Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

Drawing Lessons for Beginners:
The Arabesque in Portrait Drawing

Drawing Lessons for Beginners - Arabesque

In portrait drawing the arabesque is the entire positive shape, the gestalt (whole) of the head. The arabesque incorporates the proportion (height/width ratio), the shape and the symmetry. Thus within the arabesque is communicated the likeness and emotion of the portrait drawing.

But herein lay a significant drawing problem: looking and seeing.

When we look at a face a complex schematic comes into play. Whereas we all see the same face our mind’s eye (the limbic receptors) compresses the visual image into a symbol or paradigm. These paradigms (models of experience) are patterns that our limbic receptors have classified as symbols.

How to Draw Faces and Portraits


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    As you begin to learn how to draw portraits what initially happens is that we end up drawing a symbol of a face. The same holds true when we draw the features such as the eyes, nose, mouth, etc.

    The first objective, as you learn to draw, is how to see visually rather than symbolically - not an easy task.

    Learning how to draw is a process of reprogramming the mind’s eye. To this end there is a skill-set that has been developed over the centuries since the Renaissance. Remarkable as the drawings of Raphael and Michelangelo are it is exponentially more stunning when one realizes that they had to re-invent drawing as we know it.

    Foremost of these hard-won skills is the ability to ‘strike the arabesque’. Once this drawing skill is acquired a vast vista of drawing possibilities is opened.

    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - arabesque1

    The arabesque encapsulates the entirety of the head including the hair. In this initial first strike, which is drawn without any pre-measuring (and this is a critical point to remember as you learn to draw), I lowered the neckline of the model’s sweater – this was a deliberate decision on my part.

    The first step as in striking an arabesque is to let your eyes fall slightly out-of-focus. This is called ‘soft eye’. With a ‘soft eye’ proportion and shape are more easily seen. ‘Soft eye’ also helps circumvent the lurking problem of those limbic symbolic preconceptions that will frustrate you as you learn to draw.

    To constantly train your eye and to improve you must always draw first and verify your accuracy second. There is very little to gain by pre-measuring. Pre-measuring the height and width of a portrait may seem expedient at first, but in the near, and long, run it will hold you back.

    When striking the initial arabesque always use small, straight lines. This will impart a sense of structure and of underlying bone and tissue. Round, curving lines is a symbolic preconception. The human head is not an oval it more closely approximates the rectilinear.

    Looking at my arabesque, which I have drawn with straight, architectonic lines, I have also paid particular attention to the symmetry of the head. In portrait drawing the term Symmetry does not refer to a similarity of parts. Symmetry is defined as beauty resulting from correct proportion and rhythm; it is a dynamic correspondence of one part to another within a whole.

    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - arabesque2

    Step 1: Verifying the overall proportion of your portrait drawing is reasonably straight-forward. You first compare the width to the height. Using the largest width (in this drawing from a to b), which is generally across the brow-line, compare it to the height of the face from the base of the chin (Mental Protuberance).

    Step 2: The width of my portrait drawing, when ascribed perpendicularly to the height, falls just above the hairline. The objective, then, is to ascertain exactly where that point is.

    Step 3: The rule of thumb is to always adjudge the shortest distance - this is most likely to be the accurate guess (but it does take practice and training).


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