Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits


Drawing is about shape.

When we begin a drawing our first objective is to establish the overall large shape of our subject whether it be a portrait drawing or as simple and elegant as an old shoe. This large shape is called the contour.

From this contour we can then proceed to articulating the smaller shapes within and developing the tonal values (more commonly known as shading).

Drawing Lessons for Beginners - striking drills 1
Michael Britton, Sonya, Sanguine Conte

Accurately striking the overall shape of the portrait with a few sure strokes establishes both the likeness and composition immediately. This is a skill that anyone can acquire.

But here is the crux of the matter: Being able to accurately draw that large initial contour requires training and practice.

Very few self-taught artists can accurately strike a shape. Most will delve straight-away into details such as beginning a portrait drawing with the eyes. And doing so is a sure road to ruin. The chances of achieving a likeness beginning with the little things are dim.

In fact, the likeness is found more in the overall shape of a person's head than it is in the specific attributes of their features. Although these, too, are important.

The tried and true classical approach to portrait drawing is to first establish the overall outside shape of the head as I have done with my conte drawing of Sonya.

I call this elegantly simple start Striking the Arabesque. This is where the magic of drawing and painting begins.

It is, however, ill-advised for a beginner to begin with the portrait. The reason for this is that we are deeply inculcated with symbolic preconceptions of what we think a face looks like. Consider the universality of childrens' drawings of people. They are all quite similar. The same is true for the drawings of beginners.

Instead, a beginner should start with acquiring the skill of accurately drawing simple shapes. For example, consider a box. Perhaps a shoe box. Your first decision is how big to draw that box within your canvas. And then its' height/width proportion must be established. Of course, to realize a sense of space you then need to accurately gauge the angles which fix the perspective. And this now entails determining the horizon line and perspectal vanishing points. Drawing that simple box has now assumed a complex agenda.

A classically well-trained artist can accurately strike the arabesque of that shoe box in less than a minute. And that includes getting the perspective right. This is a skill that anyone can learn. And this is the first of many lessons that I teach in my Beginning to Draw Workshop.

Acquiring this one skill will save you years, yes, years, of struggling with drawings and paintings that are not working the way you want them to work. We artists have a saying: 'Painting problems are drawing problems'. And drawing problems are always found in poorly rendered shape.

Let's apply this concept of beginning a drawing with the overall shape. Following is a lesson on drawing an old shoe.

Drawing an Old Shoe for Beginners

This lesson, abridged from my Beginning to Draw Workshop, encompasses three important elements in drawing: foreshortening, line quality and composition. Drawing an old shoe is a time-honored training exercise.

Drawing Lessons for Beginners - an old shoe

How to Draw Faces and Portraits


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    The material used is black conté on ivory colored Fabriano Ingres drawing paper. In a darkened corner set up a rumpled old shoe – the more beaten up the shoe is the better.

    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - shoe1

    Light your shoe in a manner that well expresses the volume and character. We will not be using tone in this exercise. Instead the focus is on using line both structurally and expressively.

    Foreshortened objects can be a vexing problem for the beginning artist. The primary culprit for this is our preconceived notion of what a given object should look like. Consequently many beginning artists will struggle to combine what they see and what they think an object should look like. The result is generally not a good one.

    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - Foreshortening

    An easy way to understand foreshortening is to envision your shoe in, well, a shoe box. A simple box in perspective is readily understood. The same principle applies to the shoe, or any object for that matter.

    However, rendering a foreshortened shoe vis-a-vis a perspectal drawing is a daunting task. There are simply too many planes and variables to be dealt with.

    The most efficient approach to drawing a foreshortened object is by accurately striking its arabesque. This encompasses both the shape and proportion. I prefer the term Arabesque as it implies gesture and dynamic relationships rather than Contour which implies a flat outline.

    Drawing an accurate arabesque immediately expresses the foreshortened character of the shoe. As I have mentioned many times before striking the arabesque is a learned skill that once acquired establishes a solid foundation for your growth as an artist.

    Once the arabesque of the shoe is accurately established the major elements of the shoe (i.e., tongue, heel, toe) need to be placed. These major elements are generally referred to as landmarks.

    To accurately gauge the placement of the landmarks I need to establish a checkpoint. The primary height/width proportion of my shoe is a square, thus by using the center of the square as my checkpoint I can more easily relate the placement of the major landmarks.

    Lightly sketch in the internal structures of the shoe carefully noting the directional changes of line; this is drawing architectonically.

    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - shoe3
    Drawing Lessons for Beginners - shoe 4

    It is important not to get overly caught up in details, the focus is on establishing the overall character of the shoe.

    Drawing linearly requires both an understanding and sensitivity to line quality. The topic of line quality is a large one that will concern you for the entirety of your art career. Suffice it to say that how you handle line plays a major role in how your drawings and paintings are read.

    Line can be used to create a sculptural sense of 3-dimensionality. A heavier, darker line will advance while a thinner, lighter line will recede into the picture plane.

    Beginner drawing lessons - shoe5

    Line also plays its role in conveying the character, or personality, of both the object and the artist. An old running shoe is generally best rendered with short angular lines that express worn and creased leather. Drawing an Art Nouveau vase, on the other hand, might be better expressed with a graceful, serpentine line.

    Running shoes require laces. Until now you may have been wondering why I have been drawing the shoe in the right-hand side of my paper: the reason for this is now apparent. Drawing is as much about planning ahead as it is applying contè to paper.

    Don’t wait until the shoe proper is fully rendered and then adding the laces as an afterthought. These laces, a trifle frayed and twisting, play a large role in this ‘drama’ of the shoe.

    It is the diegetic elements such as the shoe laces that tell the story. [Diegetic is a contemporary art term generally used in film and photography critique. It refers to the interplay of all the components of a scene (image) to the narrative as a whole. Diegesis means “recounted story”.]

    Initially sketch in the shoe laces lightly taking careful note of their placement, proportion and rhythm. Contè, while a beautiful medium, can be quite temperamental when it comes to erasing – it smudges and can be the devil to lift out cleanly.

    Now that the shoe laces are placed I return to the body of the shoe and work up the secondary elements such as the design and logo. Running shoes can proffer indepth discourses on contemporary consumerist culture. Drawings and paintings of old shoes can also express political sensibilities. An example of this is Van Gogh’s painting of old work boots that speak of poverty in 19th Century northern Europe. A more contemporary example is the urban American practice of throwing tied shoes onto an overhead electrical line: this is a definite political/cultural statement.

    Beginner drawing lessons - shoe6

    Note how I have used lighter, more delicate lines to render the creases of the shoe’s leather. For the shoe’s toe I used a heavier line to bring it forward thus creating an illusion of concrete 3-dimensionality.

    The external framework of a drawing’s composition is also a critically important consideration. A drawing where the object(s) appear to be floating and unanchored is a considerably weakened artwork.

    For your drawings start off by drawing one shoe, then attempt the challenge of drawing a pair of shoes; one shoe foreshortened, the other on its side, for example.

    Working with line alone will develop both your visual acuity and sensitivity in terms of handling contè. Be sure to experiment and play with other drawing mediums also such as charcoal and graphite. My teaching methods are not medium specific. Your development of a solid foundation upon which to grow as an artist is the paramount focus of my instruction.

    Beginner drawing lessons - shoe8

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