Well, for what was probably the first time in my life, I tried painting portraits from life (of two of my relatives) a couple of weeks ago. Ok, I actually just sketched them from life and then added ink and paint later, but the final result of this was two small portrait paintings. But, more on that later…
Whilst I won’t include either portrait here, they didn’t turn out as badly as I had feared that they would and both portraits actually vageuly resembled the people in question (even if my portrait of my uncle ended up looking slightly like Prince William).
Although I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to this exact type of painting, I wasn’t completely unprepared for it. So, I thought that I’d offer four extremely basic tips which might come in handy. This article will probably be more about how to prepare for drawing or painting a portrait than it will be about the actual process of making one.
1) Practice first: Don’t even attempt to paint or draw anyone’s portrait until you’ve had a fair amount of drawing/sketching practice. Learn the basics of drawing (there are plenty of guides online) and practice copying quite a few photographs of random people first.
The latter of these two things is probably the most important one to practice since, if you copy enough photos – then you’ll pick up quite a few basic techniques and rules anyway (eg: heads are usually oval-shaped, the ears are always level with the eyes etc…). Not only that, copying photos allows you to practice observing/studying people very closely too.
Learn how to draw what you actually see rather than what you think that you see too. There’s an excellent book called “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” By Betty Edwards which explains this whole subject in a lot more detail.
But, basically, it’s important learn how to see the exact outlines and shapes of things – however strange they may look. If you’ve been copying photos for a while, then you’ll pick up this skill instinctively anyway.
If you’re totally new to drawing or painting, then don’t start with portraits. In order to paint or draw someone’s portrait, you already need to have a fairly good “toolbox” of basic artistic techniques and some confidence in your own abilities too (which comes with a lot of practice). If you don’t have both of these two things, then you’re probably not ready to paint portraits yet.
2) Then try a self-portrait: Self-portraits are probably the best way to start painting or drawing portraits from life (after you’ve learnt the basics of drawing people), for the simple reason that you know what your own face looks like more than you know what anyone else’s face looks like. Just get a mirror and practice drawing self-portraits until you end up with something that looks like you.
Another good reason why it’s best to start with self-portraits (after you’ve practised drawing from photos etc…) is that no-one’s going to react badly if you make mistakes. You can fail as often as you need to and learn as much from your failures as you need to without worrying what anyone else will think.
3) Sketch first and do the rest later: Whilst this probably isn’t how professional portrait artists do things, if you’re new to painting portraits (like me) and your subject hasn’t had their portrait painted before – then this can save a lot of time and energy.
Basically, when you’re painting someone, just draw the pencil sketch when they are sitting in front of you and then add the rest later. This means that your subject only has to sit in front of you for maybe 10-15 minutes rather than for several hours.
It’s also a good idea to ask the person you’re sketching to look directly forwards when you’re sketching them. For starters, this allows you to easily see the exact shape/outline of their head (and this can be the most difficult thing to get right – but it should be the first thing that you sketch).
This also allows you to make your portrait look a lot more “two-dimensional” (unlike if their head is angled in a slightly different direction), which saves you time and energy. Remember, if you’re new to portrait painting, then it’s best to start with something basic like this – since you have a better chance of getting a good likeness of the person you’re sketching
4) Have a sense of humour: And make sure that your subject has a sense of humour too. If you’re painting other people’s portraits for the first time, then the results are probably aren’t going to look perfect. Your sketch or portrait might look slightly cartoonish or it might look more like a caricature of the other person, rather than a serious portrait. So, a sense of humour is essential.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂