with.

I chose to work from James's sketches because they are more about value and less about line. I wanted to try and translate those sketches into line work using marks similar to the ones I was experimenting with above. It seemed like a good intermediate challenge.

Here are the two practice sketches from this round.

practice sketch 4
approx. 4" x 5" graphite on newsprint

practice sketch 5
approx. 10" x 7" graphite on newsprint

It was definitely challenging to remember to think about and work with lines instead of value. Value is my comfort zone. Also on the first sketch I found myself getting fidgety and erasing and restating lines. I tried to break away from that in the second sketch by standing up and working larger, both of which I enjoyed. 

Coming up in Part II -- The challenges mount: Working from a photograph and from life!

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