Michael Britton

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

Portrait Drawing Lessons:
Correcting Your Sanguine Conte Drawing

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How to Draw Faces and Portraits


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    How to correct your conte portrait
    drawing when things go awry

    In every portrait you attempt at every level, you are going to have passages where things don’t quite look right and that need correcting. Sometimes you will be near the beginning of a piece where it’s easy to make corrections and sometimes a portrait might be quite far along when you realize something has got to go.

    One thing I have always tried to impress upon my classroom students is to not be too precious or afraid to push a drawing to the max even it means losing it. Students tend to be timid in how far they push drawings for fear of losing them, but without mistakes you cannot learn how to correct them. Even if you can’t resurrect a drawing the caveat is – if you did it once you can do it again. Sometimes it is better to admit defeat and simply trash a drawing and start again fresh. But quite often a drawing can be salvaged.

    When you work from general to specific using the classical method I teach in my Mastering Portrait Drawing Workshops, you will find that most of the time big errors seldom happen. That’s because I train you to check everything thoroughly as you proceed and you don’t move on unless everything is in place.

    You can see the likeness of the sitter immediately in the initial gesture and arabesque which you fit within your very first marks indicating the length of your portrait as instructed. Once you have the initial arabesque, I demonstrate how to measure and sight your width to height ratios and make your corrections to that arabesque. As such, your portraits can never mushroom off the page as often happens to novices or self-taught artists who tend to begin with a feature such as an eye.

    In general, errors are usually fixed by small to minute shavings of detail. In this portrait of an American Indian musician the eyes were coming along nicely at first but something felt off. As sometimes happens, I struggled with it for a while trying to solve the problem before deciding it was a placement issue and radical measures would be required.

    Happily, this gave me an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how to erase sizeable sections of conté and rework the features at a fairly advanced stage of the drawing.

    Using a sharpened crayon of Sanguine conté on a quarter sheet of Fabriano Ingres paper I quickly and lightly sketched in the arabesque/construct of the entire head and upper torso. The important agenda here is to establish the overall gesture vis-a-vis the overall height/width proportion and shape.

    Placing the arabesque/construct so that it fits compositionally within the confines of the pictorial surface – generally referred to as the canvas (my sheet of paper) is absolutely critical. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. I deliberately placed the head slightly to the left to create a psychic space. If I had placed the head in the vertical center the left side of the face would feel cramped.

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    Satisfied, at this juncture at least, that the arabesque/ construct is reasonably accurate I can now place the browline (the Supra Orbital Eminence), the base of the nose (as determined at the Anterior Nasal Spine) and the facial angle (this is the center line running through the face).

    The many of you who have been trained in my Mastering Portrait Drawing: the frontal pose Workshop know that you first take your best assessment of the browline’s horizontal and vertical placement and THEN sight and measure. This is how we train our eye to see and feel spatial placement.

    Given my subject my thinking is that a fairly rough and simple treatment would be all I wanted for starters.

    Using the side of a ½” piece of Koh-I-Noor earth red pastel I laid in the background with broad vertical strokes. This is the only treatment I will give to the background for this drawing. The same approach was used using a small piece of Sanguine conté to block in the primary dark pattern of the head.

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