Portrait Practice

Leo portrait study
Leo portrait study oil 14×11

One of the best ways to improve your drawing skills is to draw or paint portraits. As a human we learn to separate people from each other as soon as we are born by the subtle differences between faces. So, when you are executing a portrait it is easy to spot where your drawing has gone wrong. (Even if fixing the problem isn’t so easy.)

But, so can everyone else.

Reagan portrait study
Reagan portrait study oil 14×11

Practicing for a visual artist, especially portrait practice, is a very intimidating thing. Once you make that mark, short of taking flames to what you have done, it is there for a lifetime of judgement. Unlike more transient arts, such as singing, or dance, an artist’s practice is easy to mistake for the performance.

I love the way Dianne Mize put it in a recent blog post.

“Developing skills to this extent requires practice, lots of practice. And here is where artists lose the advantage enjoyed by musicians, actors, poets, and all other performers. That advantage is that the practice sessions are distinct from the performance. Evidence of the struggle gets left behind the scene.

Not so for painters: we have our practice pieces starring us in the face. And there’s always somebody wanting to see what we’ve done, leaving us vulnerable to their comments. Nobody has to hear a musician’s practice nor hear an actor’s rehearsing nor watch an ice skater’s workout, but once an artist has done a practice painting, it’s there to be seen as if it’s the final statement.”

Nina portrait study
Nina portrait study oil 14×11

For the visual artist who wants to master his craft, there is no way to get out of the miles of not quite right, and downright ugly, paintings and drawings required before mastery is achieved. We have to suck it up, and grow a thick skin to all of the throw away comments that can stick with a person for a lifetime.

Substitute Model portrait study
Substitute Model portrait study oil 8×6

But, maybe we can shorten that road a bit if we all did more portrait practice, and invested in a blow torch.

Compose Blog

Basics: Drawing 5, The Hook

In music the hook is a good thing, but in line drawing, especially hatching, it is sloppy and distracting. Unfortunately drawing hooks is also one of the most common habits, (and the one that wants to sneak back in after you’ve kicked it out) but it can be broken.

So what is a hook?



Exaggerated hooks on two top left examples. Normal hooks on bottom and right examples.

Hooks are when you are drawing parallel lines and the end of each line hooks around as you move your hand to the next line. This usually happens because you are not lifting the pencil before moving your hand back for the next stroke, usually during hatching and crosshatching.


To chase the hooks away, practice hatching and crosshatching slowly at first, deliberately lifting the pencil at the end of each stroke. As you get better at it then you can move faster until you get a good speed and rhythm.

Cross Hatching
Top two examples are crosshatching .
(I told you they were sneaky! Even drawing the example of hooks let some in.)

It’s good to spend about five or ten minutes on drawing the different exercises everyday to train your hand and mind.

Tomorrow, I think we might move on to something else for a post or two.

Basics: Drawing 4 Line Weight

Head of Julius Ceaser by Andrea del Sarto

Head of Julius Ceaser by Andrea del Sarto

Line weight or hand pressure is a basic skill in drawing that gets ignored, but it is one of the most important for showing form with line and adding interest to the drawing.

Line weight, also called a varied line, is when the line gets thicker or thinner usually by pressing harder or letting up on the pressure of the pencil. If you look at most drawings from the old masters like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Ingres, you will see that every line has been thought about not just for the direction it is to follow but also for the thick or thin quality that will best communicate the form.

If you look at the drawing above done by del Sarto, who lived at the same time as Leonardo and Michelangelo, you will see that the lines are varied; thinner where it is in light and thicker where it is in shadow.

The exercises below I actually got from Leonardo. In one of his notebooks it shows a passage where he has practiced varying his lines to train his hand.

These exercises are more free form than yesterday’s. To start off draw several lines that start out thick and fade to almost nothing.

Thick to thin free form lines

Then you can try them parallel to each other.

Thick to thin parallel lines

And combine them with yesterdays exercises.

Thin to thick parallel lines of the same length

Try them in all sorts of directions to train your hand to draw them however they are needed.

Next draw several lines that start out thick then get thin in the middle and then get thick again at the end.

Thick to thin to thick curved lines

And also do straight parallel ones. (Or mostly parallel!)

Thick to thin to thick parallel lines

Then you should draw lines that are the opposite that go from thin to thick in the middle to thin at the end.

Thin to thick to thin curved lines

At this point you might be asking yourself what good any of this is? And the best way for me to explain is with another drawing.

Thick to thin to thick lines on a receding plane

You can see how thick to thin to thick lines have given the illusion that there is a light shining on a surface. This could be a table, a landscape, part of a suit of armor, or even someone’s forehead. (This is also a good example of why learning to start and stop a line where you want it to from yesterday’s exercises is important.)

Also, you can see how it can be used on a circle to give the feeling of roundness, turning the circle into a sphere.

Thick to thin to thick lines on a sphere

And to go back to the del Sarto drawing above you can see where he’s used thick to thin to thick lines on the sternomastoid (circled in pink) and thin to thick to thin lines on the cheek (circled in black.)

Del Sarto with circles showing different lines

If you practice these for a few minutes each day you will soon be able to include them in any of your drawings to add feeling and form and hardly even think about it.

Basics: Drawing 3 Learn to Fish

Demonstration Drawing by Harold Speed
Demonstration Drawing by Harold Speed

There’s an often over used saying that states if you give a man a fish it feeds him for a day but if you teach a man to fish it feeds him for a lifetime, but it does makes a point about giving up a stop gap fix in favor of a difficult at first, but permanent solution.

Today we learn to fish.

We already talked about grades and types of graphite pencils in the last post, so we need to spend a little time on paper. For the practice that I suggest any type of paper will do. I use 24lb Xerox inkjet paper I can buy in mega reams of about 750 sheets. I like the smoothness since it is easy to erase, the thickness since it feels good in my hand, the size (8.5 inches by 11 inches) since it is easy to carry around, and that it is acid free, which is a bonus, but choose any bulk paper that suits you.

For more refined drawings, or any drawing that you might want to call a work of art instead of a sketch, get good paper.

So what is good paper?

Good paper is usually thicker than inkjet paper, about 60lb and up. It needs to be acid free, or Ph neutral and the texture needs to be something you are comfortable working on. Is is usually made by companies that specialize in artist paper. A few paper suggestions: Canson Mi-Teintes(I like the back texture better than the front), Canson Ingres (Thinner but still good), Fabriano Ingres, Strathmore 500, and Stonehenge.

If you get a 100% cotton paper then be aware that it will be a very soft paper and the it may scuff or be damaged when you erase, so be sure you plan out your drawing before you start on a soft paper.

Next we’ll get to some line drawing exercises. These are great to do when you can’t think of anything else to do or when you are warming up for a drawing session.

You’ve probably heard people say they can’t draw a straight line, and probably even some artists, but to really know your craft you should be able to draw a reasonably straight line in any direction of the length that you desire.

Start by placing two dots horizontally across from each other on your paper a comfortable distance apart, about an inch is good to start out.

Then draw a straight line, without using any straight edge, parallel to the dots starting at one dot and ending at the other. And repeat this four or five times. Then do the same thing, but with vertical dots. (See the examples below.)

hand drawn line exercises

This trains your mind and hand in several ways. It teaches you to how draw lines parallel to each other (which is more useful than it sounds), it trains your hand to move in unusual directions, it teaches you to be able to start and stop a line where you want it to, and it will reveal unknown biases of leaning to the right or left compared to an absolutely vertical or horizontal line. (Have you ever seen an ocean horizon that leaned to one side? I bet the artist doesn’t know about their biases.)

Don’t fret too much about this at first since not everything will come together at once, but within in a few days or weeks you should be getting decent results. Mastering these exercises can take years ( I still haven’t mastered them). Also, you will probably find out which movement is easier for you, vertical or horizontal, but make sure you do them equally so you don’t only train your strengths.

As you get better at it, start to place the dots further apart until you can draw a five or six inch line (or longer if you want).

Line drawing exercise

These should be thought of like scales for a musician or lifting weights for an athlete, they aren’t going to be beautiful but they will help you create beauty.

Tomorrow we’ll get to line weight, or hand pressure.

But before I go, I wanted to give you a studio tip. If you do these exercises on a slanted drawing board it will be easier since you won’t have the diminishing perspective to mess you up, and if you draw with your wrist, elbow, or shoulder and not your fingers, you will be able to draw longer and longer lines.