September 05, 2008

Head Drawing Demo

Clark Allen. Compressed charcoal on rives lightweight paper.
This demo will specifically address the challenges of representational life drawing.

Step 1: A construction drawing that emphasizes the simple geometry of the head and helps properly fit the parts into the whole. For you 3-d guys out there, think wireframe.

Step 2: Add darks in the features and important lines so as to not loose them as the drawing progresses.

Step 3: Block in the big simple masses of light and shadow. No detail yet! Most artists use the term "value" for the relative lightness or darkness of the tones they put down. That's the term I'll use here as well.
Step 4: Work the halftones into the light. Wrap your strokes around the forms to help the illusion of 3-D. No mindless details! Make sure every tone you put down usefully describes the underlying form. I'm using my fingers alot in this particular drawing but technique is not nearly as important as getting the right value in the right place. Pencil strokes, tissues, blending stumps, bristle brushes, finger smudging and anything else you can think of can be useful techniques.
Final stage: Add highlights and refine the drawing (I'm using a kneaded eraser at this stage). Always compare highlights to each other to judge their relative brightness. For instance, a highlight on a clean shaven chin may look very bright in contrast to the dark shadows surrounding it but don't be fooled. It will almost never be as bright as highlights on the cheek and forehead. The values of light and shadow must always maintain proper relationships to each other. Ignore this and you'll end up with something like the image below.
Ughh is right, and yet I have never once had a student in my nine years of teaching whose value drawings didn't tend to drift in this direction. Why? Because it's how our brains are wired. We, all of us, most strongly notice "that which varies" (details, contrasts, anatomical bumps, highlights, wisps of hair, etc). And so we unconsciously give these variations undue emphasis which leads to bumpy, out of control drawings like the one above. (Such drawings might get an occasional compliment like "it's very expressive" or "It's a very rugged caricature" but these results are completely accidental and don't come out of any studied skillfulness or artistic intent, watch out!). Don't let yourself be derailed by this stumbling block. These tricks of perception are, in my experience, why so few hardworking students ever develop a full mastery of drawing from life.
But you can avoid the bad drawing problem by seeking the "simplified statement". Compare the above "bad" drawing to this one: Ahhh, much better. You can put all the fancy, splashy technique you want into a representational drawing or painting IF it's used to emphasize clear values of light and shadow and the three dimensional nature of the subject.
For this image I fussed with the original drawing in photoshop to get the utmost simplicity in how the parts properly relate to each other and the whole.

Good Luck!


Nubian Greene said...

wwooooo! thanks for this

RAWLS said...

Nathan my friend, this is really great. I'm sure a lot of aspiring artists will benifit from this. You're a talented man!! Great work!

CárcamO said...

Que dominio extraordinário do volumen e da luz/Magnífico!!
abs Cárcamo

Tor said...

I am such an ughh so I really needed this lesson.

Sherwin said...

Nathan, thanks for breaking down the process on how to draw the head and for the refresher that we should strive for the simplified statement. I always try to keep your advice in mind whenever I do my studies. See you around LAAFA.

Sam Nielson said...

Great demo, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Annalisa said...

Thank you, this was so helpful! I was first introduced to the concept of ignoring the little details and tiny value changes by a teacher at VCU named Robert Foster. Oh how I adored my little niggling details... and how much my work improved when I focused on big shapes and planes.

Don East said...

Nathan, Thanks for this demo. I've been wanting to start doing portraits again. When I took your class many moons ago. I made great advances in just a short time. Have you ever considered giving online classes? Claudia has done several. She says that they are more work than live classes. However they do have some advantages. I am painting again and your blog has been the inspiration that's got me going. Thanks for that.

Rose said...

This is an impressive study on how to advance portrait drawing skills.It looks great and the definition is developed.

adebanji said...


Chris Sears said...

that UGH is the uber-lesson of all lessons on value. i remember it vividly from your class--such a righteous truth when it is stripped down to the essentials like this.

there should be an online gallery somewhere... "Bad Choices: Why I didn't do it like this"

"that which varies" has such a sinister HP Lovecraft-ish ring to it. like "He Who Must Not Be Named." I dig it. puts a whole 'nuther spin on "the devil is in the details"

enb said...

Great demo.
Thanks for sharing!

Igor Busquets said...

ur progress and words. This is very usefull! I just started with charcoal and you're a inspiration.

jesse said...

Lovely Demo, Very helpful to hear your thinking process with the images. Thanks for sharing!

Theresa Rankin said...

Thank you....This is truly informative and the draftsmanship, values and simplification are masterful!

Christian Alzmann said...

really great to see how you do them, thanks!

steve hui said...

amazing work!

silvina said...

Ahh, here's what we want to know. The nitty gritty. The 'how to'. Excellent post! I'll need to come back and reread it.
You could write a book. I can already see it on the bookcase at Swain's.

Barry Zundel said...


EXCELLENT!! Those stepsa re really eye opening. Thanks for the great info and demo.


Sharon said...

Each example on this demo leads up to a great product. You really know how to create great paintings . Every detail adds up to a masterpiece.

LuisNCT said...

really instructive

Patrick Ballesteros said...

Awesome breakdown Nathan. This a good smack in the head I needed to remind myself of the simple statement!

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing your incredible talent with us. Great demo and comparison is where all learning takes place. Thanks for the comparison.

Christine Walker said...

thanks so much

Bogdan Nemes said...

Great tutorial - a lot to think about and to practice on.
Thank you

Vladimir Bursać said...

Thanks for this useful post!

samantha said...

im an illustration student in toronto, and i absolutely love your demos. they help me out so much with my own life drawing, and for the most part, i get pretty good results. you have to post a gouache demo sometime. thank you :)

diego said...

Hello there! I want to thank u too, cause the simplication was REALLY unforgetable to me, linked from Concept Art.

Best luck from Argentina!

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珊珊李 said...


Rochelle said...

Really nice seeing an instructive step by step! Thanks for taking the time!
I tried it out, and couldn't even get past the first stage. Obviously my drawing skills need to be worked on more than just a little bit. Ha! But thanks for giving me some inspiration today!


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Drusilla said...

Well, I do not actually imagine it may work.

Schmuddel said...

Very helpful!

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