Using Anatomy in Portraiture

Why are we, Humans, drawn to represent ourselves in image?

David Robinson states in his article: Why humans need stories, 'that narrative is essential to society' and linked to evolutionary success. This seems to answer my question. Where there are stories; there are pictures, as they are the earliest and simplest form of written language that people of all ages and nationalities can understand and empathise with. Humanoid figures are amongst some of the earliest surviving forms of art, so a desire to capture likeness or a portrayal of people is nothing new but how should you go about learning to do just that?

I believe a foundational knowledge of drawing is important to all artists, even if your interests lie in abstract art or graphical work. In the same way athletes do cross training, a fundamental understanding of anatomy in portraiture and life drawing will improve your interpretation of the human body and make the process of capturing it on paper easier and more expressive. This doesn't necessarily mean 'more detailed' or hours and hours spent on academic drawings if that's what you're thinking; an understanding of the way the body moves means you might catch a likeness with fewer lines and more quickly.

In this example I've simplified a skull to basic lines and shapes and used it to build up a portrait. By understanding it's structure and using guidelines you can create a portrait that already has the basis of shape and proportion before you put in any detail. The exercise of looking for shapes and distinctive skeletal or muscular features is also a good practice in observation.

Thinking about the head as a 3D object will also help you with difficult angles. Rather than drawing individual features in the right place, you are considering the head as a whole.


One of my best tips for beginners is to try drawing portraits in profile (side on). The benefits of this are you can see people's very distinctive silhouettes and important facial features are not foreshortened as they would be face on. The brow, nose, lips, chin and eyes are all telling parts of a persons looks and are much harder to draw when you can only see them from the front.

Another tip is not to try and flatter your sitter or worry about making them 'ugly'. Many body parts when taken out of context are really peculiar looking and strangely shaped - especially noses. If you look closely at most peoples noses you will realise rarely are they perfect, just draw what you see. If you do not believe your sitter to be ugly in real life than drawing their features as you see them will ultimately not make them so.

My third tip is possibly the most important. Don't try to learn portraiture from photographs and photographs alone. Here's why: When you draw from a photograph the progression of real life object to artwork is thus:

This comparison shows that adding an additional step between the real object and your finished drawing creates more potential for you to miss things. In my experience, drawing from a photograph and going through this process will usually result in a drawing that somehow seems flatter and with less movement than one drawn from life. This is because you invariably lose a lot of information when you go from object to photograph of object - as anyone whose done much online shopping will know! Consequently it's actually easier to capture likeness in a real life sitter than a photograph of the same person.

The other problem with photographs is that you can't move around the sitter to get different angles and photo make foreshortening more confusing (although if you take your own photographs this can be somewhat combatted).

There are of course benefits to practicing portraiture from photos. There's a lot more versatility in how and when you can do it. It's free and easy to do from home which a lot of us are finding useful at the moment and you can practice drawing from them more and for longer. It is just important to note that this alone would result in an education in portraiture that is distinctly lacking. *

*It's much easier to learn drawing from both life and photos from the beginning than draw only from photos and then attempt drawing from life at a later stage, only to realise that it's a very different experience. It can be a shocking and unpleasant thing to think you're good at something then try it in a different way only to become a beginner again. A lot of people would be put off by the experience rather than pushing through and learning to draw from life, thereby improving their ability and the quality of artwork they produce. Instead they might decide they can't draw from life and will only draw from photos, limiting any future progression.

Moral of the story: really really do draw from life. Don't be put off by suspecting it will be challenging - it will. However, every great artist, chef, athlete, writer musician or master craftsman was a beginner once. No one is born with an innate ability to draw portraits but no one is born with an innate inability either; it is a skill that can be learned just like any other if you put in the time and effort. It will not magically happen, you must practice and strive to improve.

Ms Emma Leyfield currently trading as 'Valerian'. The copyright to all images and graphics used within this website are owned by Valerian, or Valerian has sought the appropriate permissions to use them.

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