Portrait and Figure Drawing: Online Classes and Resources Reviewed

Skull drawing practice #1, Conte pencil on paper, 24x18 inches

Skull drawing practice #1, Conte pencil on paper, 24×18 inches

I wanted to improve my people-drawing skills, learn about anatomy and be able to quickly sketch a head with some degree of accuracy and fluency. I was looking for information, instruction, and explanation of how the skull, features, and muscles all work together to make each of us look like individuals.

I began exploring resources for learning online and I found one that met all of my requirements: New Masters Academy. It is affordable ($19 to $29/month), has excellent teachers, an abundance of classes in portrait and figure drawing and painting and more, plus great resources for artists including thousands of high-resolution artist model reference photos and timed portrait and figure drawing sessions.

What initially convinced me to become a member on New Masters was the free, 3-hour YouTube video below by one of their many excellent teachers, Steve Huston. This is just a small part of his Structure of the Head course in which he explains in great detail about the planes of the face, the shapes and functions of the muscles, and each of the features (eyes, nose, etc.) in a very user-friendly way.

The YouTube video by Brandwynn Jones (below) introduced me to the Reilly Method Abstraction, an interesting way of conceptualizing and constructing the head. Mr. Jones is a student at the Watts Atelier, another online artist training program.

Before I found New Masters, I regrettably signed up for an expensive month ($99/month) at Watts Atelier Online, based on what I saw and heard in Mr. Jones’ videos and on fellow artist Chris Beaven’s blog, who was trying out the Watts program too. But after watching the head drawing course “taught” by Mr. Watts, I requested and received a refund for the remaining half month. The course consists of videos of him drawing, while he talks on and on–what he calls “bantering”–with very little actual instruction or explanation and it just didn’t meet my needs. Chris later wrote this review of Watts Atelier Online.

Skull drawing practice

Skull drawing practice #2, Conte pencil on paper, 18×24″

Another great source of figure drawing instruction videos (for free) can be found at Stan Prokopenko’s website, Proko.com and on his on YouTube channel. His sense of humor and high production values makes them fun to watch but I find they fly by too quickly for me to retain the information. He offers expanded versions at reasonable cost. In the video below he clarifies and summarizes the Andrew Loomis approach to drawing the head.

Over the past year I’ve watched several good instructional videos on Craftsy.com but I prefer the comprehensive courses on New Masters. One plus for Craftsy is that the videos you “buy” are always yours to stream on demand; on New Masters they’re available to stream as long as you’re a paying member.

For quick and detailed anatomical information where you can switch from skin, muscles, skeletal or even organ views, I go to Innerbody.com, where I found the resource for the drawing below. I wanted to know more about the muscles that we see through the skin.

A free 2.5 hour figure drawing course based on the Reilly Method is available from Udemy.com.

Croquis Cafe on YouTube offers free figure drawing sessions with artist models (mostly nude) posing in real time, just like you are in a figure drawing session with timed poses and music. They also have reference photos to work from and some paid classes, which I haven’t explored.

Pixelovely.com is another source for figure drawing practice that provides timed photo references of nude and costumed models in interesting and unusual poses as well as instruction and tips on figure drawing.

PoseManiacs.com also offers thousands of digital images of figures in motion or still, without skin so all the  muscles are visible.

High resolution photos of the Asaro Planes of the Head model in 22 different positions are available to download here.

Reilly Method class notes by one of his students are lovingly offered on The Reilly Papers blog.

Glen Orbik was another master figure and portrait drawing teacher. Free clips from videos of his lectures are available on YouTube here. The full course is available at Zarolla Academy but is expensive.

Fred Fixler was another of the great drawing and painting teachers who has passed on but on this site you can download his Reilly method handouts and some great drawing and gouache painting tips.

To find figure drawing classes, workshops and open studios in your area, visit ArtModelBook.com.

The Marcy Portrait Project: 6 Months of Trying to Paint My Sister

Marcy_#24-20160111_Sleepy_Sister_004-Edit-2

Marcy #24 “Sleepy Sister” Oil on DuraLar, 9×12 inches

When my sister Marcy offered to pose for me for my birthday, I had no idea it would take me 6 months, more than 2 dozen mostly awful drawings and painting attempts (pictures at bottom of post), and lots of study before I could produce a portrait that actually: a) looks human and b) resembles my sister (as I see her).

Although I have a long way to go before I feel competent at this, I am choosing to pause here briefly to honor and share my progress before I raise the bar again on my study of portraiture.

Attempt #1: painted live in about 2.5 hours. I learned how much I didn't know about alla prima portraiture.

Attempt #1: Painted live in about 2.5 hours. I learned how much I didn’t know about painting portraits

After my first try (above) and many more failed attempts (displayed at bottom of post) I realized I needed a better understanding of head anatomy. I accepted that I can’t fix a bad drawing with pretty paint. I studied my books and videos, tried to memorize proportions and divisions of the head (e.g. eyes are halfway between top of head and chin) and did some head drawing exercises (again…) that I still didn’t quite understand. And I continued failing at drawing and painting Marcy from the photo I took when she sat for me the first time, again from life on another visit and then from other photos.

I’ve done portraits I liked in the past, either by drawing freehand and then correcting again and again, or by enlarging a photo and tracing it onto canvas or paper. But I just couldn’t reliably draw one from life. So I read more books, watched online videos and investigated in-person and online classes. I found a comprehensive online academy last month that is giving me just what I wanted to learn. I think you can see how it is making a difference, starting with #18 below, drawn from life when Marcy posed for me again. In my next post I will review and share links to the learning resources I found.

You can see the progression, from the hilarious to the hideous to the almost-but-no, sorted with most recent first. Some are just bare starts; as soon as I could tell it was unsalvageable, I added the piece to the pile of fails and started over. The paintings are all oil, 12×9″ on Matte Dura-Lar except for the earliest ones on panels. The drawings are mostly on Vidalon Vellum except for the first few 14×11″ on paper.

Alla Prima Self-Portrait in Oil with Steps in Progress

Self-Portrait, Zorn Palette, oil on Mylar, 12x9 inches

Self-Portrait, Zorn Palette, oil on Mylar, 12×9 inches

I might look grumpy or serious from concentrating, a little cross-eyed (eyes drawn too close together), big-nosed and scrawny, but I’m really happy with this painting because it was fun to do! The hardest part was lighting my face without blinding myself with the glare.

Below you can see the setup I used in the studio, with the giant mirror I got for $10 (!) at Home Depot; it was half priced and had a few scratches so they took off another $5. I had a hard time supporting the mirror so that it was tall enough to see myself. Finally I found a solution: propped it up on an open drawer, held in place with two bungee cords wrapped around the studio chest of drawers.

Inspired by Myriam Yee (be sure to check out her amazing series of Zorn palette self-portraits here), I used the “Zorn” limited palette of Ivory Black, Cadmium Red Medium, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White. Myriam uses Williamsburg Cold Black instead of Ivory Black, which has some Ultramarine Blue mixed in and provides a wider range of colors. I bought a tube and am experimenting with it now.

I painted on Dura-Lar Matte Film again but this time (see previous post) I did the drawing on one sheet and then imposed a second sheet over it to paint on. This way, if I wanted to try a second painting of the same drawing or just want to save the drawing I still have it.

Portrait Process: Start to Fail and Start Again

Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12x8"

Forest Girl #2-C, Oil Painting on Mylar, 12×8″

My first attempt at painting Sylvia, a lovely young Bulgarian architecture student, ended in an abandoned failure, displayed at the bottom of this post in 6 steps. I altered my course for the second attempt (above), starting with a better drawing, and was able to complete the study more successfully. I tried to practice for alla prima painting, not going for a “finished” portrait, even though I painted from her reference photo on Julia Kay’s Portrait Party, instead of from life.

What made the difference between failure and success was that I took the time to make a more accurate drawing first (above). I drew on one side of a sheet of Dura-Lar Matte Film (after first reversing the reference photo in Photoshop) and painted on the other side. Then I turned the sheet over, toned it with a transparent umber stain, and reversed the photo back to normal. That way I had the lines of the drawing to refer to, along with the photo without obliterating the drawing. It’s still visible on the back of the painting and could be traced over onto another sheet of Dura-Lar if I wanted to paint her again from the same drawing.

Below is the failed first attempt, where impatience and hubris led to a quick, sloppy drawing (with the evil thought, “I can always correct the drawing when I paint,” which I need to ignore in the future!). The captions describe what went wrong at each step:

Figure and Portrait Drawings

Figure drawing wall in studio

Figure drawing wall in studio

I just made a big leap in my understanding of figure and portrait drawing so wanted to share previous sketches and paintings before the new work. Above is a photo of the “figure drawing wall” in my studio. I’d covered this wall with black non-fade bulletin board paper to avoid reflected light when I’m at my easel (that stands just to the right of this photo). Then I hung black metal grid panels that I got super cheap on Craigslist and use little magnets to stick the drawings to the grid wall. Now it’s easy to add, move or replace drawings with better ones as my skill improves and I can hang framed paintings from it with grid wall picture hooks.

Below are assorted figure and portrait drawings from past Friday Figure Drawing sessions. Click on any image to go to slide-viewing mode and click through them using the arrows on each side.

Sketching a Posing Pirate: Figure Drawing Tips

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper, approx. 20×18 inches

After posing nude for a couple of hours, our wonderful male model dressed in a pirate costume, complete with plastic sword,  with sea shanty and pirate songs playing on the stereo. He was such a delight, with a warm smile and a white beard ending in a long, skinny braid. I used four Conté Pencils in white, black, sepia and sanguine on black pastel paper for this long pose (90 minutes).

I’m finding more ease with life drawing lately as I apply the techniques I’ve been taught over the years but that hadn’t “clicked” until now. Finally I’m willing to do a little measuring of lines, shapes and angles instead of “just going for it,” which is fun, but always wonky (not that my drawing isn’t still wonky, even when I do my best to measure—but I’ve also learned that “wonky” is what gives work our own style and I like my wonky.)

Three resources that have helped me learn to draw better:

  1. The book Sketching – from Square One … to Trafalgar Square that explains better than I can, techniques to improve your drawing.
  2. Sadie Valeri’s excellent student handout that I got when I took a workshop at her studio, which she has generously given me permission to share with you: sadie-valeri_draw_block-in_08-2013-2 (PDF Download).
  3. Sadie Valeri’s free video demonstration of how to do a “Straight Line Block In.” All of her videos are excellent, free or paid. She is one of the most generous and clear teachers that I’ve studied with. She is brilliant at lifting the veil between the subject, your eyes and your brain so that you can see what’s really there and draw it.

Here are the ways I practiced some of these techniques in this drawing:

  • first determined whether the subject is wider or narrower using a skinny stick (e.g. a bamboo skewer or knitting needle) held at arm’s length to compare both directions so I know whether to place the drawing and the paper in portrait (tall) or landscape (wide) orientation.
  • marked where I want the top and bottom of the drawing on the paper (to avoid decapitation or leg/foot amputations).
  • measured the size of the model’s head with the skewer, marking the size on the stick with my thumb and then moving down his body, measuring how many heads fit from his chin to the lowest part of his body (e.g bottom of foot). In this case there were 5 heads.
  • divided the space between the top and bottom marks on the paper into 5 equal sections, using the sepia pencil so it wouldn’t show much.
  • noted where on the models body each of those “head” divisions were (e.g. chin bottom, right knee top, left knee top, right foot bottom, left foot) and indicated that on the paper. I also noted how many “heads” wide the subject was at the widest part and marked that.
  • sketched the head in its section.
  • held up the skewer along the angles from the top of the head out to the sides to find the shape of the imaginary “envelope” that the pirate’s body would fit into and drew those lines lightly on the paper (see Sadie’s handout).
  • broke that envelope down into smaller and more exact shapes, looking for negative space shapes and angles to help find the shapes that made up his body parts.
  • continued doing the same, ending with the feet, which I didn’t quite finish as time ran out.
  • drew the whiskey bottle (which was actually empty) during model breaks.

The model asked to take a photo of my drawing at the end of class. That was a first…and a great payoff to practicing the tools!

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