Sketching Faces: When You Feel You’ve Hit A Plateau

December 9, 2019
Sketch made with a fine-tipped brush pen where I worked from the outside in. (Hahnemühle Travel Journal/Book) If you look closely you can see the light lines I began with, holding off on details until the end.



I sketch a ton of faces. I look back over the years and see how my approach to sketching faces has changed, how it’s constantly evolving.

Often students write to me about experiencing a plateau in their drawing efforts. They feel that they have achieved a level of skill at which they remain stuck.

I teach my students to look at their sketches in a number of ways. Most important I ask them to always find something that they like in any sketch so that they can build forward progress from recognition of something positive. Even if what’s positive is that the sat down to draw that day.

I encourage students to ask themselves “What worked?” Or ask, “What did I enjoy?” Answers to those questions give you at least a place to start.

But it is also important to remind yourself of your drawing goals. Are you following through on them? Have you set any?

If you don’t have drawing goals you may actually be trying to do something that isn’t even on your hopes list. For instance you might be  upset with your sketches because they aren’t photorealistic, or photorealistic enough. Yet at the same time drawing in a photorealistic manner isn’t on your list. Therefore it isn’t something to worry about. Instead you have to step back and look at your sketches based on ACTUAL goals.

Why Do False Criteria Pop Up?

If you find yourself dealing with self-critiques that don’t relate to your stated goals it’s your internal critic trying to get you to compare yourself to what others are doing, what goals they might have, and how realistically they are drawing. (Remember that isn’t one of your goals in this example, but the internal critic will still use that against you—and without goals that are clear you’ll be vulnerable to giving up your drawing practice because of his negative chatter.)

What Can I Do To Address the Actual Issue Causing the Plateau?

First recognize that you’re responding to non-goals and external triggers. Get out your list of goals and remind yourself what you are aiming for. If you don’t have a list of goals set some and start working consciously towards them. (Search my blog for “goals” and you’ll find lots of posts on this.)

Be HONEST with yourself. If you really want to draw photo-realistically OWN that desire and set goals that have you putting in the time and training to do so. Do this for any goals you identify.

But What If I’m Not Improving as I Sketch Portraits?

It’s the same for any subject matter. Since I get this from my students all the time we’ll break down a recent example.

One student wanted to know how she should begin a portrait sketch. She was starting from the eyes and working outward and getting all sorts of measurement inaccuracies.

In class students see me do this because it is my favorite way of sketching. I’m used to sketching from life, in public, and what interests me about people (or animals) is first the eyes. So of course I’m going to start there and get the eyes down, before the subject walks off.

But I always explain to students and demonstrate that if you start from the outside with the shape of the head and gesture of the head and shoulders and then work inwards, scale issues will be less difficult because you have an outer boundary to gauge distances from.

I write about this in a blog post on “Working Quickly with the Brush Pen.”

Outside in is the Atelier traditional method of sketching—working from the outside in, and refining only after everything is worked out spatially.

Even so your scale can still get away from you—my initial ovals for heads are always off and there is a lot of pentimento! But since you haven’t dug in yet with bold lines you can still feel around and develop the shapes.

I work directly in ink most of the time. I find that as in the opening image of this post, this means there are going to be extraneous lines if I work from the outside in. But I keep working anyway because I’m OK with those extra lines. My goal in making portraits is to feel my way around, and so I’m perfectly happy doing that if I started from the outside in.

Ways to Practice Working from the Outside In

The Simplest Way

The simplest way is to do what I mentioned above and in that linked post—start making some lines to get the initial shapes and then keep working them until you get closer to the look you want.

The Direct Brush Way

Direct brush sketching with ink wash in a Canson 180 Sketchbook. (This is drawing paper, but I love painting on it and doing ink wash on it even though the paper buckles.)

I think one of the most helpful things to do is direct brush painting in watercolor—monochromatically.

Why? You can start with light washes to lay in a shape and then with another wash, darken your values to adjust your shapes and angles and proportions. If you are working on a quality watercolor paper the sizing of the paper will allow you to rework the image as you move towards a better likeness.

An Alternative Way

You can begin with the dry brush way, work your shapes for a bit, and then when you are comfortable that you’re close, and the paper is dry, you can go in and add some ink lines you feel are missing.

You need to wait for the washes to dry or the ink lines will bleed in less than useful ways. 

Detail showing layers of value in a direct brush sketch with ink wash.

Why do this? Sometimes our eye is used to only drawing with lines and it looks at a direct brush sketch and doesn’t see it as finished. By adding lines over the dry washes you’ll be able to determine for yourself what style of sketching you like to do and whether you need those ink lines, all or any of the time.

Direct Brush Sketching Will Also Help You Learn To Sketch with a Brush Pen

There is another thing that this daily practice will help you with—it trains you to work with the brush pen. But because it is watercolor not ink, you can go in lightly; and if you are working on watercolor paper you can lift off as you lay in other bits. 

If you go through the gallery at the end of this post about my 2018 International Fake Journal you will find a lot of direct brush painting with watercolor like this one as well as direct brush sketching with diluted ink like this one.

If you look at my Inktober 2018 gallery, you’ll see more of that ink wash stuff. Look closely at the sketches and you’ll see that I have worked over light  ink lines  that are not very visible, around the eyes as I feel around for the shapes of the sockets. This is very evident in this dog sketch.

Other Ways To Practice Working from the Outside In


Watersoluble markers like the Tombow Dual Brush Pen are ideal for working from light values and shapes up to a more finished piece.

They are always watersoluble so you can move some shading around with water if you like. Just remember that the dye-based ink in those pens is not lightfast. Scan your work and save those digital files as originals.

Remember too that you can start with these markers and move on to watercolor (which will dissolve the ink lines).

Artist Don Colley uses Faber Castell Pitt Pens brilliantly to capture the people and environments he finds himself in. Those pens are India ink and water resistant so don’t expect to move the lines around with successive layers of color. Don begins with light blues or grays, finds his form, starts building mass and value, and then does details. It’s a traditional approach applied inventively to a new medium.  

Watersoluble Color Pencil or Watersoluble Graphite

This is an example of me working from the outside in with color pencil. This is non-watersoluble, so I’m working as lightly as possible and not going in for details.

These two types of watersoluble pencil can also be used to lay in lines, working from the outside in. And your adjustments can be dissolved away when you add in watercolor washes. Just be sure to not get rid of lines until you’re sure you’ve got things the way you want.

Dry Pastels

I don’t work in dry pastels because the dust that is generated is something I don’t want to deal with because of allergies. However I have friends who create stunning works in dry pastel, working from the outside in, making revisions as they add more layers. You’ll just need to be sure that you have a paper with tooth to accept all the layers you want to add. 

I used to use Wallis Pastel Paper for my color pencil work. Several pastel artist friends recommend it for dry pastel work. 

What’s Most Important for Getting Off a Plateau?

Whether you work from the inside out or the outside in ultimately is going to be a matter of personal choice. But if you feel your drawing skill improvement has reached a plateau changing things up the is most important approach for getting off a plateau.

But it can’t be simply a one day change. You need to apply yourself.

If you’re having trouble with proportions and gesture, with your shapes and your angles, don’t keep doing what you’re doing and letting yourself feel grumpy about it.

Look at your goals again and get them straight in your head.

Then, with your goals in mind, try doing the direct brush sketching mentioned above every day for a week.

Work monochromatically with watercolor, or work with ink wash. Try one of the other alternatives mentioned if you like, but each day of the week, sketch only from the outside in, with wet media.

Don’t fret if something goes down on your page that isn’t accurate—you’re working in light values first before putting in any details.

This is another example of working from the outside in with non-watersoluble color pencils. I find it is useful to do something like this if you are having trouble warming up, or have having trouble with other drawing media and you need to “feel around” for a little bit. These sketches were made while watching the recent “King Arthur” movie.

Remember that the paper you use will influence how much of your paint or ink wash you can lift or hide. I recommend you practice on a quality watercolor paper with good surface sizing. Expect however, that sometimes the ink or watercolor will sink in (especially staining pigments in watercolor).

I think it’s best to take this as part of the  process and not worry about the perfection of it. I like all these “misses” and restatements. They leave a trail. But if you want to avoid them you can simply work more slowly and deliberately, considering your shapes and values more as you go.

Even when we see we are making steady improvement it’s just good to try a new approach every day for a week, to see what we can shake up and what new approach we might prefer.

Don’t worry, devoting yourself to a new approach for a week (or a month or longer) won’t break you.  You won’t lose any of the progress you have attained.  Those types of thoughts are your internal critic trying to get you to buy into scarcity. Don’t listen.

The first day you return to a previous style or approach after a week (or longer) of applying a different method you might have a stilted day, but after that you’ll get in the flow or your previous approach. 

The bonus is that you’ll bring back all you loved about and learned from the new approach you challenged. 

Armed with those new tools you’ll realize you’ve stepped up, off the plateau.

Other Tips To Try

I find it particularly useful if a drawing session isn’t going well to change drawing implements, to do several contour drawings or gesture drawings, and to concentrate on negative space. All those things help me get back into the flow.

  1. Reply

    Thanks Roz,
    This post is just what I needed today. I have been thinking along these lines planning what I will concentrate on after Christmas. We just got home from a lovely three month holiday in Eastern Europe. I managed to attend several life drawing classes and sketched faces while on the metro and busses, but I feel like I am drawing the same way all the time. I want to try some new materials and new types of mark making. I signed up for Sktchy Art School’s 30 Faces/30 Days class that starts in January. Thought this would be a great way to experiment with new ways of drawing. I always so look forward to your posts. Thank you for all you do, especially considering all you have been dealing with this past year. Wishing you all the best over the holiday season and a New Year filled with promise.

    1. Reply

      I’m glad that you are already thinking about your trip and what you sketched and how the process went. This type of assessment is necessary because it points you in a new direction.

      Just be careful that you don’t swing back too far in the other direction of trying lots of new things all at once in rapid fire. Select something and really focus on it for at least a week, more is always better.

      Remember to keep your intention in the front as you move forward. Goals always help with that.

      Thanks for the good wishes. We are looking forward to a quiet holiday spent with friends. It’s been a different year now that Dick’s folks are gone. 40 years of shared holidays at an end. We are trying to make some new traditions. I am poised to begin the caramel-recipe trials, since I decided that the last 2 purchases of locally made caramel tasted burnt I’d make my own. I have 3 (or is it 4?) recipes to try, taste test…

      Thanks for reading the blog! Keep on sketching, keep on making those specific plans!

    • andie wieringa
    • December 12, 2019

    Thanks Roz, I just read your mail yesterday when I was at work (?!) glad, because in the evening I attend “Drink and Draw” which means drawing a nude model. I decided to do this only with direct brush sketching, normely I start with pen….so thank you so much for your content. It helped me hitting an other level.
    Andie Wieringa

    1. Reply

      Yay, I’m so glad you did this. That’s a great situation to try this with! Thanks for jumping in and giving it a go. I hope you keep playing with it.

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