Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

Drawing Lessons

March 2013

An Art Education | The Straight Dope

Being led down the garden pathway, entreatied with hollow accolades of how wonderful you are doing, is the unsettling fear of every serious art student.

In the scramble for students many promises are made. Criticisms are softened, content is rendered to an unobjectionable palaver and, above all, the instructor must appear infallible. The dismal result is that college and university programs are little more than sausage factories expunging a similar and consistent product.

Beginner Drawing Lessons

Online art training often fares worse for the student. Especially the beginner. The problem, in large part, is that most beginners do not know where to start.

Many beginner art classes will either plop a model or a complex array of objects before the class and set them loose upon it. The result is both awkward and retarding to the student's development: symbolic preconceptions are reinforced; poor practice yields poor results.

With online art training there is the understandable tendency to cherry pick only those courses that directly interest us. The core foundational skills are neglected. Most will, at first, prefer to learn how to draw an eye rather than learn how to ascribe the overall shape of the head. The latter is many times more important.

The first three months of a beginner's art training determines whether or not their acquisition of skills will be successful. It takes only a moment to develop a bad habit and a long arduous journey to correct it. Most do not. They will stumble onward carrying an unnecessarily heavy load. It is difficult and painful to admit that one has gone down the wrong path and need to start over again.

What then constitutes a solid foundation in drawing and painting. Acquiring a large instructional library on every conceivable subject is wholly unnecessary and even counter productive. For example, one does not need to know the intricacies of rigging in order to create a powerful painting of a ship. There is the real danger, too, of being a technical illustrator rather than a painter. The power of suggestion in painting is manifest.

In an ideal world studying under the dictates of a benevolent dictator produces the best results. This tyrant would begin with training you to first accurately strike rectangles. Placing the subject within the envelope of a rectangle allows us to readily establish the height to width proportion. A critical first step in learning how to see.

Imagine trying to sell a beginner drawing course on how to draw rectangles -- good luck with that! Yet the square and dynamic rectangles are the base foundation of drawing and painting.

Rectangles! Sounds easy enough.

John Constable, Barges on the Stour, 1811
John Constable, Barges on the Stour with Dedham Church in the Distance, 1811, Oil on Paper, 26 x 31.1 cm

This stunning work by the 19th Century British painter, John Constable, is painting at its purest. Consider the date of 1811 and Constable's achievement is mind boggling. This was a time when only highly finished studio paintings were considered art.

There is little, if any, illustrative rendering in this work. It is comprised of shapes: every brush stroke's shape speaks volumes of the object it suggests.

Over two hundred years later and this fluid work is still fresh as a biscuit. Get more info on Constable from the Victoria Albert Museum in London.

With few exceptions we draw and paint on a rectangle which is our canvas, the term for the pictorial surface.

Merrily traipsing off to the art store and buying a pre-stretched canvas, most likely the ever popular 16 x 20" size which is on the supply list of practically every portrait painting class, immediately relegates your work amongst the minions of earnest amateurs. Alas the beginner's downfall has begun. Controversial words? Yes. Tyrants do not pull punches.

This is a tragedy whose historical routes are found with the commercial mass production of art materials.

Well, heck! You might even retort: I just want to learn how to paint. What is this nonsense about my very affordable and, I might add, convenient canvas?

I assume that if you have read this far that your intent is to acquire your foundational skills as quickly and efficiently as possible. That means killing several birds with one stone. (Apologies, of course, to all birds.) Learning is best achieved by a layered approach. This also means that that first layer must be rock solid. And that first layer is mastering the skill of accurately drawing the height/width proportion of any given rectangle by your eye alone. That means no pre-measuring. None! Sure, some people do cheat in their training -- and I know who you are -- but they are only cheating themselves.

There are good and bad rectangles. Bad rectangles are static, lifeless. A painting begun on a bad rectangle (canvas) is stillborn. The 16 x 20" canvas is a notoriously bad character. And to select such a canvas because the framing options are oh-so-convenient is too depressing to even contemplate.

Good rectangles subscribe to either the octaval (musical chords) or the dynamic (natural design law). Both proffer harmonic pictorial areas. Every natural and well designed object corresponds to a dynamic rectangle. To create drawings and paintings that are unified and harmonious requires an ingrained appreciation of the power of dynamic rectangles which is proportion.

To wit, when we draw a portrait our first step is to strike the arabesque, the overall outside shape of the head. This entails accurately gauging both the height/width proportion and the actual shape. Doing so requires training. There is no other way around it.

How to Draw Faces and Portraits


Complete the form below to subscribe to the Drawing EZine and get free drawing and painting lessons.


    Beginner Drawing Lessons 3
    Michael Britton, Portrait of Sonya, Sanguine Conte on Paper

    From your initial training with rectangles a refined sense for proportion becomes ingrained. So, too, with shape.

    A well trained professional begins a portrait by striking the arabesque, which is the entire outside shape of the head. It takes me less than 10 seconds to strike and structure the head and facial proportions.

    I was not born with this skill. No one is. It is acquired. And this is what I teach in my Beginning to Draw Workshop.

    As an artist you need to do more than just draw or paint a face to create a compelling work. Your portrait must be read as a unified correspondence between the figure (the object) and the ground (your canvas, the pictorial surface). Frankly, this correspondence is much more important than a well rendered head. As an accomplished realist artist I do know whence I speak.

    Placing an exquisitely drawn portrait onto that dead 16 x 20" canvas tears down the work. It is a sour note.

    The beginner need only be acquainted with four basic dynamic rectangles. Once you have learned to recognize these rectangles a new and wonderful world will open up and reveal itself to you -- the painter's world.

    Drawing and painting is about shape, its proportion and angles. The sooner you accept this the sooner you will move beyond the amateur ranks.


    If you spend just two weeks focused on acquiring the skill of accurately striking the height/width proportion of specific rectangles and a month on accurately striking shape then you will be heads above the vast majority of artists today.

    Everything else builds upon this. Dynamic rectangles and recognizing their harmonious proportions is to the artist what scales are to the musician. They are the core of your foundation.

    Acquiring a vast encyclopaedic technical knowledge of drawing and painting is of little use if you cannot accurately strike shape.

    If you are ready to build, even re-build, your core foundation the first part of my Beginning to Draw Workshop does just that.

    the straight dope ... LEARN TO DRAW LIKE A PROFESSIONAL!

    My six-hour instant download Beginning to Draw Workshop is ONLY $67!

    Originally published as a 3-DVD set this workshop regularly sold for $177. Even at that price this best-selling workshop was an excellent value.

    This is what Fiona B. from North Hampton, United Kingdom thought of her investment in my Beginning to Draw Workshop ...

    Would you be surprised if I told you I'd been searching half my life for this kind of instruction? I wanted to go to art school from a child, but I was so disappointed by a visit to the art college when I was 17 (... in Vancouver -- yes, it's my home town although I've been in England for 17 years now) that I changed direction completely and went to UBC to do languages instead. Since then, I've dabbled and futzed and eventually made my way via craft towards textile art, but always I've wanted to go back and learn the real skills of drawing and painting. As an adult, even if you can find someone to teach you (and that's not easy) outside a major city, you likely can't afford it.

    I've been receiving your newsletters for a couple of years now and always learn something, but I still felt I needed to start right at the beginning again, being so out of practice, so I waited for this product to be ready. And now it is, it looks exactly what I'd hoped it would be: good solid explanation and demonstration of the skills and techniques, with progressive exercises to build them. I'm so pleased!

    Thanks for this great product!

    Get this 3 Part - 6 hours Instant Video Download plus the accompanying Text and Exercise Ebook ONLY $67! The Workshop Details...

    Add to Cart

    BONUS! Get my Foundations in Drawing Course FREE!

    Share this article with your friends & fellow artists