16. Knowledge : Cheap Ways To Practice Portraiture

Add varying degrees of thickness when applying the light planes to create the illusion of more light/form.

I have some great news:  You can practice learning how to see and paint the planes of light on a human face at any time, any place, and with very few, inexpensive materials.

With just a small tin of 2-3 pieces of pastel crayons or charcoal pencils, you can practice painting people to your heart’s content.  Once you are proficient in placing the landmarks, and are beginning to understand how to identify and place shadow shapes (WLDH) and planes of light, you can move onto portraiture; painting actual faces.

For years I’ve been practicing drawing people using knowledge of light planes…. In the U.S., where my family and I live, there are some restaurants have white paper tablecloths and actually encourage you to draw! (Macaroni Grill) They even furnish some crayons, if you’ve forgotten yours.  In a restaurant, people will stay put, if you catch them on the salad course.  Even if they’re moving, they generally will keep going back to the same stance.

Story:  That Woman Keeps Staring At Me

One morning, my family and I were traveling and ended up at the local diner.  There was a rather magnificent, large, African American man sitting fairly close bye, engrossed in his newspaper and breakfast.  Since I always have a small sketchbook in my handbag, I quickly began plotting the landmarks and planes of his face and was about to proceed to adding shadows when he called the waitress and she packed up his things and he left.  I thought he must have been late, just realizing the time, or something like that.  The waitress soon came back to our table and saw my sketch, now discarded on the table.  She said “The gentleman you were drawing asked to be moved… He said there was a woman at this table that kept staring at him intently.  Now I know why.”  My teens were groaning with embarrassment. He never once looked our way, all the time I was drawing him, yet in his peripheral vision, he obviously was disturbed by my intense look.

The moral of the story:  When you’re engrossed in drawing strangers, you have the look of a predator noshing on prey.  Don’t scare them, and try to choose people not facing you.

Here are a couple of drawings from such an encounter in a restaurant.  These happen in mere seconds:

Here you can see the skull ball, jaw wedge and feature position. Notice how the hair is applied after the skull ball, because I am always cognizant of where the underlying structures are.

Looking up at waiter. These were not the same people, but sat at the same table.

Lucky break. I had at least a minute for this one. The lady sat still because she was reading something.

3 Exercises To Try

Demo :  2 faces on brown paper bag using charcoal & pastel

Cheap Supplies: Tin of charcoal, Q-tips, 3 pastels for painting light, tub of bleach.

Using charcoal or pencil, draw skull ball, neck post, jaw wedge, lines and landmarks for shadow planes

Insert shadow shapes at appropriate landmark: Eye socket shape, nose bottom shape, lip shadow shape, dental arch shape and chin shadow

I softened the shadow shapes with my finger, then added “void shadows” (where light don’t hit), delineating features and form.

Here’s another: Note skull ball, jaw wedge, neck post, ear hole. Landmarks: Brow, eye, nose bottom, mouth open, dental arch, chin. Note how just these few shapes and landmarks already create human features.

Using your light colored pastels, add planes of WLH (where light hits). Try the bottom layer fairly faint, then…..

Add varying degrees of thickness when applying the light planes to create the illusion of more light/form.  (Notice I always apply the nose bone and cartilage in separate shapes, because they always capture light differently.)

Now, lets all become artful recyclers!

The ultimate recycler. Now you know why my kids call me “The bag lady.”

Demo : Same technique using grey paper using crayon, pastel, acrylic, oil, or watercolor.

Skull ball, neck post

Add jaw wedge and landmark for ear.

Adding directional lines, landmarks and eye line. I’ve also added a side view.

Adding shadow shapes for ‘where light don’t hit’ on landmarks

Adding form shadow and ‘etching’ out for lights

Adding light planes, and adding intense heat for “blood blush band” (nose, eye and ear area)

TIP:  If you do as many as you can, as often as you can, you will quickly become proficient in painting faces and portraits.  

I would highly recommend that you make a habit of not finishing them (as you see here) and discarding them…. Why?  Because your internal critic/committee/ego will not be invested in cheap, discarded materials, especially if you do not intend to show them to anyone.  You will improve rapidly without the pressure of ‘not finishing’ or ‘making it perfect’, much easier for yourself in the long run. Let’s face it (pardon the pun), no matter how much disposable income you have, everyone enjoys frugal ways to practice.

Chuck them out and start afresh!  It’s the process that will teach you; Not the product!

Practice, practice, practice….The ultimate benefit is that, very soon, you will be painting people and never having to think of measuring landmarks… It will become natural, second nature.  Once you never have to ‘think about’ technique, you can paint and draw faces with authority, and they become infused with energy and excitement, and infinitely more artistic than a photographic, measured face (again, it’s just my opinion.)

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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