Copy of John Singer Sargent's "Coventry Patmore", stage one

This is a charcoal drawing after Sargent's portrait of Coventry Patmore, the English poet and critic, painted in 1894.  I was asked by a student to document my drawing process, and this post is the result.  I can't say that I always work the same way, but this is a fair average of how my drawings progress.  Keep in mind before you read on - I have a fair bit of anatomical knowledge.  That makes this easier, as I have a good understanding of what mechanics make up my subject and I can therefore manipulate them to my advantage.  What I am writing in this particular blog entry does not address anatomy, just the step by step process of building a drawing.  The materials used were Zerkall German Ingres paper (sand color), the charcoal was made by Nitram, and the white chalk was Faber-Castell Pitt pastel pencil medium.

The first step is placement.  I decide where on the page I'd like the subject to be.  If I was working from life, I'd actually measure the sitter's head height and transfer it to the page.  Since Mr. Patmore has been dead for just over a century, I have no idea how big his head is.  Rather than have him exhumed, I opted instead to just guess that his head was 9" in height.  It didn't really matter, so long as I kept it consistent throughout the drawing.  I marked the top of his head (not including hair), measured 9" down to his chin, and no matter what happened during the duration of this portrait, those two marks must ALWAYS remain in place, otherwise the head will grow or shrink and things will get out of control.  

I sketched in the head as an oval with a centerline running through the middle (I don't have a photo of this, but traces of it are evident if you look closely).  There wan't much of a tilt of Patmore's head up or down, but he is turning his head to the side, so I focused on that.  All facial features are ignored - it's just an egg with a centerline.  Even with that alone, I am able to see which way the head is turning.  

I then divided the head in half from top to bottom (in this case, 4.5" down from the top of his head), and then divided each half into halves (2.25" each).  You can see my marks - the halfway mark is just under the eye, the upper quarter mark is in the middle of the forehead, and the lower quarter mark is just under the nose.  Of course none of those facial features were there when I made those marks, instead those marks were used to find the facial features.  I made those same marks on the actual Sargent painting I was working from and was able to see where the features landed on the vertical axis, and then I knew where they needed to be on my drawing, at least generally.  For example, I could see that the bottom of the nose fell just above the lower quarter mark.  This is just how I would do it if I was working from life.  

As I added in the nose, chin and mouth, I imagined them projecting outwardly from that centerline.  The angle of the nose's projection from the face is very important - it can help determine both what an individual's nose looks like as well as how the head is tilted.  Another distinctive marker is the angle of the jaw.  In order to figure that out, I had to place the ear.  Just like with the rest of the major features, I used the quarter and halfway marks to find the top and bottom of the ear.  The bottom of the ear is where the back of the jaw moves toward, so once I had that ear placed I could determine the angle of Patmore's jaw.

Thus far I only had measurements on the vertical axis.  I needed to get an estimate for how deep and wide this head needed to be.  I went to Sargent's painting, took a measurement of the widest point of the head (in this case it was from the cheekbone on the left to the back of the skull on the right), and related that to the height of the head.  I then knew that the width of the head was about the same as the distance between the top of the head and the bottom of the nose.  I added in the ribcage and the neck - that subtle projection of the head from the body is specific to everyone and adds a great deal of likeness and character.  Note that I added the centerline to the neck as well.  

Now I had the height, width/depth of the head, which way it was facing, the angle of the neck, and where the top and bottom of the major features were located.  Everything else was essentially just filling in the blanks.  I 'chiseled' the major features of the skull out of the oval, which is most evident in the left contour of the face.  

This initial laying in is the most important phase of getting a likeness - even though it may not look like the sitter yet, we have our height, width and depth, and the general proportions are mapped out.  Keep that centerline too - it will save you down the line as you make adjustments.  Remember, go from general to specific!


Patmore, stage two

The next few stages are checking and rechecking measurements.  Only when we have all of the elements in the first phase down - however general they may be - can we see what needs to be corrected.  There are many out there who try and get the whole thing right on the first pass, going from area to area, finishing as they go.  I've seen good paintings happen that way, but personally I can't make heads or tails of it.  I think I can attribute it to studying so long with a sculptor - in three dimensions you must work on the whole piece at once if you want to make it read properly.  

In any case, the first set of adjustments I want to make are the bigger ones.  The cranium is the largest part of the head, so I started with that.  If that is in place, and the cheekbones are also set, then the eye sockets can be imagined.  Patmore was 73 when he died, so his sockets are fairly clear even with skin draped over them, but with most sitters, the sockets will have to be imagined.  One thing that is poorly represented here in terms of good practice are the eyes.  Typically I'd recommend placing an orb in each socket and leaving it at that until a bit further down the line.  Eyelids are such a thin layer of skin that for form's sake they just aren't necessary to place on the eye at this point.  If you have the sockets and the eyeballs, then that is all you really need.  Your drawing will look a bit disturbing for a while, but that's okay.  I even put in eyebrows - if I saw one of my students add in the eyebrows this early on, I might just grab some clippers and shave his or her eyebrows off.  In other words, focus on the sockets, NOT on the eyebrows or lids.  

The nose was developed - I estimated the width of the nostrils, knowing that I will likely need to adjust that measurement down the line, but I wanted to eyeball it first.  As with everything else, the most educated changes can only be made once everything is in place.  Only then can you see what is painfully incorrect.  The width of his mouth is established, along with the height of his lips.  This was also estimated.  I placed a bit of flesh hanging off of his jaw, as his jowls are a fairly prominent feature.  

I am constantly rechecking the vertical axis quarters that were established in phase one, and seeing more specifically where the features fall on them.  In elaborating on the features, I try and keep the major shapes in mind before any sort of specifics are laid in.  Think of the barrel of the mouth rather than the lip lines. Think of the front, sides and bottom of the nose rather than the nostrils.  If you are going to be be picky about anything in this stage, at least let it be the bony landmarks - the areas where the skin is the thinnest and the skull is clear, such as the nasal bone, cheekbones and the top of the skull.  Make sure your centerline is traveling over all of the features like a topographical map, as it will make your mistakes clear and easy to fix.  

Regarding 'contours' - this is a touchy subject.  Contours are a handy tool to use for measurements and alignment, but you must never forget that in life, they do not exist.  Every object is a form in space, not lines.  If you think in terms of contour lines, you are already flattening your drawing.  In that respect, they are toxic.  Use them as a tool, but you must think around your subject at all times.  For example, the contour of Patmore's face on the left is mirrored within his face on the right.  That is a hard thing to explain in a blog, and if it doesn't make sense, just remember the part where I said contours are poison and run with it.

Patmore, stage three

It occurs to me that at no point have I addressed that the sitter has a fair bit of hair and a sizable mustache.  Just like in life, I'd ignore it for now, otherwise you'll get distracted by it and your portrait will become a caricature.  The parts of the head hidden by hair will have to be imagined - a knowledge of anatomy will help with that, but that is for another blog post.  

This next phase is further refinement of the head and features.  If you look at stage two and three next to one another, you can see some slight yet significant changes, primarily to the lower nose and mouth area.  At this point it is good to begin looking at features as they relate to each other.  The base of the nose relative to the root of the nose was more closely examined and adjusted.  The distance between the nose and mouth was increased, the nostrils were widened, the jaw was pushed out slightly.  His ear was made less generic.  Since I already had the eyelids estimated previously, I started to pay closer attention to the sagging skin under Patmore's eyes.  Those bags of flesh should hang right off of the bone, so if your sockets are placed correctly, then it should fall into place.  If we did our job right in the first stage, then all of these changes should be small, but great in number.  The combination will be profound.  Again, if you think about the centerline and what it is doing, it will help guide you.


Patmore, stage four

Looking back at these, it sure seems like his underbite becomes more apparent in each image.  Some people have the tendency to exaggerate characteristics, others play them down.  My natural inclination is to underplay them, which on the one hand is good for avoiding a caricature, but on the other, I can miss a likeness.  Whatever you are more inclined to do, you can counterbalance it if you can recognize it.  This applies to most every innate quality we all have as draftsmen.  Look at what you tend to do in every drawing, and try and be objective about it.  You can then both use it to your advantage when necessary and avoid it when it is a disadvantage.  This photograph was taken not long after the last one, so not too many changes were made other than in the lower jaw and mouth area.


Patmore, stage five

Patmore's most distinguishing features are his hair and outfit, some of which are initially sketched in here.  His hair is pretty unhinged, and Sargent did a great job capturing it without looking too much like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.  I find that when it comes to drawing hair, many people tend to make too much of it.  Except in extreme situations, the shape of the skull should still be suggested under the hair, and it should really only take profound form once it has cascaded away from the head versus when it emerges directly from it.  Otherwise it will look like your sitter is wearing a wig.  

I also laid in the shape of his outfit, keeping in mind his shoulders.  With the exception of padded shoulders in the 1980's, you don't want to add to much bulk on to someone's shoulders simply because they are wearing a jacket.  Keep it subtle and let their actual posture show through.  

Not much was changed about the face here - I was fairly confident that things were placed about as correctly as they could be.  Once value is added, however, I may decide otherwise.  The addition of tone can change how everything fits together, as you'll soon see.

Patmore, stage six

You might notice in the previous stage that though I added hair on his head, I did not yet place a mustache.  That may seem strange, especially considering the size of it.  I wanted to wait until value was addressed - his mustache is more clearly defined by the shadow it casts than the hair itself.  If I placed that mouth correctly, then all I'd theoretically need is a cast shadow from the mustache and it should give the illusion I need.  As mentioned before, contours are not real.  They do not exist.  It's all about form and the light that falls on it.  

As you can see here, a light glaze of charcoal was laid in.  It was kept as simple as the light of the paper versus the most basic shadow.  All I am concerned with is the overall effect of light and the absence of light, nothing more.  This probably took fifteen minutes, and that's all I needed to give the drawing weight.  Don't get too hung up on the different variations of shade and shadow right now, just the basic light and dark.  


Patmore, stage seven

Now is probably a good time to mention toned paper and how it works.  First, let me say it took a good year or so for it to make sense to me, and probably another year after that to figure out how to really use it to my advantage.  There is a certain amount of forethought that you need to have if you want to to work for you.  In other words, you need to know what you are going to do with the values several stages before you do it.  Your lightest light is not the light of the paper - it is the white chalk you will apply.  What this means is that as you lay in your darks, you must keep in mind that your full value range is not yet established.  Without your lightest light, how can you possibly know how to play your darks and transitions?  The tones of the paper are your transitions.  At this stage, there are no whites that have been added, so the overwhelming mass of area that does not fall into the shade and shadow category will appear flat.  With enough experience, you will be able to see the white without it being there yet.  Note that the light portions of the hair, mustache, ear, and face are all the same value.  They soon wont be, and knowing this I can leave them the same for now.  For those with less experience, I would strongly recommend doing a small tonal thumbnail sketch that shows the full range of values and how you plan to play them before you start the actual portrait.  

At this stage, I have slowly built up the darks, both in the head as well as the background.  I am still keeping it relatively homogenous - nothing is too much darker than anything else.  That will of course change, but If I was standing in front of Patmore and I squinted my eyes almost to the point of closure, all those darks would mash together.  That is what I am trying to accomplish here.  The following stages will each be what happens as I open my eyes a bit more.  The reason for this is to keep things simple as long as possible.  A draftsman can have the most beautifully rendered shadows and forms, but if they don't hold together as a unified whole, it will ultimately fail.  The parts must belong to the whole, without exception.  

I have also started to do away with many of my construction lines.  Ultimately, I don't want any lines remaining, just ranges of value.  The charcoal is applied in thin, delicate layers, much like the glaze on an oil painting.  If you look at this stage next to the last, it almost appears that I have lightened the face, but I have not.  It is just that the darks are becoming richer, therefore making the lights appear lighter.  

Even though I am knocking all of the darks together, I am still conscious of the science of light.  Darkness is merely the absence of light, and in order for light to be absent something has to block it.  Let's use Patmore's nose as an example.  As it protrudes from his face, not only is the side of it that is away from the light darker, but it also blocks light from passing onto part of his cheek - a shadow cast by the nose, or a 'cast shadow'.  Though I am stating what is likely obvious to anyone reading this, it is a principle that is often overlooked when students draw 'shading'.  Don't just draw a dark patch on your paper, realize what the cause of the darkness is as well as what the effect will be.  Every shadow has a reason for being there, and if you understand the scientific principles of it, then you can not only make a skilled drawing but you can also learn to manipulate it.

Patmore, stage eight

I am now beginning to introduce a wider tonal range.  There is a light mass and now two different levels of dark.  I have gently begin to break up the light mass based on the forms of his face.  This is more difficult in life than with a live sitter - you really have to push yourself to see a lot of those midtone/transition areas.  The shading on and under the mustache is pushed together with the shading on his face - there should be no distinction in terms of the cause.  The light is still blocked, whether it be because of the face turning away from the sun, or due to a mustache, nose or ear obstructing the passage of light.  As I mentioned before, it should appear as if you are squinting at the sitter, only now we have our eyes opened a bit more and we can start to see more of a range of light to dark.  

Also, look at this stage next to the previous one - though it appears that I have lightened the background next to his cheek, I have not.  It is an illusion created by adding the next range of shadow to the side of his face and darkening his jacket.  It's all relative.  

Patmore, stage nine

There are a lot of darks around the sitter's head in this painting, and I was getting to the point where I was going to have to address them before going any further with Patmore's face.  I darkened the suit, background and the areas where his hair is lost in shadow.  

If you look closely, you can see the first additions of white chalk on his face.  Though they are not as bright as they will be at the end, these areas are what will ultimately be the lightest points on his face.  I add them in slowly, as the paper is delicate and the chalk can be hard to remove without damaging the paper.  I'd say that you can erase the chalk areas about three times total before the tooth of the paper begins to wear away, so it's best to add them in tentatively until you are positive that they are where you want them to be.  

Even added in faintly, you can immediately see what I meant earlier about the toned paper acting as the transition areas.  The forms are beginning to turn.  I am keeping in mind that his collar and certain parts of his hair will be lighter than his face.  Given that this is a master copy, Sargent has created the value scale for us already.  Were this a live sitter, we would have to make some decisions as to how we wanted to play this.  As long as it follows the rules of inevitability, then we could theoretically adjust the scale of light and dark however we wanted.  Carrière might have kept the shadows very transparent and ghostly, whereas Ribera would have pushed the darks far deeper than they probably would have been in life.  Sargent falls somewhere in the middle.  In the end it doesn't matter - each painter has adjusted their tonal scale accordingly.  They all made decisions to best highlight whatever the story is that they wanted to tell with their painting.

Patmore, stage ten

Now that the darks around the figure have been established, I am able to go back into the face and start pushing those shadows.  Each form on the face turns away from the light at a different rate, so each needs to be addressed with a different value.  The faster the form turns, the more severe the shadow will be.  Patmore's nose is the most obviously sharp and large form that is blocking the light, so it needed to cast the deepest shadow.  The jaw and the barrel of the mouth are also areas that are major forms, so the shadows cast by those parts of the face were also darkened.  The side of the face furthest away from the light has previously been lost in the background, but I accentuated the cheek to really bring out Patmore's bony face.  The inner nostril is also going to be one of the darkest darks, as it is completely blocked from the light.  

The eye on the left was developed further, with as much attention given to the area around the eye as well as the eyeball itself.  Unless you want your sitter's eyes bulging out of their head, they need to sit properly in the sockets.  I also added in some white chalk on his collar.  It will be one of the brightest areas of the portrait, so it's not to soon to address it.  As mentioned previously, add the whites in gently in case their placement needs to be adjusted.  We want to be working on the lights and darks simultaneously from here on out.  Push one, pull the other.   

Patmore, stage eleven

Stage eleven is essentially just a continuation of stage ten.  The other eye is further developed and darkened.  I also started to break up the hair into locks.  This has to be done carefully, otherwise you run the risk of the hair looking plastic.  It is still hair, which means it must be handled differently than the rest of the face and clothing.  It is a different texture and must be treated as such.  The strokes of charcoal should be wispy and to a large extent need to follow the flow of hair.  Be careful not to be too systematic about that though, as you don't want it to appear too mechanical.  Most of his grey hair is going to fall in the midtone category, but there are certainly some glints of light that I began to establish.  I like to think of the hair as a sculptor would - it needs to be broken up into the major forms, and then those forms need to be broken up into yet smaller forms.  It all must hold together though, the smaller forms must be subservient to the larger ones.  Hair still follows the same principles of light and dark as everything else though, so those rules still apply.  

Now that I had some indication of the lights on his hair and collar, I went back into the face and started to elaborate on the chalk areas.  The light is coming from above, so with the exception of a few tiny highlights (like the tip of the nose and lip) the light that is on the lower end of his head must be dimmer than the upper portion.  His forehead will always be lighter than his chin, for example.  This may not be easy to detect on a live sitter, and may need to be forced in order to get the effect you want.  This is where you can use invention to meet your needs - as long as the principles and science of nature are respected, you can create illusions that will be more lively than life.  In a drawing, you are able to push things that nature often diffuses.  Welcome to the world of illusion!

Patmore, stage twelve

There was little if anything done to Patmore's face here.  The background and suit were expanded.  This is a lot of dark on dark, so I carefully studied Sargent's painting to see what was darker than what.  I kept it all fairly subtle, as I did not want to detract from his head.  

Adding these layers of dark with charcoal can be a real pain.  You have to be patient and handle it slowly.  Vary your stroke direction slightly with each pass.  You want it to be even, but not blended.  I don't really respond as well to cross hatching so much as oblique hatching - I find it to be richer and less predictable.  There is no real way to verbally describe how to make a large, even tone of darkness with charcoal, but it is truly one of the hardest things to accomplish.  If you've tried it, then you already know.  I avoided any sharpness where the hair meets the background, as it will help it to disappear into the background.  This is another effect that may be hard to see in life unless you are squinting.  The cheek on the left was given a bit of a harder edge to help it pop, but not so much that it flattens the head.  As I mentioned earlier, contours are a cheap solution and will only serve to ruin your hard work.  


Patmore, final stage

And there it is, our eyes are now fully opened and Patmore is complete.  The hatching marks of the background and suit are brought even closer together to reveal the darkest darks.  Transitions are added on the face and neck between the shadows and the lights.  It's worth noting that the white chalk and the charcoal never actually meet or blend.  There is always a buffer of plain toned paper in between, acting as midtone.  Now that all of the information is here, in particular the darkest darks, I am able to make informed decisions about how bright to take my lightest lights.  The collar was brightened, as it is white.  Though it is the brightest part of Sargent's portrait, I opted to play it down slightly.  Since there is only so much white chalk I can add, the only way to make it appear brighter is to make everything else darker, which I did not want to do.  It is still brighter, relatively speaking, than anything else, but I brought the range a little closer together.  

I could have taken this drawing further, but I am not out to make it look like a photo.  That is what photography is for.  Instead, I am trying to create illusion.  What makes a painting different than a photograph is that it is a collection of decisions made by the artist as to what they want to put in and leave out.  When looking at a model there is an infinite amount of information in front of you.  You have to edit.  It is each painter's edits that make their work what it is.  Master copies are unique in that you are essentially looking through another painter's decisions and edits that might not be familiar to you.  That's the whole point, and why they are invaluable.