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!