Drawing Or Painting Portraits From Life – Four Very Basic Tips

2014 Artwork Portraits From Life Sketch

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 🙂


Today’s Art (26th April 2014)

Well, since I couldn’t think of a new idea for a painting for today, I decided to paint a new version of one of my favourite old drawings called “Lot 89 (II)” (which is, itself a redrawing of another drawing).

I seem to make a new version of this picture about every two years, so it seemed like the right time to do this. I’ll include the previous version of this picture here, but not the first version I drew in 2010.

As usual, the two pictures in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Lot 89 (III)" By C. A. Brown

“Lot 89 (III)” By C. A. Brown

Lot 89 (III)” is the latest version of this picture and, although it’s in “widescreen”, in a higher resolution and the technical quality of the art is a lot better. I’m not sure if this is my favourite version of this picture, since it has less “personality” than the second version did.

"Lot 89 (II)" By C. A. Brown  [2nd October 2012]

“Lot 89 (II)” By C. A. Brown [2nd October 2012]

Lot 89 (II)” is probably my favourite version of this picture, since I decided to give it a much more gothic and J.G.Ballard-esque dystopic sci-fi background than the original version.

In addition to this, I also used an original character in this version of the picture (the very first version of this picture started out as “Heathers” fan art and then went in a slightly surreal direction instead). This allowed me to make this version a lot more gothic than the first version – and it’s also why I’m not posting the first version here either.

How Autobiographical Should Your Art Be?

2014 Artwork Should you be autobiographical sketch

Although I’m not a fan of conceptual art (and I pretty much agree with the Stuckists about the whole subject), I ended up randomly watching an old documentary about Tracey Emin on Youtube a couple of weeks ago.

I guess I ended up watching it because I wanted to daydream about being a glamourous, extroverted “rockstar” artist in the 1990s (even though I’d actually absolutely hate to be a celebrity of any kind- seriously, my imagination can be a very contradictory place sometimes).

Anyway, one of the interesting things which Emin mentioned in the documentary was that all of her work was very autobiographical in one way or another and this got me thinking about the whole subject of how much of themselves an artist should put into their own work.

Creating art is, by it’s very nature, a very introverted and introspective activity. Most of the real work involved in it takes place in the private world of the artist’s imagination.

But, at the same time, both translating those thoughts into something which can be put onto paper or canvas and translating them into something which other people can actually understand is a slightly more extroverted and extrospective activity.

Actually publishing it (either online or traditionally) is even more extroverted thing to do.

So, there’s this strange duality between introversion and extroversion involved in creating art. This is probably why it attracts both introverts and extroverts.

Still, how autobiographical should your art be? First of all, this is something which can vary from person to person – some people are a lot more comfortable with telling their life stories than others and some people have more interesting stories to tell than others do. So, there are no real “rules” here – but there are a few things which are worth thinking about:

Although there can be nothing more satisfying or cathartic than creating something autobiographical and seeing a piece of yourself and your personal history represented in pictorial form, it’s worth thinking about whether you actually want to share this with literally everyone or not.

If you don’t, then there are a couple of things that you can do. You can still make your autobiographical art and keep it private or you can hide the autobiographical elements of your art in a variety of clever ways (such as through symbolism).

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this painting that I made a couple of months ago:

"Sacred Relics" By C. A. Brown

“Sacred Relics” By C. A. Brown

To the untrained eye, this just looks like an ordinary still life picture (albeit with a lot of stuff in it). But it’s actually an extremely symbolic painting about the story of my life between the ages of about fourteen and nineteen.

Everything in this picture stands for a part of my life when I was younger. So, if you don’t want to share the details of your life story with everyone, but you still feel like telling it, then you can do it through symbolism or by creating something that evokes the same emotions you feel (but with none of the details of why you feel this particular way).

Secondly, there’s the question of quality. A work of art can be the most personal and meaningful thing in the world to you but, if it can’t stand on it’s own merits, then it isn’t worth publishing. If you’re not sure about this, then ask yourself “if someone didn’t know a thing about me, would they still think that what I’ve made is good art?”.

If the answer is “yes”, then put your art online and/or try to see if you can get it into a gallery. If the answer is “no”, then your art probably either needs reworking or revising.

Thirdly, there’s the question of meaning. It’s worth thinking about whether you want the exact meaning of your artwork to be obvious to everyone. It’s ok to leave things to your audience’s imaginations or to make your autobiographical art slightly mysterious (especially if you don’t feel like sharing literally everything) – but you shouldn’t make your art too confusing or indecipherable.

Fourthly, remember not to libel or slander anyone (or violate anyone else’s privacy) if you’re making anything autobiographical. The exact laws about this vary from country to country, so be sure to do your research first.

Finally, because all of your art comes from your imagination and because your imagination is informed by your memories, some autobiographical stuff will almost inevitably end up in whatever art you create, whether you want it to or not.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (25th April 2014)

Well, although the composition of today’s painting is nothing particularly new or innovative, I’m still really proud of how “Halls Of Wonder” turned out (even though this painting required a fairly significant amount of digital editing after I scanned it).

"Halls Of Wonder" By C. A. Brown

“Halls Of Wonder” By C. A. Brown

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commmons BY-NC-ND licence.

A Slow Pace Only Works If You Have An Excellent Story To Tell

2014 Artwork Slower Paced Stories Sketch

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was getting curious about “Game Of Thrones” again. Although I own most of the George R. R. Martin novels, I’ve only seen the first two seasons of the TV adaptation on DVD. Even so, I both did and didn’t want to know what happens in the third season.

I was tempted to just read spoilers on the internet, but that would probably just ruin the show for me. Surely, there had to be another way?

Of course! The books! So, with that, I made my second attempt at reading the first “Game Of Thrones” novel. I’d tried to read it late last year but, for some bizarre reason, I’d stopped after about 180 pages. Luckily, I’d left a bookmark in there and I was able to pick up where I left off. So, I immersed myself yet again in the wonderfully varied, treacherous and imaginative fictional world of Westeros.

But, it wasn’t long before I remembered one possible reason why I’d stopped reading it last year. The story moves very slowly. I’d been reading for about forty-five minutes and I was only about fifty pages further into the story.

Martin’s prose is vivid, exquisitely descriptive and extremely well-written but, unlike the sci-fi and thriller novels I’ve got used to reading over the past couple of years – it moves fairly slowly as a consequence.

Initially, I was annoyed about this and was about to give up in despair, when I suddenly thought “Hold on a minute, I love ‘Game Of Thrones’ and I’ve got what seems like an endless supply of it right here! This is the exact opposite of my main complaint with the TV show – namely that there wasn’t enough of it. I should be overjoyed”.

And, in that moment, I absolutely loved the fact that G.R.R Martin uses a very slow pace for his stories. It means that I can spend weeks in Westeros, rather than just a few days.

Anyway, this got me thinking about pacing and storytelling in general. The fact is that, as I mentioned earlier, I usually see a slow pacing as a negative thing in stories – and in things like (yawn) literary fiction, it definitely is.

But, whilst my personal recommendation to any writer is to keep their story moving at a fairly decent pace, there is one exception to this.

If your story is extremely compelling and dramatic, if you have a lot of very interesting characters and if the fictional universe of your story is an absolutely fascinating place, then it can sometimes actually be better to use a slower-paced narrative for your story.

This is because, if your story is something that can enthral people that much and fill them with wonder and excitement – then they deserve to spend as long there as they can. They deserve to see the new and interesting world of your story in as much detail as possible (as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story itself). They deserve to get to know your characters as much as possible (again, if it doesn’t get in the way of the story itself).

But, if you feel that your story is just “average”, if it’s a thriller novel, if it’s set in the real world and/or if it’s vaguely similar to the kinds of stories that people have read many times before, then you’re probably better off using a faster pace.

These are just my opinions, but I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (24th April 2014)

Well, it’s been a couple of months since I last painted a self-portrait, so I thought that I’d paint another one.

This painting is fairly stylised and idealised in various subtle ways (it’s basically how I see myself rather than how other people see me), but hopefully it still at least vaguely resembles me.

Also, I had to do a lot more digital editing than usual after I scanned this picture, due to a few creases in the paper which needed to be airbrushed out in MS Paint.

"Self Portrait 24/4/14" By C. A. Brown

“Self Portrait 24/4/14” By C. A. Brown

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

It’s Ok Not To Be “Avant-Garde”

This was pretty much my exact reaction when I learnt that Bush was a painter...

This was pretty much my exact reaction when I learnt that Bush was a painter…

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading the BBC News website when I happened to stumble across this article about George W.Bush, of all people.

Although I’m not a fan of George Bush (and it’s likely that all of this art that he’s exhibiting is probably part of a cynical attempt to make him look more “friendly”) – he is a fairly good portrait artist nonetheless.

But, this isn’t an article about George Bush. The reason I’m mentioning this news article is because of a quote from an art critic (Phillip Kennicott) that was included in it. The part of the quote which really stuck in my mind was (emphasis mine): It’s anachronistic to paint, so it suggested a level of patience and reflection that often times Bush wasn’t credited with.”

My first thoughts after reading this were “Painting? Anachronistic? What the hell ?!?!”

Although I only got into watercolour pencil painting about four months ago (and most of my artistic background is in drawing), I quite like seeing myself as a painter. So, initially, I read this comment as a criticism of painters and painting in general. Then, I realised something.

I like being anachronistic. I like being retro. I like feeling like I’m part of a long tradition of painters and in the company of many modern painters (except Mr.Bush, of course).

I like copying old 16th-19th century paintings in my own style. I like art nouveau paintings and etchings. I like old Japanese art.

Painting isn’t anachronistic, it’s timeless. In almost every part of the world and in every era of history, there have been paintings (as well as etchings, prints, sculptures and/or drawings).

If painting was something that could become anachronistic, then it would have faded into the past a long time ago (in the way that wax cylinders and daguerreotypes have). But, given that it’s been a part of humanity for… well.. ever, I’d say that it’s timeless rather than anachronistic.

Yes, painting may be a very old thing – but so are mathematics, the wheel, the chemical composition of water, the planet we’re living on and a whole bunch of other things like that.

Plus, painting isn’t a static thing either – it moves and changes with the times. Compare a Picasso painting to a Rembrandt painting and you’ll see what I mean by this. Although painting itself is a timeless activity, the paintings that artists produce are anything but anachronistic – in one way or another, they all reflect their own time.

Even an old painting copied by a modern painter will reflect modern tastes and sensibilities in some way or another. Like in this copy/parody of a old Franz Hals painting I made a month or so ago:

"Not Willem Coymans" By C. A. Brown

“Not Willem Coymans” By C. A. Brown

So, if you’re a painter- don’t worry if some people see you as “anachronistic”. Yes, the art world may currently be obsessed with conceptual art (for some bizarre reason) and, yes, this type of art may fill a lot of very prestigious art galleries at the moment.

Yes, “avant-garde” conceptual art may get the lion’s share of press coverage and critics’ attention. But this doesn’t mean that timeless art forms like painting or drawing are “old news” or “worthless”. So, don’t let this get you down if you are a painter or a draughtsman. It’s ok to be avant-garde, but it’s also ok not to be avant-garde.

Just make the types of art that you want to make and ignore the critics. If you like to be cutting-edge and modern, then make modern art. But if you’re drawn to the rich history and familiar warmth of more traditional forms of art, then make that instead. Trying to be avant-garde just because you feel that you “have” to be (in order to be recognised as an artist) is a recipie for disaster.

Remember, art critics and art galleries aren’t all there is to art. For every person that loves modern “avant-garde” conceptual art, there are probably at least three people who prefer traditional paintings. Yes, those three people might not have anything to do with the art world and they may not write art columns for newspapers or work in an art gallery – but they will see your paintings as “art” whether or not they actually like your paintings.

If you still don’t believe me that it’s ok not to be “avant-garde” and that it’s possible to be successful in “older” art forms, then just look at this video clip about Jack Vettriano.

As the video clip says, he’s one of the bestselling artists in the UK but his paintings haven’t really appeared in any prestigious galleries. Art critics would probably see his work as “anachronistic”. But he paints what he feels like painting (eg: stylised 1920s-1950s scenes) and he makes a very good living from it.

If he’d tried to be an “avant-garde” conceptual artist, he’d have probably failed miserably. So, remember, you don’t have to be “avant-garde” to be a successful artist – just paint, sculpt, draw etc.. whatever you think is art and don’t give a damn about the critics.

If you still need reassurance that it’s ok to be a contemporary painter or draughtsman rather than an “avant-garde” conceptual artist and you need proof that painting is anything but “anachronistic”, then check out a group of painters called The Stuckists [The gallery on their site is slightly NSFW though]. Their art and art styles are suitably modern, but they still work in traditional art forms like painting.

As I said earlier, painting isn’t a static thing. And it isn’t anachronistic.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂