Some advice and tips for beginner portrait artists

Portrait Art

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Sam - pencil portraitSome more advice and tips for "newbie" portrait artists, continued from my first "newbie" portrait art page:   For a more comprehensive portrait tutorial, consult my Portrait Art Tutorial site.

One of my pencil portraits. Click on thumbnail to see larger version.

Tracing  -   Getting Feedback  -  Your attitude about yourself

The controversy that rocks the world: tracing!

Ah! What a hot-button issue among artists! I will admit up front, I don't really like tracing. But I do realize that some talented designers will trace images to get a desired result. They do not consider themselves people who "draw"—they are designers. Tracing is perfectly acceptable in such cases.

And, there are other people who are just having fun with drawing, and goofing around with it for their own amusement only. Sometimes they'll trace. Hey—that's OK. I don't want to discourage anyone from getting their "feet wet" with creating traced drawings.

However, if you want to claim that you draw or paint portraits, why trace? What's the point? Tracing is like using training wheels on a bicycle—for the rest of your life. It might be a nice way to get started, but do you want to be stuck at that level forever? I know that a whole lot of artists would never trace (and won't use some sort of mechanical assistance to "transfer" a photo onto their drawing paper or canvas). But alas, some artists have to trace for all of their artwork. And I think that they are missing out on a lot, and limiting the things that they are able to do.

If you can only get an accurate drawing by tracing, think of all that you are missing. You can't plop yourself down on the ground in the middle of some beautiful scene (like Yosemite Valley) and do a little drawing or watercolor. You can't sit your friends down on the spur-of-the-moment, and sketch them, just for fun. You can't do quite a lot. Some of my most fulfilling artistic experiences were painting or drawing from life. You just can't get that from tracing, ever.

And, as a side note, if you can't get an accurate drawing unless you use the "grid" method, you might run into some problems as well. It is sometimes very difficult (sometimes impossible) to draw from life using the grid method. (Not to mention a hassle—all those squares, squares, squares!) And if an artist who grids does not possess the ability to draw freehand, obviously they can't ever draw or sketch from their imagination, or "make up" images. That's not an artistic asset at all.

Anyway, just to pontificate a little more on this tracing thing, ask yourself a few questions. Would any of these following scenarios bother you?

Someone is admiring your finely crafted drawing, and they ask you "Hey! Can you draw me right now? We've got some time!" And you have to answer "No, I can't do that. I can't draw from life."

Someone is admiring your wonderful drawing. They ask you, "I have a photo of my grandmother. I would like a portrait with her arm position changed a bit, and her hair fixed a little different. Could you do that?" And you have to answer "No, I cannot do that. I cannot make any adjustments because I cannot draw anything unless I trace it."

You are in an art class. Everyone has seen the lovely artwork you have produced. One day, the teacher brings in a model for everyone to draw. You didn't expect this. You were led to believe that all art projects would be done at home.  Everyone else starts to draw the model. You look helplessly at your drawing paper, and produce a rather pathetic, awkward sketch. Your fellow students notice, and look at you with a blend of pity and surprise.

If none of these scenarios (which will happen eventually, trust me) would bother you, then you have your answer. Tracing will get you the results you want, and you don't care about its limitations. But if you suspect that you wouldn't like experiencing any of the above scenarios, the answer is simple. Don't trace. Learn how to draw the with the minimum of mechanical assistance. You won't regret it. And remember—anyone can trace. All you need is tracing paper, and a photo. But not everyone can draw. Drawing takes skill and practice. Tracing does not.

See the little drawing on the right? Such a drawing absolutely, 100% cannot be done through tracing. Why? Because I didn't look at a photo or a model to draw it. I made the face up from my imagination. You can't trace something that doesn't exist.

Many artists make up faces, figures, and entire scenes from their imaginations. I am definitely not the best artist when it comes to "making up" portraits. However, I've been noticing a trend: too many artists never learn to draw at all—or to draw so rarely that they never really hone their skills. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised when some people act amazed when they discover that I often make up the portraits that I draw.

I've engaged in a few heated discussions about the merits of tracing with other artists (as you can already tell, I feel strongly about it!), and one thing I've pointed out is that when so many people trace (or use grids constantly), they make those of us who do draw freehand look all the more skilled and remarkable. Trust me, I am not that skilled or remarkable, but sometimes I am treated like I am—simply because I know how to draw.

I've encountered so many artists who are so masterful at drawing—all because they put in the time and effort and really were dedicated to learning. That's what it takes. Discipline, hard work, patience. It isn't so much "talent" as it is the willingness to put in the effort.

In a perverse sort of way, I almost have to thank those artists who have never bothered to learn how to draw. It makes those of us who do know how to do it look "remarkable" by comparison. Even "average" artists like me. There is some irony there, to be sure.

Now, before you get your knickers in a bunch and assume I'm saying that drawing well is all there is to being a good artist, that's not what I mean at all. If someone can draw well but has a poor color sense, or no "spark" in their work, then their amazing drawing skill is not going to compensate for that. Better to not be able to draw but have great ideas and a passion for creating. However, all other things being equal, it certainly is much better (and far more liberating) to be able to draw.

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Getting feedback and criticism:

Face it, you're going to get it. You're going to get people who will give you feedback. Feedback is one thing, criticism is quite another.
It is hard to hear people ask, "What is that?" "Who is that supposed to be?" Or, you'll get the dreaded polite "That's nice." (That's when you know they really don't like it!)

Not everyone is going to like what you do. Sometimes it's just them, but trust me on this one - sometimes it's you. But oh dear! You worked so hard, you really felt wonderful about your drawing, you worked on it for hours! And they are finding flaws with it? Terrible news.

But sometimes they are right. Sometimes you just didn't see your drawing objectively. You were caught up in the moment, you were really intent on some detail, and you didn't (figuratively) step back and see the "big picture." You didn't see some glaring error that is immediately obvious to everyone else. Don't feel too crushed. It happens to me, it happens to everyone. It's just one of the things we all go through. It doesn't mean you are a bad artist. You just made some errors this time. You'll learn from that. Next time you will do better. And then, at some later date, you'll make some more errors. It's just part of the ongoing process. We all go through it.

So, try to accept criticism graciously, and learn from it. You will progress faster if you do. Don't take it too much to heart. Don't get discouraged. I find that most of us take criticism one of two ways - we get dejected and overly discouraged, or we get indignant, and think that our critic is being "too picky." Usually, neither reaction is really appropriate.

Occasionally, a person will come down too hard on you. They don't understand the great effort and struggle you are going through. Sometimes, a person who has never done any sort of art or craft really has no concept of how challenging it is. They think that you are automatically born with "talent" - this ambiguous thing that just makes beautiful things flow from your fingers, with little practice or effort on your part. And so they think nothing of telling you when they think you've messed up on a drawing. Because it was all so easy for you in the first place, right?

Some people don't get it. Don't take them too seriously. Just keep plugging away. This whole concept of "talent" is rather overrated. Talent only takes you so far. It's your hard work, work, work that leads you to excellence.

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Don't be too hard on yourself

Here I am, pontificating on how other people react to your artwork! But sometimes (oftentimes) your harshest critic is yourself. Don't do it. Don't fall into that trap. I know what I'm talking about, I still do it sometimes. We all do. You need to always strive for excellence, but you need to realize where you are. You should not worry yourself over all the other people out there - people more advanced than you. There will always be artists that are better than you. There will always be artists that are worse than you. But all are unique, and you are unique. No one has the same sense of color, or line, or of design. No one has the same "eye" - we all interpret things differently, put our "spin" on things. We are all different. Revel in your difference, don't worry about what other people are doing. Just strive to improve yourself. As long as you are learning and improving, you are on the right track.

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This page last updated: February 24, 2005

All original content, images and graphics © J.R. Dunster 2001 - 2006

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