Working on Facial Expressions

February 4, 2009

Left: Using a Niji Waterbrush (round, large) filled with Hydrus watercolors and some left over Holbein gouache (background) I sketched this distorted face using a photo reference file. Read more about this below. Click to see an enlargement of the image.

The last few weeks something always comes up on life drawing night: a deadline, a family emergency, whatever. I need a fall back.

I picked up a book called Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon. It's pretty fun. It is pages and pages of men and women of all ages and several ethnicities in rows of head shots with a range of exaggerated expressions. Interspersed with these pages there are examples of artwork made by artists using these references. (Some of the artwork is by cartoonists rendering the people as expressive animals!) (Simon also has a book of facial expressions focusing on babies to teens.)

I've been opening the book to random pages and sketching the faces when I have a few moments, especially on those nights when I can't get to life drawing!

The above sketch is the first time I worked with this book. I was using a Niji Waterbrush that I had filled with a bit of water and some Dr. Ph. Martin's Hydrus Fine Art Watercolors (which are liquid watercolors and not to be confused with dye concentrates and such). I like to mix a bit of black in with French Ultramarine (1:4) and get a blue that isn't so vibrant and distracting.

On this evening, however the paint really stopped flowing through the brush. I haven't filled a Niji Waterbrush like this for a year or so; perhaps I've lost the knack, or run out of luck. The pigment always used to flow right through. I was using an old waterbrush so perhaps it was clogged with its own little science project.

Whatever the reason, I found that I spent most of my time squeezing the brush (really squeezing it) and changing my focus on my drawing. Also, since I was binding a lot of books at the time and there were books and textblocks and paper on all my work surfaces I had to sit at a table which was too high. Everything was too close and distortion resulted (more than usual!).

But something interesting happened all the same. Hold your hand up to the image, perpendicular to the screen so you only see the face one side at a time. Individually they each work, but you can see the distortion of scale as you look from one to the other. That's fun.

So after sketching this with the Niji Waterbrush (no pencil drawing before hand, I just wanted to work loosely) I painted the background in with some left over Holbein gouache which was on a palette in the studio. I like the fact that it is very flat and opaque, so if I'm not mixing colors it's a fun gouache to use. (Note there are two strokes of black ink in the image, one in the center of the mouth and one on the shoulder at the left of the image. I thought I would go in and restate some things after the background was in, but it was clear this was going to just be me fussing so I stopped.)

If you are looking for photo reference books to work with when you can't get to life-drawing you might want to check out the above book.

I have a couple other interesting books like this you could check out:

Virtual Pose 3 by Mario Henri Chakkour
There are others in this series but this is the one I have. The fun thing about this book is that it comes with a CD (works on both Mac and PC) and you can put the image up on your computer screen and ROTATE the pose in 360 degrees. It's as if you were at life drawing and you had finished your sketch and walked to the other side of the room to view the same pose from another angle. So it's pretty fun. 

Muybridge's Human Figure in Motion from Dover
These are the old photo studies that Eadweard Muybridge took, here edited down to some people only shots (he also did animals) and put on a Mac/PC CD as well. The images are small and have other issues  (lighting and detail) but they have some useful aspects as well: the activities are really diverse (blacksmiths working, dancers) and some figures are clothed in contemporary garb, which makes it period style clothing to our eyes.

Fantasy Figure Artists' Reference File by Peter Evans
I can't find my copy of this book. I picked it up a month or so ago, while browsing in the bookstore for something altogether different. I was taken with the models in fantasy garb and the fact that it had a CD. Maybe part of me thought I might actually work on that fantasy book if I had evil witches and damsels to sketch. More likely I was just realizing that the holidays were coming and my attendance at life drawing was going to fall off.

A search on Amazon will yield numerous other books on this subject. You'll find books which focus on the clothed figure, the foreshortened figure, the figure fitted in to your painting. And of course there are anatomy books. If you want a book on how to draw the figure these photo file books are not for you. Some may have tips and a bit of introductory advice, but they don't walk you through the process.

If you are interested in books on "how to draw the figure" I recommend:

Painting from Life by Doug Lew
He starts with pencil and moves into watercolor to show how he makes his colorful nudes. (Doug attends a local life-drawing coop and I've been able to sit behind him and watch while he sketches with his brush; he is amazingly skillful.)

The Natural Way to Paint by Charles Reid
A wonderful introduction to his indiosyncratic drawing and colorful painting style.

The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing by Anthony Ryder
This book is labeled as a contemporary perspective on the Classical Tradition and I think it is true to that description. If you can't study at an atelier and wonder how they go about working on figure drawing this is an excellent book to get some of that background.

The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed
This Dover reprint of a 1917 book also looks at the atelier approach. The language may seem a tad old fashioned to some readers, but if you stick with it and let it wash over you (or read aloud) the information is there.

Here's hoping your life drawing co-op attendance is rarely interrupted, but if it is, now you'll have something to keep you busy if your family members won't sit still.

    • Roxane
    • February 4, 2009

    Roz, you can download the Harold Speed book online at:

    Another great collection of downloadable books are those of Andrew Loomis at:

    This last link is for a fabulous online site, that you can even load to your iphone or ipod. Check out the tools section, “thirty second drawing”.

  1. Reply

    I couldn’t resist and hopped over to and bought a copy–thanks, sweetie!

    • Roz
    • February 4, 2009

    Roxane, how cool is that. Thank you for information on the online availability of these books. Now people stuck at their computers or wondering what e-book to take on a trip have no excuse not to draw!

    Thanks for mentioning the pose link. Another friend told me about this some time ago and it slipped out of the memory banks. (Going to life drawing helps me forget that I spend so much time on the computer.) I know a lot of people will have fun with it.

    • Roz
    • February 4, 2009

    Ricë, I hope you have fun with the book! Let me know how it goes.

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