Part 4, Project 6, Exercise 2: Your own face

Create two interesting images of your own face. You’ll need to think about the pose, measuring, tonal variation and lines and marks. Don’t worry about producing an attractive or accurate likeness; the aim is to create a believable face with the features in more or less the right place.

Look at yourself in a mirror and quickly draw several five-minute studies of your face, neck and shoulders. Slightly adjust the angle of your head to avoid a disconcerting straight-ahead stare.  Keep moving your pencil around the drawing and don’t be tempted to concentrate on just one area at a time; this will inevitably cause an unnatural and tight image. Study the whole of the face and keep working in shadows and lines until the features begin to emerge within the three-dimensional form of the face and head. Remember that there are bones and muscles beneath the skin and that you’re positioned within a spatial and physical environment – a room or some other place. Add a few marks and lines to suggest this, but don’t go into too much detail. The focus should be on the face.

As already mentioned, avoid drawing a closed outline of the head. This often serves to trap the features inside its oval form and any mistakes in measuring will be hard to rectify. Instead keep your marks and lines loose and fragmented; this will allow you to make changes as you work. Try to create several small studies that improve your ability to capture realistic features. Remember the earlier mention of ‘waves’ and think how repeated lines can add vitality and movement to a still image. The face may be still but there is always a hint of movement beneath the surface.

Before you start, consider the angles or movement of your head. Think about whether to look straight ahead, down, up or slightly to one side. The imaginary vertical line that travels through your nose will indicate movement if it appears to be off centre.  Start to build in the loose shape of the features. Keep it simple – don’t get caught up in small details. Don’t worry about a likeness at this stage. If you get the shapes and angles more or less right the personality will evolve.  Consider the hair as it surrounds and drops into the facial plane. Work in the positive and negative shapes and don’t get involved with drawing individual hairs.


Once you’ve completed a full self-portrait, take a break before revisiting the image and consider how it might have been better. Do the proportions, angles, tones, etc., work? Note down your thoughts to help you when you begin work on your second self-portrait. Look at it in the mirror and see if there are measuring issues. Look at it upside down and from a distance. This helps you see with different eyes.

For the second image position yourself differently, and try using a different medium and approach. If the previous version was in pen and ink, try charcoal or conté.


I did this exercise at the hairdressers- a great use of a couple of hours stranded in front of a mirror!


Graphite on A3 cartridge paper  I used graphite pencil for the first portrait.  Starting with a very rough light outline for the eyes- getting proportions right, -it was then fairly logical to progress around the face marking in the main points.  I found I naturally progressed across the page, without getting too caught up in detail.  As the areas of shadow were added, the features emerged naturally and a sense of 3D form was created. Looking back at the instructions for this task after it was completed:  “Describing the shadows on the facial plane do give the head a sense of solidity and the darkest shadow is in the eye sockets either side of the nose. The shadow under the nose is lighter. I avoided rigid outlining to avoid a cartoon effect.”

This picture does look like me (not in the most flattering light) and I was surprised how easily the likeness emerged as I worked.  I tried not to overwork it- instead to focus on the main facial features to draw the viewers eye into the face rather than surrounding details.  The position does have a rather disconcerting straight-on stare- but it was appropriate to the venue!!


Water soluble ink and fountain pen.  For this portrait I tried to move my head slightly so that I was not quite so straight-on to the mirror.  It is hard not to actually look into the mirror though as I had to look at my reflection to draw myself!  So my eyes are still looking out of the page!  In contrast to the graphite portrait above, this time I used pen and ink.  This led to a completely different finish, especially as I was using water soluble ink, so I used a water pen to produce a wash to hint at shadow and create more of a sense of form.  It seemed logical to focus mainly on the face and to only hint at the background and hair framing it.  Not least since I was in foils by this stage so my hair wasn’t falling very naturally!  I think the effect is rather medieval- it looks like I am wearing a wimple/headdress!

I don’t think this portrait looks at all like me (see the  picture below), but it is a believable face! My daughter says the eyes have a likeness but there is no likeness in the nose or the pinched mouth!  I found it very hard to control the intensity of the wash so there are bits where the shadow is darker than I intended; however, the unpredictable nature of the medium made it quite exciting to use.


  • The graphite picture is the most successful in this exercise as the shading was more subtle, creating a more realistic and more subtly shaded finish.
  • I did not struggle to move on from sketches of individual features to a full portrait.  In fact I found this interesting as I have never attempted a portrait before and was sure that I would not achieve a good finished picture.  But I surprised myself- finding the likeness emerged completely naturally as I worked, without having to force it.  Even the pen and ink picture is completely believable as a representation of a face, despite not achieving a likeness or having the realism of the more refined pencil drawing.
  • For some reason I missed out drawing the quick 5 minute sketches before I did this task.  I set out to do a quick sketch on both occasions, but each time the pictures took on a life of their own and ended up as finished pictures!  I will try to do this at a later date.

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