What follows is a journal concerning my drawing of model Khrystyana, drawn from a photograph by Ukrainian photographer Paul Terrie. I will not discuss the quality of the drawing itself, since I am in no position to judge that. It is what it is, as they say. This is a simple rattling off of the head, offering up what insight I can into my own drawing process.
I have drawn Khrystana before with various degrees of success. The definition of a successful end to a creative project changes by the perspective of each creator and viewer, but my measurement of success for my own drawings lays directly within the likeness. The scribbles and smudges do not matter, nor do the unfinished hands, loose line work, or wrinkled sections of paper. If the likeness is there, I give myself a pat on the back and move on with my day.
I find the bulk of my reference material on Instagram, Patreon, or by commissioning models. My interest is primarily faces, better yet, known faces. Faces that, if drawn incorrectly, will leave me with egg on my face. I do like the feedback of, “Hey, that looks like XYZ,” or “Who is this supposed to be?” I love exploring what makes each of our faces uniquely us.
What stopped me with Paul Terrie’s portrait of Khrystyana was the light. The harsh black, deep — her ear lost to the shadowed down-swoop of her hair. That shadow above her eye that swells up into her hairline. I wanted to draw that. For my first attempt, I started there, with that eye. I tend to either start with the darkest part of the face or just with the thing that I am most excited about. I figure that if I don’t nail that part of the portrait, it’s not worth finishing.
I took this drawing to the end, even though I knew early in the drawing that the likeness was off. I missed the downward slope of her cheekbones and the face is just off. I wish I had spent more time on the hair, as my sketch makes it look like she has short hair rather than long hair pulled back. The drawing itself works as a portrait of a blank figure with a bird on her head, and the bird did come out okay, but it is not a successful portrait.
My second attempt is closer, as I can tell who it is, but the line work is far more sloppy than the first attempt. The nose and lip area are quick scrubs of pencil, undefined, but read as close to correct. The shadow on her cheek was better in the first drawing, but here, it feels more accurate and that is what matters the most to me.
Feels more accurate. I wish I knew why it feels that way or had the proper language to speak to it. I understand the concept of structuring a portrait, blocking in the shapes and the light, but foundational understanding does not help explain why something wrong, or inaccurate, can feel correct. Perhaps the eye takes in the information and it gets processed in such a way the incorrect drawing now makes sense, but why doesn’t the brain do that for my first attempt?
Placing both drawings side by side, they appear to be of two different people yet were drawn from the same reference image using the same tools by the same hands. What was my first mistake? To find exactly where I went wrong would be to deconstruct the reference image — measure the distance between the eyes, the width of the jaw, and the angle of the brow. The answer is there, in the numbers. But, to be too exact leads to photorealism, a style I admire but one I do not have the patience or skill to achieve. I prefer to draw in bursts and let my drawings bear the effects of human touch. A frantic hour of my day trying to place a recognizable face down on paper and if the failures stack up enough, I take a break and try again the next day.
When I have a few finished drawings of the same face, I like to place them facing each other. The worse of them facing the opposite direction. It can change how you see the drawing and if I’m having a difficult time with a likeness, I will take a stab at drawing it the opposite way. I’m not sure this accomplishes anything, but it feels like it does and if drawing isn’t about how it feels, then it isn’t about anything at all.