15 November, 2010

Monday's Art Tip 10 - Grid is not a dirty word

Now, please, I want to stress that portraiture isn't my main thing, but I do like to try my hand at it from time to time, particularly when it comes to my kids.

They grow so fast (that's the truest cliche) and spending some time really studying their features, and creating a sketch of them, as they were, today, is a beautiful luxury. I think it's the studying that interests me the most. Noticing the curve of a brow, the tweak at the corner of a mouth, the flutter of an eyelash... gorgeous.

Anyway, hopefully you've had a go at sketching a flower or a similar 'unopinionated' object after last week's Art Tip, and now you're ready to have a go at a face.

My idea here is to study your subject in this sketching exercise, and that will set you up nicely to try an acrylic version of the portrait next week.

So, here's a little technique for you. It's not 'loose' or particularly artistic, but it's a great way to build skills for a beginner, or revisit proportions for more experienced artists.

Firstly, choose a photo with good light and shade. I stood my daughter with a light on one side of her face, then took the photo.

I imported the photo into Picnik, reduced the size, then went to 'sandbox effects', applied 'adjustable threshold' until I was happy with the contrast, and then applied 'posterize' before resaving it. (I'd usually do similar steps to this in Photoshop, but as Picnik is a free online resource, I thought it best to do this demo with it.)

Now, the easiest thing for a beginner is to print and draw at the same size, so that's what I did. I applied a grid to the image, lightly pencilled the grid on my sketch pad, and started drawing in the shapes, square to square. Remember to do this bit UPSIDE DOWN, so that your brain's thinking 'shape', not 'eye' or 'mouth'.

Then, inspired by the sketchbooks of the amazing Alisa Burke, I sketched over the pencil lines with a ballpoint pen. Crosshatching lightly seems to work for me here.

I then turned it right side up, to check it,

gently rubbed out the pencil grid lines, and then lightly coloured it with watercolour - I used plenty of water because I wanted it to be subtle (it was on 300gsm watercolour paper, so it didn't buckle too badly - be careful with water if you're using a lighter weight paper), blotting with a rag when the colour was too dark.

Just look at those paints. They're a Winsor and Newton field box, and that's my maiden name in the cover - and I've been married almost 15 years... a great buy!

And that's it - done!

My top tips for beginners to try sketching someone you love -

  1. Don't go too big yet, and perhaps only do their face - or even their hand - that way the shapes are large enough for you to get right on the grid. And make the grid boxes as small as you need them to be. Remember, you're just doing the shapes, one square at a time.
  2. Don't be too hard on yourself. Just as the drawing is a record of what you saw that day, it's also a record of how experienced you were at drawing on that day. If you know you can do better, or would like to do better, that's fine. Date it, and you've got yourself a benchmark.
  3. Once done, take a photo and give either the original or the photo to your subject (it's totally up to you). I'm going to put this sketch in my daughter's 'precious things box'. So it may be years before she sees it, and it'll be a nice surprise for both of us. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.

Hope that's been interesting, and next week we'll try it on canvas!

If you have any questions or comments about this process, I'd love to hear/answer them. Go on now, sketch someone you love.


  1. I really like that. I think we did something similar years and years ago in high school. Funny thing is, that I actually used a grid when drawing my granny square last week. It just seemed the natural thing to do - weird!

  2. Marissa8:34 pm

    With those detailed instructions I will be sure to give this a try. Great tips....thanks.


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