Ahhh… the portrait. It is somewhat surprising that the ONE object we have seen more than anything else throughout our lives, the one subject that is repeatedly burned into our brains, eludes even the most accomplished artist at times: Creating a drawing of the human face.
This is especially surprising when it is our own face, as we have all, no doubt, spent a vast amount of time staring at it throughout our lives, though in mirror image. Take the self-portrait I did below:
While something can be said about the skills and techniques to create volume, contrast, and texture, it is not really a perfect likeness of me. Upon reflection and distance, it becomes evident that the cheekbone is too prominent, the eyes too dark and large, and the lips a bit too youthful for someone in her 40’s.
The standards and proportions for the structure of the human face are complex enough to learn, even more challenging to apply (especially when you are working with a mirror and not a photograph), and darn near impossible to set up without a ruler. However, it is all the “exceptions” to these standards that any one individual face will have that typically lead the artist astray.
For example, while I can start out boxing in the head, placing a line across the center for the eyes and a line halfway between the eye line and the jaw to locate the bottom of the nose, I find that, even at this early stage, I have to make amendments to the distance between the bottom lip and the jaw line. I have a rather prominent chin. This requires a lengthening of this distance. Another example of a common exception is an adjustment of the eye size and how far apart the eyes sit.
I have often advised my students to lay out the standard proportions very lightly, then spend some time mentally and visually placing this grid onto the subject’s face to see where the exceptions arise. There is not much need to make note of the features that fall where they are expected to fall. What is important is to note where the individual features stray from the “ideal” proportions. This is the key to creating a stunning likeness.