Project Friday: Portrait Practice—Two Views

November 15, 2013


Above: Sketching from a mugshot, front and side views. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (with ink cartridge running out) in a 9 x 12 inch Fabriano Venezia Journal.

Today's Project Friday is about seeing dimensionally. One of the easiest ways of seeing dimensionally is to exam all sides of a "form," whether it's a pear, pepper, or person. If you're working with the first two you probably have a couple subjects you brought home from the grocery store. If you want to study people you might have to wait until the next time you go to life drawing.

However, you can also study people by drawing from mugshots. Most historical mugshots have both a front and side view so you can practice sketching the same person from more than one angle—imagining the connection of the relationships as you move around the head. (Obviously drawing from photos isn't going to be your primary tool for seeing form, you're going to have to go to life drawing, or go out and sketch.)

Below I list sources where you can find mugshots and suggestions on making your own mugshots of your friends.

Your project task is simple. Find a set of mugshots you want to work from and sketch both the front and side views in the same drawing session.

Ask yourself as you draw the second view how the shapes you're seeing and drawing relate to the shapes you saw and drew moments earlier. You're training yourself to anticipate how things rotate in space.

In the example I put up today I used a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen because it was something I had handy and had been using to sketch portraits with. Also I wanted to work large. You could elect to work smaller and use a fine-tipped pen. Use whatever medium you want to work in.

I work directly with ink, without any pre-sketching with graphite. I also tend to start with one eye and work my way out. If I had been thinking about creating the best possible example for a post about sketching from mugshots I might have taken more care to line my two views up on the same level, e.g., so that the eyes were at the same height. If judging those types of relationships across your paired drawings is important to you take a moment to carefully consider your placement of the second drawing. You might find it helpful to arrange them that way for proportion and length comparisons.

I recommend that you do at least three pairs of sketches. The first pair of sketches is a warm up and you might not feel you have the right medium or that you haven't warmed up sufficiently. The next two sets are to build your concentration, focus, and just to have more fun.

Sketch carefully and deliberately, capturing the details that are important to you. (For me that's always ears and hair.) But don't feel that you have to get fussy with every detail. I think it's more important that you get the sense of a pose from two views and move on to your next set. You'll find a pace that is comfortable to you. You'll find a level of editing and simplifying that makes sense to you. Just keep going.

Before each session set goals for yourself:

1. Which medium will you work with and why? For instance, you might decide to work in pen and ink because you want to work on your line quality, your shading, or/and your values while working with a particular tool. You might find that painting with gouache or acrylic paint will allow you to work on color blending, or using non-natural colors. 

2. Select a paper that will accommodate the drawing/painting medium you've selected.

3. Consider the size you want to work on. This will be influenced by poor reference material, and by you final desired result in item 4.

4. Decide if you want to get crisp detail or gesture or whatever.

As usual I suggest that after you complete your drawing session you take a moment to debrief yourself and write down what worked and what didn't work. It might be as simple as you picked too fuzzy and out of focus an image from which to work. You might have felt rushed because of other demands on your time. Adjust for these factors the next time you set up a practice session.

If you can spend additional time on this sketching project over the weekend I recommend that you set up sketching time on Saturday and Sunday to do three more pairs of drawings at each sitting.

Note: Drawing criminals can be distressing to some people. Perhaps they frighten you, perhaps you're offended by their crime (if one is listed). Perhaps your study of history has told you that the underprivileged are often unjustly arrested so seeing mugshots of minorities whose only crimes were a desire to steal bread or mugshots of women who tried to eek out a living as prostitutes can be distressing. Mugshots can tell us as much about the culture and time in which they were taken as they do about criminals.

I find the human face, even ravaged by disease (alcoholism, syphilis, etc.) beautiful, stunning, and humbling to study. But there are some faces even I have to take a pass on. Let your curiosity guide you. I find it easiest to work with photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anything from 1890s through 1960s.The hairstyles and black and white photography help set up a "distance."

If you just can't stomach it, read below about alternatives. Of course you can always go to life drawing co-op and move from one position to a second position during a long pose, as I wrote about in Wednesday's post.

My goal is to get you drawing, not slam you up against an emotional wall. No excuses. Just draw.

Sources of Mugshots

I've been collecting police procedural books and crime histories my entire life (yes, since I was about seven) so I have a lot of out of print stuff, but you can search your bookstore (online or off) for titles related to mugshots. A quick internet search will bring up enough mugshots (historical and modern) to keep you busy for quite some time.  

Wanted posters can be purchased on eBay. 

Flickr has a gallery of recent mugshots, with many double view images.

Also on Flickr you'll find an historical Mugshots archive containing many with front and side views. There's one very interesting one with the subject positioned near an angled mirror—you might want to keep this photographic technique in mind when making your own mugshot references (see next heading). This gallery includes some wonderful mugshots from Sydney, Australia taken in the early part of the 1900s.

Last week I was talking with Danny Gregory, who also enjoys sketching from mugshots, and he told me about the Sydney mugshots. Google "Sydney Mugshots 1920s" or anything similar and you'll find lots of blog posts where people discuss this incredible early 20th century archive and show some of the images. These mugshots create a stunning photographic reference of Sydney's past and the people who inhabited it. Shot in large format on glass negatives,the detail in these photos is dazzling. If you're interested in those mugshots I recommend you go to the source. I tracked the archive down at the Sydney Living Museums site—just click to open the archive and set your search.

Modern archives like the Brevard County Sheriff's office show up on sites like "Space Coast Daily." This particular link shows front and side view mugshots.

Tomorrow Started has a mugshot category with some interesting two-up mugshots of women from the 1960s as well as some celebrities, but they don't blow up to larger sizes so you'll have to squint (which is a good thing anyway).

Wikipedia has some interesting mugshots illustrating the entry on mugshots, particularly this one of Joseph Stalin. It includes a side, front, and full figure view.

Start looking on the internet and you'll find another dozen sites immediately.

Make Your Own Mugshots

If working from criminal mugshots is off-putting to you enlist your friends. Stand them next to a solid colored wall to pose for you. (Arrange the lighting so that you get some cast shadows that create definition in the face—you'll have an easier time sketching.) With your digital camera take a front and a side view. (Take both side views and a rear view while you're at it!) Then open those images to a useful viewing size on your computer, sit back, and sketch and paint.

Dictionary of American Portraits

If you just want to work with one view, but don't want to use mugshots, get a copy of Dover's Dictionary of American Portraits. Once photography became popular in the 19th century the portraits shifted from paintings and drawings to photographs. (Of course some of these folks are politicians so you might not totally escape the experience of sketching criminals.[And no I'm not saying that all politicians are criminals.])

How I Incorporate Mugshot Sketches into My Drawing Practice

For other examples of how I use mugshots for drawing practice sessions see the posts listed below with links. Typically in a post I'll say something about pen and paper choice and the decisions I made during the session. I like to start each session with sketching goals, then get the subject and have at it.

Paul Gorguloff

Faces: Dogs, People—A Little Project that has 10 or more installments, many of which are portraits from mugshots like this early 20th century Frenchman. 

In part III I played with the Aquash Brush Pen with light black ink and some light washes of gouache.

In part IV I was playing with thicker applications of paint and working on strips of mixed media paper.

In part VI of this series I am facinated by the haircut and ears of this 1930s U.S. criminal. It was also an opportunity to play more with the Aquash Brush Pen with light black ink.

The bottom sketch in this post is a front and side view.

You can work in any medium to do this. In a Project Friday from July 2012 "Working on Pencil Technique by Sketching from the Masters, you can see some sketches I made from Sargent sketches and then a pencil drawing made from a mugshot. The black and white of the older mugshots allows you to play with color any way you feel inclined.

Inspiring Artworks from Mugshots

If you seek out mugshots on the internet you'll also find some marvelous oil portraits made from mugshots by artist Karin Jurick. You can check them out at the link. I love the way she handles color on skin. She understands how light defines form. She just uses a single view—but she already understands about modeling form! (I keep meaning to buy one of her table top easels for painting on panels. Going back to her link while writing this post reminded me of it. Check it out while you're there. It looks ideal.)


    • JD
    • November 17, 2013

    You may not be saying that all politicians are criminals, but you’re sure throwing the c-word around pretty carelessly. If you’ve been interested in crime your whole life, then you really ought to understand what a mugshot is. It’s a photo taken after an arrest, not a conviction.

    Undoubtedly many of the people you’re labeling “criminals” were ultimately convicted of something, either rightly or perhaps wrongly. But some of them were never even charged and some were probably acquitted, so the “criminal” label doesn’t apply.

    Also, just think for a moment about how you would like to be constantly labeled based on something bad you did (e.g., if you’ve ever told a lie, then you get to be known as “that liar Roz,” with no qualifiers or explanation of the circumstances).

    You might also note how many people in those shots were probably quite poor and disadvantaged. Maybe just a little “there but for the grace of God” is warranted.

  1. Reply

    Thanks so much for all these resources, a whole new world is opening up to me for drawing portraits. Where have I been? 🙂

  2. Reply

    Caatje I hope you have a great time in your drawing practice drawing from mugshots!

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