Drawing From Photos Without Using a Grid (or Any Other Visual Aide)

The ultimate ambition of any portrait artist should be to draw portraits by eye, without using any visual aides or shortcuts. There are a huge number of books on the subject and all of them suggest a slightly different approach. We all develop our own techniques but I set out some time ago to do an exhaustive study of all the various methods different artists use, to take the most practical advice from them all and to organize it into an orderly and structured system that one could use as a step-by-step formula for reliably capturing a person’s likeness.

A lot is made of the ‘standard proportions’ of the face of the man, woman, girl, and boy. These are a very helpful guide and should certainly be taken into consideration but are only useful to a point because of course what makes a portrait recognizable are the ways in which a person’s face is unique. To get the measure of these individual characteristics requires a system that records exactly what you see and also gives you several ways of checking and cross-referencing that information to make sure you have it absolutely right. The most reliable technique we have for accurately plotting the position of points relative to other points is ‘triangulation’, which was first employed by the ancient Egyptians for making maps and is still used today by the Global Positioning Systems that use satellites to give us our position on earth to within a few centimetres. Strangely it’s hardly mentioned anywhere in all the most widely read books on portrait-drawing. What a waste!

Let’s say you start your portrait by gauging the angle between the bottom of the ears. You would then draw a faint line on your paper at this angle. At this point you can place the bottom of the ears at any two positions on this line and doing so will determine the size of the portrait. Now let’s suppose that you want to find the position of the ‘point’ of the chin. You simply find the angle from one ear lobe to the point of the chin and mark that line faintly on your drawing. When you repeat this from the other ear lobe, the point at which it crosses the first line is the exact position of the point of the chin. Every time you add a new landmark to your drawing you increase your choice of reference points that are available from which to triangulate more.

This gives you a very reliable way to build up an accurate framework for your drawing, working just by eye. I find the most efficient approach is to use this technique to construct the contour. Once you have the contour/’arabesque’ accurately drawn you can effectively give an exact grid-reference to any point within it. Any position you need to place on your drawing can be precisely plotted vertically below a specific point on the contour, vertically above another spot on the contour, and level with a point on either side. Of course this sounds like a terribly clinical approach to take with a portrait but what you are doing is training your eye to see these relationships instinctively. You won’t actually formally go through this routine in such a cut-and-dried way more than a few times before you begin to loosen up and read the shapes much more fluently. What this system does is give you a very structured way to train yourself to read a face like a portrait artist.