Portraits are something I was not used to making. Years of reading superhero comics had made me an old pro at drawing full body sketches, but I had rarely zoomed into the face and studied it. Especially using the medium of an A3 sized sheet – all that space for just a face? What was I going to draw? The smaller the area that you covered of a human body, the more detail you would have to portray, which seemed pretty daunting to me.
In the first self-portrait I made I used brown charcoal as my medium. Still slightly afraid of detailing, I tried to make it not quite photorealistic, and a little more stylistic. I started to realise how I really viewed myself. My glasses were solid and black against the lighter tone of the rest of my face, and there was not much symmetry to the sketch. I emphasized certain features like my larger forehead and my narrow face, so much so that it almost looked like a caricature. However I really liked the warmth and the slightly skewed dimensions of the face – it felt very authentic to me.
I also made another sketch in pencil, which had clearer lines of symmetry, and a more even tone. I feel like this is more detailed, but still doesn’t look quite photorealistic. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that there was not really much of a difference between the first sketch I made, and the second one. My glasses and eyes were still the most emphasised feature, and my face looked narrower than it really was. Perhaps it was what I found most important about my face that I managed to capture.
I also made a portrait of my grandmother, who was often up and awake by 8 am, usually sitting up in bed and knitting. The act of knitting makes her fingers move very deftly, but the rest of her body remains relatively still. I found this contrast very interesting. Her face had a very fascinating stillness, which I tried to capture.
I experimented with body studies quite a lot, playing with levels of detail and rendering. I came to the realization that when I was detailing and adding light and shadow to the sketch, I was struggling with making the sketches feel dynamic and like the people I was trying to capture were actually moving around. Whereas in my quick sketches, I was missing out on giving people that three dimensional feeling of solidity, and they ended up looking like illustrations.
Parallely, my group members and I had been reading Peter Zumthor’s Atmospheres, where he talks about light a great deal. He talks about the light on things – on walls, furniture, and different materials. He said that natural light was his favourite medium to play with, because it seems to be something ethereal, something out of this world. I thought the same as well. In my VSR exercises, if I ever attempted to draw someone in artificial light, the harsh contrasts and shadows seemed too stark, even when I tried using softer mediums like charcoal. Whereas whenever I drew using natural light, the light seemed to gently wash over their skin. So in the last couple of days of the exercise, I ended up trying a different approach. I went to a public park near my house every day for three days, and tried to sketch people in natural light. Most of the folks in my sketches were sitting on the grass, or talking to each other and soaking in the sun. They were not completely static, as they changed postures, gesticulated with their hands, and turned their heads to look at things. This actually helped me keep my sketches quick, and focus more on overall form. Natural light also helped me render.
All in all, I think I have gained more confidence in making portraits, and start making better body studies. I’ve realized I enjoy drawing eyes the most – they seem to be the focal point of ever portrait, and they add that essential dynamic quality to a portrait that cannot portray movement in any other way.