A portrait is a drawing, painting, photograph, or sculpture of a person. The purpose of making a portrait is to record the subject's image for posterity, to honor him, or to express something about his personality. Hundreds of years ago, artists were commissioned to paint the portraits of wealthy patrons, kings, queens, and religious figures such as popes.
With the invention of photography, painting portraits became less important as a method of recording images for historical reasons, and artists were free to develop new styles of painting and to explore the personalities of their subjects. You can be a portrait artist by drawing a likeness of yourself or someone you know. If you draw on paper you recycle, you'll help save natural resources and landfill space.
More than 500 years ago, artists created a system which would help them depict the human figure accurately. They developed a drawing formula using mathematics, and they noted the relationship of one body part to another in terms of size and placement. Using the head as the standard for drawing the whole figure, they observed that an adult stood 7.5 "heads" tall. Similarly, the facial features were measured in relation to the nose.
The great artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) described the proportions of the human figure in meticulous detail in his writings. Leonardo wrote, "Every man at three years old is half the full height he will grow to at last." In observing the relationship of facial features, he noted, "The distance from the attachment of one ear to the other is equal to that from the meeting of the eyebrows to the chin, and in a fine face the width of the mouth is equal to the length from the parting of the lips to the bottom of the chin."
Exact accounts or observations such as these helped artists draw and paint what is known as the idealized face and figure. Since we'll be concerned with drawing a portrait, the following is a simplified version of the the placement of features on such a face as drawn from the front.
Shape of the head: The idealized head is egg-shaped or broader at the top and narrower at the bottom.
Eyes: The eyes are placed just above the center of the head. The space between the eyes and on each side is equal to the width of one eye.
Nose: The top of the nose is even with the top of the eyes, while the bottom of the nose is about halfway between the bottom of the chin and the top of the eyes. The bottom of the nose is the same width as the space between the eyes.
Ears: The ears are drawn between the top of the eyes and the bottom of the nose.
Mouth: The mouth is almost as wide as the distance between the pupils of the eyes.
While it may be helpful to know this formula in beginning to draw portraits, in reality very few people have features like those of an ideal face. Instead, some noses are large while others are small, eyes can be close set or far apart, and faces come in a variety of shapes. The best way to learn how to draw a portrait is to draw from life, and, as Leonardo learned, the most important thing the process will teach you is how to see.
Historically, the self-portrait has been a favorite subject of many artists. Perhaps this was because the model was always available and the sitting price was right! A more important reason, however, was probably that it allowed the artist to sharpen his powers of observation and to understand himself. One of the most famous self-portraits is that of the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Make a self-portrait using pencil or pen and ink. Sit in front of a mirror and study your features. How do they compare to those found on the idealized face? Begin by drawing the shape of your head. Next draw the eyes. Continue to refer to the mirror, comparing your image to your drawing as you sketch the rest of your features. Now make a portrait of a friend or family member. When you're finished, submit your drawings to The Global Children's Art Gallery.
Refer to the Previous Activity: Draw on Kenaf for a review of the equipment used in pencil drawing. Also, you may wish to use kenaf, an environmentally-friendly paper, instead of recycling waste paper.
While the brown grocery bag is an interesting paper on which to work, it is not acid-free, and it won't last as many years as pure rag paper. You may be able to obtain some cuttings or scraps from a printing company. Also, you can recycle obsolete letterhead stationery by cutting off the old name and address and using it for drawing.
Portraits and statues of people who made important contributions to the history and culture of the United States can be found at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Quotations regarding facial features are from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci by Pamela Taylor.
Portraits by one of my students, Sara Gaskins.
© 1998 Marilyn J. Brackney (updated 2018)
Volume 11 No. 2
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