Sonia Reeder-Jones

Visual Artist

charcoal portrait by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Pan Pastel & General's Charcoal: Portrait drawing of Rachel

Want to learn how to draw faces better?

Want to speed up your learning and get there faster?

Me too. When I started making art again after taking a break, my interest in drawing faces was rekindled. I not only want to learn to draw realistic faces, I want to speed up my learning and get there faster. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way. I hope these can save you some time.
When I initially rekindled my efforts to draw and paint people, my proportions were far from perfect and I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with my drawings. All of my drawings seemed to have a feeling of whimsy to them. They didn’t look real. I thought they looked a bit like an illustration or a cartoon. I asked professors and regional artists for feedback on what might be the problem. More than one told me to embrace my style. I don’t really want a lack of skill to be my style. My dissatisfaction was telling me something. I chose to to listen to it. After much searching, I found a solution. If you’re like me, getting back to art making later in life, I hope these three things will help you learn to draw faces better.

Master these three things to paint or draw realistic faces:

  1. Accurate Proportions
  2. Create The Correct Values
  3. Use Realistic Color

Three things you can do right now to improve your proportions:

  1. Draw from life with longer poses
  2. Use triangulation when drawing
  3. Draw the shadow shapes
charcoal drawing of young girl using Nitram Charcoal by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Nitram Charcoal Drawing

How To Use Triangulation When Drawing:

There seem to be many articles available on triangulation, so I won’t go into it deeply here. Basically, find the proper angle of any feature of the subject you are trying to draw. Copy that exact angle onto your paper or canvas. Lightly draw the line all of the way across your subject. Where the lines intersect will help you determine if features are placed relative to the other features on the subject’s face. I’ve found this to be very helpful in checking my proportions as I draw.

How To Draw The Shadow Shapes:

Stare at your subject until you can identify the overall shape of the shadow areas. Lightly outline these geometric shadow shapes within your drawing. Once you’ve established the correct shadow shapes, you can lightly fill them in with charcoal. Blend and this should begin to turn the form. If you’re drawing seems off, go back and adjust your shadow shapes. I’ve found adjusting the shadow shapes as well as the outside edges of the figure can often fix my proportions if something seems off.

charcoal portrait by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Pan Pastel & General's Charcoal: Portrait drawing of Amber
charcoal portrait by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Pan Pastel & General's Charcoal: Portrait drawing of Georgia

How To Find Or Create Opportunities To Draw From Life With Longer Poses:

  1. Sign up for life drawing open studio classes or join life drawing groups
  2. Draw your family, friends and acquaintances
  3. Start your own life drawing group

Sign Up For Life Drawing Open Classes or Join Life Drawing Groups:

There are a few life drawing groups that meet weekly or monthly within an hour or two drive from where I live. I signed up for a couple of these studio classes and traveled to attend. It was great and I enjoyed it, however, most of these groups do a series of short poses lasting between 5-30 minutes each. It’s good practice, but I found I couldn’t get inside the form in that amount of time. I wanted more time to focus on features and anatomy. I wanted to walk away with more of a finished piece of art. I also wanted to drive less.

Draw Your Family, Friends & Acquaintances:

I believe in using what we already have. Over the course of one winter, I woke early each day and snuck quietly into my young daughters room to draw her while she slept. The time I was allowed to draw was dependent upon if I accidentally woke her or if she tossed and turned. It was unpredictable, but that unpredictability allowed me to let go of the outcome. I wasn’t aiming for a finished drawing, just focusing on nailing down proportions. I asked family, friends and acquaintances to sit for me for extended periods of time.

Start Your Own Life Drawing Group:

In order to bring life drawing closer to home and get longer poses, I started a local life drawing group. We meet in a local community room which is often used for meetings, family reunions, baby showers and such. We hire a local resident to be our model. We draw or paint one single pose over the four hour period, taking breaks at 20 minute intervals. Each artist pitches in a few dollars to pay our model. Focusing on one pose for four hours offers time to focus on proportions, get inside of the form and gets each of us closer to a finished work of art by the end of the session.

charcoal portrait by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Pan Pastel & General's Charcoal: Portrait drawing of Sophia

Why Work On One Skill At A Time?

Simplify Through Micro Learning:

Chunk the major skill down into small manageable pieces. Work on each piece then put them back together again as a whole skill set.

There’s a lot to think about when drawing, especially when drawing from life. There can be a bit of social risk or consequences because there are other artists seeing your progress. The model will see what a great job you’ve done or what a mess you’ve made of their likeness. We’ve all made a mess of it. There’s a deadline because you only have so much time, and time passes fast when you’re frustrated and racing to fix something that’s off. The model is obviously 3D and you’re trying to translate that onto a 2D flat surface. Depending on the set up and your position to the model, the lighting can either help you out or make your job more challenging. The distance away from the model and you’re ability to see details at that distance can be problematic. So there’s plenty to think about. When you’re trying to develop your skill set, I think it’s best to simplify and work on one skill at a time.

Why Slow Down & Practice Deliberately?:

Be slow and deliberate with every mark you make. Practice as perfectly as you can. What you practice is what will become automatic. I talked to a dancer about this recently and this is what she told me about deliberate practice. She said that you have to practice “full out” in dance. She clarified by saying that you need to practice each and every move fully extended to the proper position. If you practice with short, lazy or jerky movements, those are what will become automatic. When it’s time for the performance, you’ll slip up and revert back to those same sloppy, short, lazy or jerky movements that you practiced time and again. It matters how you practice because it will eventually become autonomous.

charcoal portrait by Sonia Reeder-Jones

Pan Pastel & General's Charcoal: Portrait drawing of Breanna

Three Things You Can Do To Improve Your Values:

  1. Don't push your lights too light or darks too dark
  2. Get immediate feedback
  3. Photograph your work or use a mirror to analyze values

Don't Push Your Lights Too Light Or Darks Too Dark

I believe the whimsical nature of my drawings and paintings was due in part because I was pushing my lights too light and my darks too dark. This wide range in contrast was making my work seem cartoonish. I couldn’t see this for the longest time. It took a ridiculous amount of time to discover what I was doing wrong. The wide range of contrast in my charcoal drawings made my subjects look harsh. This is especially true in the creases of the face and around the eyes. I realized that the differences between light and shadow in nature can be much more subtle than what we believe we're seeing. If you can match the actual values as they truly are, you have a better chance of being able to draw realistic faces.

Get Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback is really important when developing your skill. It keeps you from practicing flawed techniques and allowing those flaws to become bad habits. There are several ways you might get immediate feedback. You can ask others for feedback. I love to ask children as you'll get really honest feedback. Just be sure you handle their blunt and often funny criticism of your work. My favorite example was when my daughter's friend told me I had better "fix her face". She was able to identify which feature didn't look right to her. I used her feedback to fix it. When working alone I usually photograph my work or use a mirror to get immediate feedback.

Photograph Your Work or Use A Mirror To Analyze Values:

While drawing, the tool I use most often to check my values is my smartphone camera. I have a tendency to push the darks too dark, making my subjects look harsh and older than they are. By taking a picture of my drawing on my phone, I can better evaluate the values. Taking a photo let’s you disconnect from the drawing and see things you can’t see on the work itself. This also works great to check your proportions. For some reason, we can't always see the flaws in the work itself. Converting it to a photograph helps override this phenomenon. Another way to get immediate feedback is to look at your work in a mirror. It has a similar effect as taking a photo, letting you disconnect and evaluate values and proportion more effectively. I let my eyes flow loosely over the photograph or image in the mirror and look for spots that seem harsh. Often I’ll see a harsh facial crease or the shadow under the eye or bottom lip. I’ll use my kneaded eraser to gently lift out charcoal or blend out these areas and then take another photo. I’ll evaluate the photo again and again until I’ve softened the drawing. By slowing down, narrowing my focus and being deliberate about matching values, you can train your eyes to see. You want your ability to see values correctly to become autonomous.

If You’re Feeling Dissatisfied With Your Work, Listen To What Your Dissatisfaction Is Telling You:

When I’ve voiced dissatisfaction with my work, other artists have suggested I embrace my style. It’s not bad advice, but if I choose to listen to the dissatisfaction, I might be able to pin point what I need to do to fix or overcome it. Figuring out what’s wrong is half the battle. For example, I knew my drawings looked harsh. That’s the only way I could verbally explain the flaw I was seeing. I didn’t know why they looked harsh. I knew I made people look older than they are in real life. I didn’t know what about the drawing was adding age to them. This is what I did to figure it out. I started reading up on methods of turning the form. I discovered a clue about the harsh look when reviewing a drawing book I have by Juliette Aristides. There is a small reference to blending the half tones when turning the form. I had been using Pan Pastel as the foundation of my drawings. it’s a great medium and I really enjoy it. It can go on pretty dark though and it’s difficult to lift off or erase completely. I’ve been practicing using a much lighter touch when using the Pan Pastel and using more charcoal layers in the latter stage of drawing. Charcoal seems to blend easier and certainly lifts off the paper easier. As for the aging, I started researching expressions and the anatomy of expressions. I found a great site called http://www.artnatomia.net. Artnatomia is a "anatomical basis of facial expression learning tool". It’s a teaching and learning tool that serves as a reference for the anatomy of expressions. While I thought age my be a result of something I was doing in drawing the eye itself, I found the eyebrow might be more important. I also read a few articles on plastic surgery sites to find out what happens to facial features as we age. I discovered that the eyebrow drops lower on the face and eye creases deepen. As a result, I’m paying more attention to the angle and placement of the eyebrow as well as softening or lightening the eye creases on younger models. Sometimes it’s helpful to look to other industries or fields of study to find the information you need to identify the problem and address it.