Portraits and Lessons Learned
Updated: Jun 28
My personal 100 day project to draw 100 amazing faces is coming to a close. I would like to tell you that I have finished but I’m not quite there... or am I? The official end to the 100 day project was a few weeks ago now. I was so close to reaching my target in the allotted time frame (over 90 pictures finished) but I always knew that doing 100 portraits in 100 days was going to be a tall order. As the past couple of weeks have gone by, I have added a few more drawings to the total yet with each passing day, despite the fact I am getting closer, that final target of 100 seems even further away. One of the biggest obstacles is that I have run out of subjects. This sounds slightly ridiculous as there will always be people to draw and I can choose whomever I like yet having got into a rhythm of drawing from photos that have been sent to me has meant I have found it particularly difficult to choose my own subjects. There have been one or two I have felt compelled to draw such as Tina Turner, Dame Edna and even King Charles but mostly I have relied on the generosity of my newsletter subscribers and blog readers to send me their photos.
Tina Turner, pastel and coloured pencil
As I am about to enter a frenzy of Open Studios preparation, I know those final four or five pictures are going to have to wait, so for now I am drawing a line under the project. So, do I feel as though I have failed? No, I don’t, for various reasons that will become apparent, yet until this moment when I have publicly announced the project is over, I have felt as though I had unfinished business. It was niggling away at me that I should be drawing another face, when I knew there were so many other demands on my time, so it actually feels good to say that for now at least, it is finished, it’s over.
But it feels like a good time to reflect on what I have achieved and on what I have learned over the past three months. I have completed 95 pictures but as several of these were double portraits, I have actually drawn 108 amazing faces (plus Paddington Bear!) Some of these beautiful faces I have drawn more than once and if I subtract all the people I have drawn twice (or three times in one case) of which there are 8, I have in fact drawn 100 amazing faces, just on 95 substrates… result! There have been ten children and babies, a few very old people and many ages in between. I have worked in graphite, in pastel pencils, coloured pencils, pen, felt tip, water colour and ink. There have also been six paintings, two in acrylic and four in oil paint… my first ever venture into using oil paints. But it is not just about the numbers and reaching a target because I have learned so much more, not only about portraiture but also a little more about people and human nature!
One of the first things I learned which became apparent very quickly is that drawing from photographs is not easy, especially when they are other people’s photos. I have been sent low resolution photographs, screenshots, badly lit images or squinting faces in bright sunlight, one or two have been out of focus and yet somehow I was meant to perform miracles and extract a face with a good likeness. And there were also so many beautiful big grins complete with full sets of gnashers… gorgeous though they are big smiles full of teeth are best kept for selfies not portraits. There is a reason why historical portraits have serious looking faces and that is that teeth and smiles are hard to do without them turning into terrifying grimaces! So, the lesson learned is to use my own photographs and if possible, combine this with working from life. The best drawings came from clear, often quirky photos with gentle smiles or resting faces
"Sharron" one of my favourites... slightly quirky, and a gentle smile!
I also learned that drawing portraits is all about dealing with people’s expectations. Most people don’t want to see their wrinkles and flaws and they want to be portrayed in their best light. Their own idea of what they, or their loved ones look like didn’t always match my interpretation. That can be tricky to navigate. But on the plus side I had several people tell me that they thought I had made them look younger, which might possibly be a good skill for a portrait artist.
Another thing that I have found tricky is that despite making it clear there was no obligation to buy the pictures, there are still a handful of people who haven’t responded after I sent the image of their finished portrait. Of course, it might be the case that my email didn’t arrive, or it could be sitting in a junk folder, or maybe life has just got in the way as it has a tendency to do. But I can't help suspecting that they don’t want the picture but don’t know what to say. Maybe they think it is awful but are too polite to let me know. It really is okay if someone doesn’t feel I have captured them (although I feel it is often due to an inadequate photo), or if they just don’t want to buy for whatever reason, but it would be good to know. One person felt I hadn’t quite caught their daughter's likeness but for emotional reasons wanted to buy the picture anyway. In that case I wasn’t happy selling it but instead I worked with her to make an improved drawing. It helped me and she was ultimately a happy customer. Another person came back apologetically saying although she felt it was a good drawing, I hadn’t quite captured the subject and their personality. It was okay, it was helpful and made me examine what I had done more carefully. It is far better for me to know why something hasn’t worked than to be met with silence. Sadly they were the only two people to give me that type of feedback.
Some other take aways from the project – I usually get a better drawing when I have met the subject or know them, because I get more of a feeling of that person. After all a good portrait has to capture something of a personality, it cannot merely be a reproduction of a photograph and that is virtually impossible to do without having met someone. Only on a couple of occasions did a sitter's personality leap out from the photo.
"Raising an Eyebrow"
I have never met Paul, an actor and broadcaster who works in Korea but his personality shone out from the photos supplied by his Mum. This shot was taken in 'make up' when his eyebrows were clipped out of the way. I made two portraits of Paul who was great fun to draw.
Another lesson is that drawing children is very hard because their perfect little faces don’t have enough definition. Give me big ears and noses and a few lived in wrinkles over a perfect little face any day. The same applies to beautiful young women, who are also very hard to draw.
But my biggest lesson from all this is that we improve with practise. We all know that practise makes perfect and it is something we are told repeatedly, but it's not often we really get a chance to see this in action. With each face that I drew I found it easier to capture a likeness and my confidence grew. When the likeness isn’t quick to come, I have found I can now better judge what is or isn’t working, whether to try and correct or to start again. I have also learned to work in pastel pencils and oil paint which feels very exciting. It has been a hugely valuable project and hasn’t put me off drawing faces, in fact just the opposite. I now want to paint more faces and improve my technique in that area, maybe including more bodies and hands. Watch this space as they say.
Not all 100... but practise makes perfect!
Finally thank you to everyone who took the time to send me a photo and support my project. I couldn’t have done it without you. You can see all the finished pictures on my 100 Amazing Faces webpage.