Learn to draw paint portraits

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Learn to draw portraits

Drawing Isabella

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Drawing Isabella-1

The visual language of drawing has evolved tremendously over the past few centuries. An almost magical trick happens within our cerebrum when we view a flat surface on which marks have been inscribed. Looking at a portrait drawing – particularly a master drawing of exquisite lines and tones – we immediately see past the markings of chalk and engage in a visual and emotional dialogue. The more masterful the drawing the more we engage it.

Rubens, in particular, had an immense effect on van Gogh who earnestly plunged into his studies by copying the paintings and drawings of Rubens. Copying master works is the surest and most efficient method of learning how to draw. Having an intimate knowledge of a master’s working method and visual language strengthens and deepens both the technical and emotional resonance of your own work.

The drawing pictured above of Ruben’s portrait of his first wife Isabella Brant (1591-1626) is drawn in red, black and white chalk on a pale brown washed clay-coated paper.

Rubens brought out the warm flesh tones of the face and ears with a red chalk and heightened the darks with black. The highlights are delicately stroked in with white.

Earlier in this lesson I spoke of drawing as a visual language – in many instances within this drawing Rubens spoke with what we might consider as Elizabethan English. The treatment of the hair, for example, is much different than how artists today would render hair.

Most beginning artists treat hair as individual strands; today we block in the major locks of hair and suggest a few stray hairs. In Ruben’s time hair was suggested with line. This of course does not detract from Rubens but merely illustrates that the language of drawing has changed.

How to Draw Faces and Portraits


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    The treatment of Isabella’s eye is radically different than how we would approach drawing an eye today. On close examination the way Ruben’s has placed the pupil within the upper part of the iris is both surprising and curious. Ridiculous even. But genius is often expressed sublimely in the ridiculous.

    For almost three hundred years portraits were drawn with the pupil placed high in the iris. This, too, was an understood syntax of drawing.

    The pupil is rendered not as a circle but almost as a pentagram. Look closely at how he has broken both the pupil and iris into straight architectonic lines.

    Portrait Drawing Lessons - Drawing Isabella-4

    The heavy cross-hatching across the neck and in the temple is also something that is not done today. On a subtler note Rubens has quite often cross-hatched with the form rather than across it – artists are now taught to cross-hatch across from. Nonetheless, there is no denying that this is a powerful and exquisite drawing. The Portrait of Isabella Brant ranks amongst the finest drawings in Western Civilization.

    As a teacher Rubens was a staunch believer in the benefits of copying master works. Throughout his career Rubens – the greatest painter of his time! – continuously copied the works of Titian and drew from classical Greek sculpture. He well understood that drawing is a language whose expression is strengthened by studying his predecessors.

    The invention of the photograph (derived from the Greek words photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”) in the early 19th Century and its immediate application to portraiture radically changed the language of realist drawing. The photographic image was considered the ‘truthful’ representation and artists soon found themselves competing with this new medium. The syntax of realist drawing soon fused with the language of the photograph – perception influences, even dictates, language.

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