Project Friday: Contours on a Face

February 1, 2013

130107A_NathanFillionLeft: Contour drawing of the planes in the face of actor Nathan Fillion. Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen, all dried out on edge, and then restating outside lines with a new pen of the same type. 8.5 x 11 inches.

Readers of this blog will remember a recent experiment I did sketching Raymond Burr ("Perry Mason") using an orange pencil.

I had so much fun doing that that on the following day I picked up a pen while watching "Castle." (I did stop the TV, it wasn't a moving image.)

It was fun, it was relaxing. I should move to paint these, but somehow I just enjoy keeping them this way.

It was so much fun in fact that I thought: "I should make that a Project Friday."

So that's what I'm doing right now.

You can do this project with a still life or scene drawing from life (just be sure to light the subject from an interesting angle so that there are shadows and highlights. You can use a photograph of a favorite subject (again make sure the lighting isn't flat!). Or you can watch a TV show or DVD of one (or a movie) and stop the action. If you are going to use a TV show or movie I recommend that you select one that is presented in black and white because it will make the exercise simpler.

1. Get a large sheet of paper (8.5 x 11 inch is good). Tape it to a flat surface if you aren't sitting at a desk or table. I have a large piece of foam coreboard. I don't usually tape mine, but I'm used to doing this, and it works best if you do tape your sheet of paper down.

2. Select either a pencil or pen that you want to work with. You will not be erasing even if you use pencil so your choice isn't about working method but rather about media tip on paper surface and which would be most fun for you.

3. Set up your still life and light it, or select a photo, TV show, or movie. (For the last two you have to watch the show and stop when you see an image that appeals to you, so you'll need a larger working window for "finding" time.)

4. Start wherever you want but I like to start with one of the eyes. Keep your pencil or pen tip on the paper. Looking at your subject and back at your paper, move your pen/pencil to draw the outline of a particular area of value. This might be the eyebrow for instance. All future lines are going to be measured visually from this first one, so work slowly and deliberately. We aren't doing a blind contour so feel free to look back and forth between your subject and your sketch. Don't move the pen/pencil until you can visualize where that line is going to go to match up with what's happening in the subject. DON'T LIFT YOUR PEN/PENCIL unless you have worked an entire area and there are no bridging value shapes to get you to another area.

5. SQUINTING will help you see the values more clearly because if your subject is in color squinting helps you remove the color information and see only the relative value (lightness and darkness) of each area of the subject. If the subject is in black and white squinting will help you ignore extraneous details and focus on the bigger shapes and work in to the smaller ones.

6. You want to make a smooth continuous line so that's why we're keeping our pencil on the paper. We are not sketching a short jagged line quickly and then seeing how it fits in the whole. We are moving slowly and deliberately along the edge of a contour, moving only when we feel it's the right direction to go on.

What Else Is Happening?

All the time you're working you are constantly assessing the various distances and measurements of everything in your subject and how that translates to the same elements in your drawing. Chances are your drawing is going to be smaller than your subject so in downsizing you have to convert the space above the eye to perhaps half the space it takes on the subject you're looking at.

One thing that doesn't change is the angle and alignment of any contour from the original to the drawing. So if your subject is a face, like the one above, and it's tilted in this fashion and you start with the eye on our left, visualize a line cutting across the face where the two eyebrows line up. For the second eyebrow you're going to work down from that imaginary line. If you do that the tops of your eyebrows will be angled as they need to be.

At the same time of course you have to judge the distance over the nose to that other eyebrow so in looking at your model you are going to say things to yourself like, "This first eye I've just drawn is this wide and on the subject there is one eye's width to the start of the next eyebrow (or whatever point you are using as a marker) so the next eye will start at a point on my drawing that is one "drawn eye's width" away from the first eye (at whatever measuring point, like tear duct, you're using). You can lift your pen/pencil at this point and put a dot there if you want, or just leap there.

After awhile you'll find this more natural and easy and develop a feel for how you can best proceed given what you look at for markers etc. For instance it might be more important to you to work all the way down the nose and come up the other side to the eye. If you do that you'll perhaps use eye height as a way to judge where the nose base falls, e.g., the eye height on the subject fits 3 times to the point where the nose ends so if my nose is X high then 3 times that brings me down to here.

You will also be dropping vertical lines mentally to see how things line up. For instance in placing the mouth which was done after the eyes and nose were completed I judged what location it would need to be under the nose using widths of various other elements and then decided on the placement of the end points of the mouth by DROPPING AN INVISIBLE LINE DOWN FROM some point already drawn that falls right where the mouth stops. To decide on where to drop this line I look at the subject and say OK, there's where the mouth ends and what is directly above that, which here turned out to be the inner point of the eye at the tear duct. Drop a line from that vertically on my sketch (an invisible line) and I can see exactly where to put the edge shadow of the mouth. 

The other thing that is happening while you do this exercise is you are training your eye, hand, and brain to work together, and that's always a good thing.

What if It Isn't Turning Out—It Doesn't Look Like Anything?

The first time, or the first several times you do this exercise you might find that your result doesn't look like anything. You just don't have the experience judging the spatial relationships. Don't be disheartened. Think about the following:

1. If a line is very badly off, ignore it and using it as a reference for where not to go, i.e., out that far, redraw that portion of the contour. In general I would avoid doing this as much as possible, because you don't want to clutter your sketch with redrawing, but if there is an area you simply can't stand and it's stopping you from going forward you can re draw.

There's no re-drawing in the Nathan Fillion sketch, I just slowed myself down so much that I didn't move the pen until I knew I had it where I wanted it to go. At the end of the entire sketching process I did decide, because I'd been using a dried up pen, to use a fresh pen to outline the entire drawing, so those lines were redrawn at that time, but without reference to the original, i.e., they were restated so as to make them darker, but not recalibrated for corrections.

Are there mistakes in that sketch YES! But I made the decision to move on to the next area, keeping in mind what was off, adjusting my new material with that in mind.

I like to push through to the finish and then do a mental critique of what went wrong, where I'm off, what shape wasn't quite right. You'll need to come to a comfort level of how you like to work with this exercise.

You can't do a helpful critique (this measurement isn't wide enough, you went too low here, this angle should be 10 degrees instead, etc.) unless you have something down on your paper to compare with the subject.

2. If you go really badly off and there is no saving the sketch you can start a new sketch, taking the learning you just had and keeping it in mind as you begin again. So for instance you'll be sure this time that if you are going to use the eye as a measurement you have it placed at the correct angle and work incrementally out from there, finding more intermediate value areas to judge and draw, taking fewer leaps of faith over distances.

It may seem boring to redraw from the same subject over and over, but you're training yourself and if you embrace the point of the exercise, which is to find the real shape of things, you'll find it interesting no matter how many times you do a subject, because you learn more each time.

3. If you've started 3 times on the same subject and it's not working for you and your frustration level is high, get up, walk around, sit down and do a quick sketch (5 minutes or less) in a manner you might usually do. Then either start over with a slow drawing of that subject again, or change to a new subject. (Some subjects just may be more fruitful for you to explore in this way—perhaps the light isn't right in the other.)

4. At any time feel free to change your drawing implement because depending on the paper you're using a different pen or pencil might be more felicitous.

5. If you've tried all this and it still isn't working out for you, don't be frustrated. It's just going to take some time. Remember to breathe. Remind yourself you're practicing. And end your drawing session with some sort of drawing activity with which you always have success.

Why Do this Contour Exercise and End Up with a Sketch that Might Not Look Like Much?

Well, not everything we draw is for show. Some things we have to do just for practice. (Though I find this exercise so fun I forget about having end-product.)

The obvious answer to why do this is that we are training our eye, hand, and brain.

However, the nuanced expression of that obvious answer is that we are training ourselves to see little details, the way a shape puckers up or moves across a face and gives it form and, well, content. The more we learn to recognize all those little bits the more our ability to catch a likeness (of a person, a pepper, a vase) is going to emerge in our work. That's worth it. But we are also training ourselves to savor all those little shapes and when we do that drawing experience becomes even more pleasurable.

It's also when the left brain turns off—because we aren't sketching stuff that the left brain can "name" and be literal about.

And when we turn off our left brain we also turn off our internal critic (that little voice you might hear who says, "that doesn't look like anything in your subject." The more practice you have ignoring that voice the more fun you'll have drawing.

So Get Started

So this Friday (or sometime this weekend) get a subject that you want to work with and either set up a still life or get the photo or the TV/Movie ready. Get your paper, pen/pencil, and your "drawing board" if you're not at a table or desk. Start working. 

At first the going might be slow, or seem slow. Enjoy that. This is supposed to slow you down. This project is supposed to stop you from leaping from one side of the sketch to the other leaving a pattern of busy lines. (That may be a great approach or style you employ but it isn't what we are doing today.) We are slowing down so that we look as accurately as possible.

The Nathan Fillion sketch which is 8.5 x 11 inches took me about 10-15 minutes and the Perry Mason sketch from my January 10, 2013 post took about 10. I didn't have a sense of time or working to a certain time when I was doing them. I just know they took that long because of the time I wrote under them, and the time I wrote under the drawings which followed them. Is that fast or slow? I don't know. I do know it's slower than when I get the brush pen out and start carving away at fewer details. It is slower for ME and that's what's important. I want to slow my mind down so that I can get a higher degree of accuracy. Speed and fluidity comes back when you improve your accuracy in any activity.

Word of Warning: Don't decide that it would be easier to just trace an image, a photo, whatever. NO TRACING. That's not what this exercise is about. If you put a piece of tracing paper over a photo and trace the contours you're not getting any experience judging distance, angles, widths, heights, or values. If you are working from a photo you might want to hold your pen in the air over a particular "shape" you want to cover and air draw it before you move over to your paper, but you don't want to simply trace. There isn't any learning in that.

    • Margo
    • February 1, 2013

    Roz, your timing on the project Friday is wonderful. I’ve had so much fun with the previous incarnations of it. Last night I was filling the sketchbook with portraits from an old movie with the PPBP, trying to add volume and playing with how few lines I could do it and still have a recognizable image. I didn’t realize how much I was going back to your challenges a year ago until I looked at the images this morning. Fortunately some were even recognizable to my guy, who wasn’t watching the movie with me. So…I’m in on this fun exercise. You just never know when the lessons learned will crop back up in your drawing do you?

  1. Reply

    This is such a great drawing. It may not need any paint! Feels like a facial topography, mapping the subject.

  2. Reply

    Ellen, I’m glad you enjoy this drawing. I don’t think it would be recognizable to most people however, so it probably does need paint, except, as you say it’s facial topography and for some reason it really appealed to me to just keep it that way. Sometimes I can’t resist saving something, but I do cover up a lot of ink lines in my line of work!

  3. Reply

    Margo I think whatever keeps us drawing everyday and working, working working is going to be valuable. And since we make strides forward a little bit here, a lot there, a little bit here and so on something that didn’t work for us before might be something we are ready for NOW. That’s one of the things I love about drawing.

    So I’m glad that you are finding past Project Fridays and other drawing exercises on the blog useful over and over again. And I’m glad you had fun with this exercise. Keep playing with that PPBP!!!

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